In New Zealand, many of Wellington’s citizens will be aware of a perfectly ordinary road called Majoribanks Street running out of town from Courtenay Place. They may perhaps know that it should correctly be spelled Marjoribanks and pronounced Marchbanks. However, they are less likely to know that it commemorates a man who, although having never visited the island country in the Pacific, may truly be numbered among the founding fathers of the nation.
Stewart Marjoribanks was the third of five sons of Edward Marjoribanks of Lees, just north of the Scottish border with England, all of whom distinguished themselves in their various fields. The eldest brother, John, remained in Scotland, became Lord Provost of Edinburgh (twice), an MP and Depute Grand Master of Scotland. Campbell, Stewart and Edward all came to London around the turn of the century, while James became a judge in India.
Campbell twice became chairman of the East India Company, Stewart a most successful owner of a fleet of merchantmen and Edward a senior partner in Coutts & Co. Bank. It is, incidentally, perhaps in the family friendship with Thomas Coutts that the key to their extraordinary and sudden prominence lies. They were in any case a very talented group, but a helping hand never comes amiss.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin down Stewart’s early career to precise dates, but a letter from 1820 mentions that in that year he was expecting to be returned unopposed as MP for Hythe. This election conferred on him the ancient title of ‘Baron of the Cinque Ports’ (founded originally to defend the coast from the French) and the right to bear the canopy at the coronation of George IV while girt with a sword (which is still in possession of Watford Lodge).
Involved and Influential
Stewart’s masonic career began in February 1811, when he was initiated into the Lodge of Friendship, No. 6, a ‘Moderns’ lodge of great prestige meeting in Bond Street. Although the final achievement of the union was still a couple of years in the future, concrete steps were already being taken, in which members of this lodge took a leading part. Stewart made his masonic reputation as a member of this lodge, for he became Senior Grand Warden in 1823, the year before joining the equally prestigious Royal Alpha Lodge. This is traditionally the lodge of the Grand Master and in due course Stewart served as Deputy Master to the Duke of Sussex.
Much more is known about Stewart’s membership of Bamborough Lodge, No. 580, which he joined in 1830, and which was eventually renamed and numbered as Watford Lodge, No. 404. Here he is well remembered as an assiduous, authoritative and kindly member, and can be recalled physically through his portrait by John Lennell, which still hangs in the Temple in the west. He came to Watford when he and Campbell bought Bushey Grove House as their country seat. Stewart joined the Royal Arch in Cyrus Chapter, No. 21, in 1813 and became a founder of the Chapter of Friendship, No. 3 (now No. 6), in 1824, in which year he became Assistant Grand Sojourner (AGSoj).
As a member of Watford Lodge, Stewart was a distinctly big fish in a moderate pond. He apparently introduced a number of well-known men to the lodge, culminating in the agreement of the Duke of Sussex to become an Honorary Member. He was Worshipful Master for two consecutive years from 1835 to 1836 (the lodge numbered some seventy-one masons) and was elected again in 1841, although ill health appears to have prevented his installation. He is said to have been regular in attendance except when his Parliamentary duties kept him away, though with advancing years he was unable to play a very active part after turning seventy. He married a lodge widow, Lady Rendlesham, but the union produced no children. He appears to have been a popular and effective member of the lodge and promoter of its interests.
It is worth remembering that Stewart’s masonic career coincides with the first generation of the United Grand Lodge of England after the resolution of the schism between the Moderns and the Ancients which had so marred the half century previous to 1813. The Duke of Sussex, as Most Worshipful Grand Master, must have felt that Stewart, with his easy personality and well-reputed integrity, was an ideal friend and support.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s business expanded apace from his premises in King’s Arms Yard. At first it appears that he traded mainly with India and China, which fitted in well with the interests of his brother Campbell and Thomas Coutts; but before long he turned to the Australia run (he invested substantially in the Australian Agricultural Company) and the growing interest in New Zealand through the New Zealand Company. We have evidence from one of his captains – Cole of the ‘Mellish’ in 1822 – that he was very much looked up to as a model for emulation, while in 1826 his captains clubbed together to present him with a gift of silver plate ‘in view of his much appreciated way of conducting himself towards them’.
As far as New Zealand was concerned, Stewart was very much the right man in the right place at the right time. He was well placed to win government contracts for the transport of troops and stores, but his major role seems to have been in implementing the official policy of encouraging emigration after the Treaty of Waitangi by transporting potential settlers of all classes, especially from Scotland. Here he was assisted by his distant cousin Alexander Marjoribanks of that ilk, chief of the family – it was not then recognised as a clan. Alexander’s prestige stood a great deal higher than his character warranted, but he did take ship to New Zealand and then on to New South Wales in 1840-41 and wrote very readable books about both colonies. To judge by the volume of Scottish settlers, the publicity gained was well worthwhile.
Round Peg in a Round Hole
As it happens, one of the ship’s officers kept a diary of the first leg of this trip and most entertaining it is – he makes clear that he is torn between respect for Alexander’s rank and contempt for his unworthy behaviour. He records with disapproval Alexander’s marriage on board to his maid and it is notable that no such marriage is officially recorded anywhere, nor did the lady proceed to New South Wales.
Bearing in mind the savagery of the Mãori wars that followed, one could be in two minds about the effects of Stewart’s work on New Zealand. However, the impression is of a diligent, conscientious and kindly businessman, ‘a round peg in a round hole’. As the 1840s progressed, ill health drove him into virtual retirement. Campbell had died in 1840 but Stewart lived on to the age of eighty-seven. Childless, he left Bushey Grove House to his nephew Edward (my great-grandfather), who promptly bankrupted himself by destroying it and building a monstrosity
in its place. And the explanation of the spelling and pronunciation of Majoribanks Street? A mystery, lost in the mists of history. Even the Marjoribankses themselves have no convincing explanation.