STEWART, WILLIAM SNODGRASS, lawyer, judge, and politician; b. 13 Feb. 1855 in Marshfield, P.E.I., son of Alexander Stewart and Flora MacLean, farmers; m. 27 Sept. 1892 Annie Augusta Beer (d. 13 Nov. 1941) in Charlottetown; they had no children; d. there 11 Feb. 1938.
William S. Stewart was born into a large family of ten sons and four daughters. Although they were not wealthy and the mother was illiterate, the Stewarts had some social ambitions and standing in their community, a fact suggested by the likelihood that William was named after William Snodgrass*, a leading Presbyterian cleric in Prince Edward Island in 1855. William’s father owned a middle-sized holding of 149 acres in Lot 34 when he died intestate in 1873. Three daughters never married, and most of the sons became farmers or tradesmen. Two attained notable success: Alexander Bannerman as a manufacturer and William as a lawyer and judge.
William was educated at Marshfield district school and at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. He attended Dalhousie University in Halifax for one term before enrolling at McGill College in Montreal, from which he graduated in April 1878 with a ba and the Henry Chapman Medal in classics. In June he began legal studies in Charlottetown under Frederick Peters, a prominent lawyer, and he was called to the bar in 1882, by which time he was connected to people with significant social standing. His relatively modest background invites speculation about the finances and ties that made his advancement possible. Part of the answer may lie with his brother Alexander, who, with Michael Hickey, had taken over an established tobacco factory in 1870 and prospered. The brothers seem to have been close, and following the death of his wife in 1882, Alexander made William his principal beneficiary. His passing soon afterwards left the surviving brother in a comfortable position.
Stewart started his legal career in Summerside in an office associated with the Peters firm. He was admitted as a barrister of the province’s Supreme Court in 1883 and listed as a commissioner of affidavits for the court in 1884. Within three years he was back in Charlottetown, where he established his own practice. His marriage to a daughter of former mayor Henry Beer confirmed Stewart’s social standing; his nomination as qc by 1894 indicated his professional success. In 1911 he and his wife took over Hillsborough House, the gracious residence on Richmond Street of the late judge Edward Jarvis Hodgson. Stewart served as president of the Charlottetown Board of Trade in 1914; a member of St John’s Lodge No.1 since 1892, he was grand master of the Island’s freemasons in 1920–21.
As a lawyer, Stewart participated in a number of high-profile criminal cases, eventually earning praise as “one of the best pleaders in the law courts of the Province.” His sound reputation and large practice qualified him for appointment as judge of the Queens County Court on 22 July 1914. Added duties as a district judge in admiralty of the federal Exchequer Court followed in July 1917. Stewart was known for his industry and rapid identification of the critical elements in the cases he tried. He retired, as required, from the county court in 1930 at age 75, and he was forced to give up the admiralty judgeship in 1935 after new legislation had established mandatory retirement rules.
A lifelong Conservative, Stewart was an activist, but he had little influence beyond the local level. He embarked on politics in the provincial general election of 1893, when he ran unsuccessfully in 3rd Queens. In the federal election of 1900 he contested Queens West against Sir Louis Henry Davies* but was defeated. Another fruitless try at the provincial level came in 1908 in 2nd Queens; it was followed by victory in 5th Queens (Charlottetown) in 1912. He served in the administration of John Alexander Mathieson* as a minister without portfolio from December 1911 until his appointment to the judiciary in 1914. Although his career in provincial politics was rather unnoteworthy, Stewart accompanied Mathieson to Ottawa in early 1914 to press the Island’s case, in light of declining population, for a minimum number of seats in the House of Commons.
Towards the end of his judicial career, Stewart became involved in municipal politics in Charlottetown, first in 1930 as an advocate of fiscal discipline in the face of the Great Depression and then as a candidate in the civic election of 1932. Despite his inexperience and a tradition that the mayoralty went to politicians with records of faithful service, Stewart won a resounding victory. He pledged to end waste, inequitable tax assessments, and deficit financing. In office he tried to restrict unemployment-relief payments and attacked what he believed were ill-advised expenditures to promote tourism. His proposal to hire a city manager was vigorously opposed by several councillors. A special audit of the city’s finances was conducted on behalf of the finance committee, but Stewart denounced its findings and defended established accounting practices and the ability of the city clerk, George P. Nicholson, to manage the books. Beyond policy differences with some councillors, Stewart’s confrontational manner made working relationships difficult. Gaffes such as his ill-conceived espousal of Maritime union in 1933 underscored his unpredictability. Rancour grew along with the city’s debt during his term, and his re-election campaign in 1934 ended in decisive defeat. Ironically, an audit in 1939 found that many of the ills he had complained about but not corrected had resulted from the shortcomings of the clerk and failure to implement the recommendations of a previous audit.
By then W. S. Stewart had died. He had spent his final days speaking out on current events and writing sometimes vituperative letters to the press about the actions of his successors as mayor. Obituaries recognized his sharp mind, knowledge of the classics, contributions to the law and public life, and masonic service. Unnoticed were the opportunities in Island society for persons with modest backgrounds, together with ability and benevolent support, to get ahead. Unfortunately, Stewart’s success was limited by the shortcomings of his interpersonal skills and political judgement.
Probate records (files 236 S and 73 S) at the Supreme Court of P.E.I., Estates div. (Charlottetown), and genealogical records at PARO (P.E.I. Geneal. Soc. coll., family files, Stewart family file) provide material on William Snodgrass Stewart and his relations. The Supreme Court fonds (RG 6.1) at PARO helps to document his legal career. The Charles Winfield Matheson fonds there, Acc. 3043/504, contains a sketch of his life and the assessment of his pleading ability that is quoted in this biography. The Directory, Charlottetown, 1887, establishes the date by which he had returned to Charlottetown. The Marshfield Women’s Institute’s History of Marshfield (n.p., 1972; copy in the Univ. of P.E.I., Robertson Library, Univ. Arch. & Special Coll., P.E.I. Coll.) gives information on Alexander Stewart and his family, including William. There are biographical sketches of William in Minding the house (Weeks) and Canadian who’s who, 1936/37.
Information on Stewart’s career as a municipal politician is found in the city council minutes in PARO, RG 20, 1, A. Also useful in RG 20 are the bound volumes of the reports of the City of Charlottetown, more specifically the mayor’s report and other reports on the city accounts for the years 1932 and 1933. Details on financial administration are contained in the mayor’s report and the report of the finance committee for 1939. Accounts of current events from the Charlottetown Guardian and Charlottetown Patriot are essential for an understanding of Stewart’s years as mayor. His election and defeat are described in issues between 4 Jan. and 22 Feb. 1932 and from 26 Jan. to 15 Feb. 1934. Between 30 Jan. and 7 Feb. 1933 both newspapers reported the controversy about Maritime union. Coverage of the dispute over the state of civic finances appeared between 11 July and 12 Sept. 1939. Stewart wrote letters to both papers but seems to have favoured the Patriot. Both issued obituaries on 12 Feb. 1938.
Several prime ministerial collections at LAC contain material on Stewart: the Sir John A. Macdonald fonds (R14424-0-3), the Sir Robert Borden fonds (R6113-0-X), the Arthur Meighen fonds (R14423-0-6), and the R. B. Bennett fonds (R11336-0-7) (mfm.). The most instructive, the Bennett papers, document Stewart’s campaign to avoid retirement from the admiralty court, then to prevent anyone from succeeding him, and finally to obtain a pension.