We have heard the name ‘Sir Halley Stewart’ throughout the town, as we have a football ground named after him, but just who was this man ?
Halley Stewart, Congregational Minister, Liberal Member of Parliament, businessman and benefactor was born in 1838 at Chipping Barnet, the tenth of the fourteen children of Alexander Stewart, Minister of Wood Street Independent (Congregational) Church and his wife Ann. Alexander had taught at John Lemon’s School, Holloway, while training for the Ministry at Hoxton College for Independent Ministers. At Wood Street he opened a school to eke out his meagre salary of £100 pa.
Halley wanted to teach there, but needed to earn his living. He became a bank clerk and in his spare time taught in a ragged school in Bethnal Green and attended debates in Parliament. Gladstone’s speeches inspired him to help the underprivileged and his time as a bank clerk taught him to understand finance. He moved to Hastings where he worked as a clerk, started a Sunday School in Croft Chapel and became its Minister in 1863 although he was never ordained. In 1865 he married Jane Elizabeth Atkinson, who, with his sister, had a girls’ school there. About four years later his brother Ebenezer invited Halley to become a partner owning mills on the Medway to make oil cake cattle food. This became a flourishing and diversified business which they sold with profit in 1899.
Halley Stewart became Minister of the Caledonian Road Church, Islington in 1873, but after a few years left the Ministry for politics. He was a founder member of the National Liberal Club, twice Member of Parliament for Spalding and from 1906-1910 for Greenock. In Spalding he pressed for allotments for farm workers and for smallholdings – a social reform which was brought about by the Smallholding Act of 1907.
In the meantime Halley and Ebenezer went into partnership in 1900 to acquire a brickworks at Fletton near Peterborough and the lime, cement and brickworks of B.J.H.Forder in Luton. From this enterprise came the London Brick Company of which Halley was the first Chairman in 1920 and later also Blue Circle Cement. In 1900 Halley and his family had moved to Wardown House, Luton and in 1904 he bought the Red House, Harpenden.
Halley Stewart was now wealthy. He did not think it wrong to make money; he paid his workforce well and insisted that after the employers had received an adequate return, the balance should be used for the community. He disposed of his money from his office in the Red House. In 1924 Halley Stewart set up his largest benefaction, the Halley Stewart Memorial Trust ‘to promote and assist pioneer research in medical, educational and religious fields’. The Trust’s considerable benefaction of research over a very wide range of activities are still continuing and this work is worthy of wider public knowledge.
Extracts of information gathered from harpenden history website