Not many people will say they haven’t heard the name ‘Sir Halley Stewart’. Spalding has a playing field and football ground named after him.

But who was he – and what were his ties to the town?

Sir Halley Stewart, Picture from the Lincolnshire Free Press archive 4820950

Beginning my research into the life of Sir Halley, I first looked to Google, and also found a book in Spalding library dedicated to the great man.

And I say ‘great man’ for the reasons I will explain in this article.

Our sister paper, The Lincolnshire Free Press, reporting on his death at the grand age of 99, summed up his life in a wonderful tribute.

Sir Halley was described a selfless philanthropist, MP, teacher, speaker and businessman.

Reporting on his death on January 26, in 1937, the Free Press wrote: “The announcement of the death, shortly before midnight on Tuesday at his home at Harpenden, Hertfordshire, of Sir Halley Stewart, who represented the old Spalding Division in Parliament from 1887 to 1895, will be received with great regret throughout south Lincolnshire.

The gates at the entrance to the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field in Spalding – Photo Tim Wilson

Sir Halley, who entered upon his 100th year on January 18th last, was in good health on his birthday, but became ill with influenza the following Thursday, bronchitis developing two or three days later.”

The sleeve notes in the book ‘Sir Halley Stewart’, written by David Newton and published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd, state: “Sir Halley Stewart’s last ambition was to reach his hundredth birthday, as the final distinction of a life full of achievement, starting from boyhood as one of the fourteen children of a poor Dissenting minister. But he had barely entered his hundredth year when he died in Harpenden in January 1937.”

Sir Halley was the father of Percy Malcolm Stewart, who was commissioner for the ‘Special’ areas (areas of Britain that had high levels of unemployment in the 1930s).

In 1932 Sir Halley became ‘the second oldest man ever to be knighted in Britain’, the book’s sleeve notes explained.

Sir Halley Stewart

He made two fortunes and left almost all his wealth to a trust with a Christian foundation and the aim of promoting pioneering research. He was a preacher, politician, industrialist and public benefactor, and gave his name to Stewartby, the world’s greatest centre of brick-making.

Sir Halley also became the oldest former MP in the country and his 90th birthday saw ‘one of the most notable gatherings in Spalding’. At the party Sir Halley sat at the head of the table, ‘his mental alertness undimmed, and was enthusiastically received,’ the Free Press reported.

Sir Halley was born in 1838, the son of a congregational minister, the Reverend Alexander Stewart, of Barnet, and throughout his life was described as a ‘great free churchman’.

The Free Press wrote: ‘When once asked why he had kept going so long, Sir Halley Stewart remarked “Simply because I have never wearied.

“As soon as one piece of work was finished, I switched over to another. I have lived a busy life and could always bring a fresh outlook to bear on all questions”.’

He was the first Liberal MP for the old Spalding division and Sir Richard Winfrey (also previously featured in this series), was his honourable election agent for a time.

Sir Halley was made a knight at the age of 93, the honour being given for his benefactions, and social and public services.

“As soon as one piece of work was finished, I switched over to another. I have lived a busy life and could always bring a fresh outlook to bear on all questions”.’

Just before his 91st birthday he founded a trust in the public interest which he endowed with a sum of £200,000. It was devoted to various public services such as libraries, medical research and social services. The trust made grants to help research into cancer, tuberculosis and asthma.

Called The Halley Stewart Trust, it is still going

Sir Halley was ‘a rich man but never a lover of money’

Before his death, Sir Halley made the wish that his home in Harpenden would be handed over to the public for use as a hospital.

“I am determined,” he was quoted as saying in the Free Press, “not to die disgracefully rich.”

His funeral brought many who wished to pay their respects.

“He was a rich man, but never a lover of money,” said Dr Sydney Berry, secretary of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, who conducted his funeral service with the Rev A Bourne.

“Money to him was something to be used as an instrument, and because the motive of his life was service, it had to be used for the service of others.”

The Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field in Spalding was given to the town with the condition it was to be used ‘in perpetuity as a playing field… for the benefit of the inhabitants of Spalding’, according to the Trust Deed in October 1952.

Today, it is used regularly by the Tulips, the town’s football team, and trustees are registered as South Holland District Council.

But the field did come under the spotlight in 2012 when it was discussed whether it could be sold off to a property developer for retail development. The news caused outcry and a 36-month long campaign was started, against the idea of selling the field.

Residents, businesses, community groups and organisations joined together under the banner ‘Spalding Community Campaign’ to protect the site from being developed. The site continues today to be listed by The Charity Commission as a playing field for the benefit of the town.