Obituary: John Stewart, webmaster and historian
Following a short, but serious, decline in his health, due to respiratory disease, John Stewart died on 9 January at St John’s Hospital, Livingston, at the age 78, comforted by his family.
He was married to Olive (neé Jamieson) who passed away on 10 June, 1998.
He leaves behind his mother, Mary Stewart, 105 years young, his children Karen, Pamela and Alan, plus five grandchildren, Fiona, Aileen, Caroline, Ava and Alison. Another grandson, Keith, sadly died only five days old.
About 11 years ago John, a dedicated Leither, decided to record his memories of the area by creating a website, www.oldleither.com, to share his – and others’ – memories of growing up there in the mid-20th century.
Little did he know then how his little nostalgic indulgence would grow and become so popular with Leithers of all ages, eager to share their historical knowledge or learn more about Leith life.
John was born at his maternal grandparents’ house at Cables Wynd, in Leith, in July 1934, moving shortly afterwards to his paternal grandparents’ house on Buchanan Street, where his parents lived.
The primary school he began attending on 1939 was Dr Bell’s Great Junction Street, where, on qualifying in 1946 he received the Dux of the year award for his learning abilities.
This acknowledgement opened educational doors to most of the higher schools in Edinburgh such as the Royal High, but sadly he failed to get the bursary funds required due to inadequate family income, thus to my mind denying society of a very clever member of society and who knows what kind of great employment successes.
However, he did attend Leith Academy secondary school which was considered an excellent educational establishment.
A God-fearing and family-loving man, with good old-fashioned moral standards, he was a member of the Salvation Army.
On leaving school in 1949, he took a job as a junior clerk at an investment company, and then attempted to join the Royal Navy in 1950, but due to the discovery of a tubercular gland in his neck which was successfully treated, he failed the medical examination, which left him heartbroken and devastated.
In 1951, not to be outsmarted, he took up an apprenticeship at Hendry Robb’s ship builders in Leith docks as plumber’s apprentice, hoping this nautical plumbing engineering training would get him into the Royal Navy via the back door.
In 1955, while he was booking a flight to Ireland at a Leith travel agent, a Canadian promoting migration to Canada asked John if he was interested in emigrating and told him a job could be arranged over there. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he decided to uproot and give the new world a chance.
After getting all the paper work sorted with the Canadian authorities, he received his call up for two years of compulsory national service and three days before he was due to leave for Canada he had to report for a medical.
While health reasons had prevented him from joining the Royal Navy, the army’s requirements were much lower for some regiments. After a debate among three examining doctors he was not accepted and allowed to go.
Little did they know he had already made up his mind to be on that boat out regardless of their decision.
Canada turned out to be quite an adventure for him, and one can read about this on his website, among many other interesting stories. However, after only six months, homesickness beckoned him back to sunny Leith.
On his return home, he met up with an old girlfriend and they were married in 1957, eventually settling in Livingston in 1966.
When John’s dear wife passed away in 1998 it created a huge vacuum in his life, and he never missed an opportunity to mention her in some way.
In 2009 South Leith Church, to celebrate its 400-year anniversary, decided to ask locals to nominate people – living or dead – who had made an outstanding contribution to Leith over the past 100 years.
Among the Pillars of Leith, the title they were to be given, were not only well-kent Leith names such as Sir Tom Farmer, former Hibs players Pat Stanton and Lawrie Reilly and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, but also our John Stewart.
He was awarded a medal for his outstanding dedication to promoting Leith’s history and his love of the community through his website. He may not have been tall in stature, but he was a giant in his own right.
2010 brought a wee surprise for John in the form of a certificate presentation at Leith Library in recognition of his website work. Four regular contributors to the Oldleither website, in conjunction with John’s son Alan, organised this presentation. These were Graham Whyte, now in Harrogate, Bob Moffat in Bonnyrigg, Jack McKenzie in New Zealand and me. We called ourselves the website’s four musketeers
11 May, 2012, was to be the last time John and I were to meet up. As the then social convener of Leith Dockers’ Club, I arranged, in conjunction with the other musketeers, an Old Leithers’ afternoon reunion. With the help of Leith FM radio station, now Castle FM, which uses the club’s property for broadcasting, we set up a Skype link so domiciled Leithers in Canada, America and New Zealand could join in.
Those able to attend in person were asked to bring along old photographs as conversation and memory stimulants. The afternoon was a wonderful success and a couple of former Leithers from Canada and America, who were here on holiday, attended.
I had the privilege of collaborating with John about a year ago in the self-publication of a book, Leith Recalled, which is full of wonderful old pictures and anecdotes of Leith. It also lists the names of all who attended the Old Leither reunion in 2011. Leith Library has a copy.
Sadly, due to John Stewart’s demise, the future of the Oldleither website is uncertain. It would be a tragedy if all his hard work were to vanish from the web. Where we go from here is uncertain at the moment. The website is still live at the moment for interrogation, which I thoroughly recommend.
John will be remembered for his dedication to his community, humour, compassion, generosity and the ability to talk about Leith at the drop of a hat or hum an old song to you over the phone to stimulate old memories.