Joseph Lowry Stewart

Stewart’s Supermarkets provided employment for thousands of people over many decades.

Stewart’s Cash Stores  

Joseph Lowry Stewart was born in 1881 and educated at Creevycarnonan, a townland near Crossgar, Co Down. His family were Presbyterian farming stock, originating from west Scotland. At the age of 14 he became an apprentice grocer, first in the Markets area of Belfast and then in two spells at Agnes Street. 

Stewart opened his first store at 334 Beersbridge Road in east Belfast on September 30, 1911. He acquired four adjacent properties in subsequent years and transformed them into Stewart’s Cash Stores, the name given to all his future establishments. Bakery and grocery goods were the main focus of his trade and so successful was his business that, by the late 1920s, he was unable to satisfy customer demand on the premises. In 1929 he opened a new bakery at the Greenville Road, which in turn was extended into a warehouse, offices and workshop. By the time he sold his company to the Weston’s in the mid 1930s, Joe Stewart owned over 70 stores around Northern Ireland, the second principal one being located at the Newtownards Road.  

The sale of his stores to Garfield Weston made him a millionaire, but he was so dedicated to his trade that he stayed on as managing director until forced to retire on his seventieth birthday. The company removed his nameplate from the door as the only means of conveying to him that he had to leave! With the arrival of Don Tidey, the company name was altered to Stewart’s Supermarkets, and the family name eventually disappeared in the 1990s with the absorption by Tescos. 
The businessman and family man  

Joe Stewart displayed considerable personal integrity. Many people believed that as Northern Ireland’s principal grocer, he could circumvent rationing during the second world war, but, in fact, Stewart annoyed his wife by returning any unused portion of the family’s butter ration and was scrupulous with the fuel ration. He once angrily turned away an offer of contraband sugar. Neither did he display any preference towards his family, none of whom achieved a major position in Stewart’s Cash Stores.

Black Joe, as he was sometimes called on account of his hair, was a demanding, even intimidating employer, but nearly all of his employees recalled him as fair and considerate. He was also privately generous to local charities.

A typical East Belfast entrepreneur 

It is possible to view JL Stewart in the same mould as the more celebrated industrialists and entrepreneurs of east Belfast, such as Sir Edward Harland (Harland and Wolff), Sir Samuel Davidson (Sirocco) and William Holmes Smiles (Belfast Ropeworks). He displayed their qualities of independence, prudence and integrity. Like them, he was also a pioneer and a man of vision. He displayed business acumen and an instinct for his trade, and if he demanded dedication from his staff, it was no more than he displayed himself. In sum, Stewart exhibited the Victorian principle of ‘Self Help’, advocated in the title of the book by Smiles’ father. His company became the leader in its field and provided employment for thousands of people over many decades.

Further Reading 
‘American Pie, Canadian Biscuits and the Rise of J L Stewart’ by Keith Haines in East Belfast Historical Society Journal 4.1 (2002).

By Keith Haines © 2004.

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue