John Barnes, Historian

Sir William Steward (1901-1987)

Known in India as “King Curry”, Steward was a director of restaurant and property companies and a gentleman farmer, whose main claim to fame derived from his ownership of Veeraswamy’s restaurant. He took it over from the original owner in 1926 after it had gone bankrupt three times. He was partner to a singer and artist of the time Greta Gaye, whom he married in 1939. Throughout the 1930s trade was very difficult but the couple managed to keep the business going with considerable resourcefulness. After the war they achieved great success, which was furthered by the development of “curry in a can” marketed under the label of Veeraswamy Food Products from the early 1950s. The restaurant was sold for a six figure sum in 1967, but the food products business under the Veeraswamy name continued in to be owned by the couple until the end of his life.

Unsurprisingly his principal services to Parliament were as chairman of the House of Commons Catering Committee. He proved that it was possible to run it at a profit. His career in the Commons was brought to an end by ill health, but his successor in the seat, Colin Turner, fell foul of his association officers. Steward had by then recovered his health. In July 1962 the West Woolwich executive instructed its selection committee to consider other possibilities as well as Turner. There were thirty three applicants and four were selected to go forward. Both Steward and Turner were amongst them. In December 1962 the Executive Committee chose Steward by 52 votes to 31. Turner’s supporters chose to carry on the fight, mobilising the Young Conservatives and securing a testimonial to his services signed by 35 of Turner’s Conservative colleagues in Parliament. At the general meeting in January the Executive’s recommendation was rejected by 274 votes to 184 and Steward retired from the fray.

William Arthur Steward was born on 20 April 1901, the son of W.A.Steward and Mrs C.E.Steward of Norwich. He was educated at Norwich Model School and privately. Articled to a firm of chartered accountants, he recalled that one set of accounts that came his way was that of an important chain of restaurants. Always interested in cooking – his grandmother had given him a stove when he was seven – he became fascinated with the economics of catering and engaged in the trade himself, purchasing Veeraswamy’s in 1926.

Between 1938 and 1945 he served with the RAF, putting his skills as a restaurateur to good use. From 1943 until 1945 he was the Senior Catering Officer at the Air Ministry. He retired with the rank of Squadron Leader.

He contested Southwark Central in the 1945 General Election. He was successful in securing election to the London County Council in April 1949, serving until 1952 and in February 1952 he took the parliamentary seat of Woolwich West. His maiden speech was devoted to the House’s catering arrangement and he asked why the facilities could not be used for private functions. Appointment to the catering committee followed shortly thereafter, and from November 1951 until the end of the 1955-59 Parliament he chaired the House of Commons Catering Committee. He also chaired the Council of the London Conservative Union from April 1953 until 1955. He was knighted in 1955. Ill health led him to stand down from the House of Commons in 1959. After failing in his attempt to regain the candidature in 1963, Steward made no further effort to secure re-election to the Commons. He was a freeman and liveryman of the City of London and served as Master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers 1964-5. Subsequently he moved to Marsaxlokk in Malta, while continuing to make his annual pilgrimage to India.

He celebrated his 86th birthday in April 1987, but on 18 May The Times recorded his death and printed a brief obituary.