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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lee Steere, Sir Ernest Augustus (1866–1957)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir Ernest Augustus Lee Steere (1866-1957), pastoralist and businessman, was born on 19 March 1866 near Beverley, Western Australia, son of Augustus Frederick Lee Steere, grazier, and his wife Ellen Elizabeth, née Roe; (Sir) James Lee Steere was an uncle. The family had taken the name of Lee Steere in 1675 as a condition of the marriage between Fiducia Lee and John Steere at Plastoe, Surrey. Ernest was educated at Newcastle State School and the High School, Perth, and began work at 14.

He joined his cousins John and Sam Phillips, first as a stockman, at Culham near Toodyay, and next as overseer in 1886-90 at the Grange on the Irwin River. Carrying his swag on an aged racehorse, Star of the East, in 1888 he went to assess the Murchison country and was impressed. He returned north two years later as joint owner with his uncle J. B. Roe of Belele station, a 250,000-acre (101,172 ha) sheep and cattle run. Thwarted by drought, Lee Steere was tempted by, but resisted the lure of gold. Instead he invested in mail transport between Nannine and Peak Hill; in a local butchery and the Nannine general store; and, eventually, in a merchandise and forwarding agency, successively located at Cue, Nannine, Meekatharra and Geraldton. Versatility and hard work characterized his endeavours. Never closely involved with his sidelines, he conceded that they helped to tide over fluctuations in the pastoral industry. On 16 December 1909, at St Mary's Church of England, West Perth, Lee Steere married Bridget Yelverton, daughter of Charles O'Connor; they had three daughters and three sons, two of whom died in action in World War II.

As sole owner, Lee Steere expanded the Belele Pastoral Co. to 900,000 acres (364,221 ha). Because of the absence of permanent water holes, no Aborigines lived there; however Lee Steere spoke Yamagee and soon employed many, by whom he was well liked. They knew he never carried firearms. He gradually acquired other pastoral holdings: Annean Station (transferred to his wife); Yandil near Wiluna; Chilimony merino stud and The Bowes in the Victoria district; Yanda at Mingenew; Hawthornden and Maismore at Toodyay; Elliott Creek on the Upper Gascoyne; and, with Alexander Monger, Woongundy estate. In 1946 he gave Yanda to the State government for its War Service Land Settlement Scheme. He was a committee-member of the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra.

A foundation member and president in 1920-34 of the Pastoralists' Association of Western Australia, Lee Steere was also chairman of directors of Elder Smith & Co. Ltd (W.A.); chairman of the Australian Mutual Provident Society (W.A.) and the West Australian Trustee Executor & Agency Co. Ltd; a director of Western Australian Airways; and president of the Weld Club. He helped to float the Western Australian Worsted and Woollen Mills at Albany, the Western Australian Meat Export Co. and the Fremantle Freezing Works. Lacking political aspirations, he had conservative views but respected Labor Premier Philip Collier. He opposed additional Federal constitutional powers in the 1944 referendum and constantly supported fusion of the National and Country parties. Unostentatiously generous in the public cause, he was also considerate to less fortunate friends and relatives. Having refused the honour twice, Lee Steere was knighted in 1948.

He enjoyed watching polo, but the turf was his favourite recreation. His champions, such as Eurythmic (Perth 1919, Caulfield 1920) and Maple (Caulfield 1928), won several Australian cup and classic races. Never a heavy punter, he told his trainers that 'when these colours go on, it is like nailing a flag to a mast'; horses carrying the Lee Steere 'all red' won repute for honest and consistent performance. Under his chairmanship (1919-40), the Western Australian Turf Club was reorganized, its fixtures opened to a wider public and the totalizator invented by his wife's brother-in-law Sir George Julius installed.

Lee Steere died at his home on 22 December 1957. His estate was sworn for probate at £87,574. He had been esteemed for his enterprise and fair dealing and was remembered as tolerant and understanding. Lady Lee Steere was appointed O.B.E. in 1960 for her work with the Western Australian Girl Guide Association and the Young Women's Christian Association. Their second son Ernest was lord mayor of Perth in 1972-78.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. L. Uren, Pioneer Pastoralist (Perth, 1951)
  • Pastoral Review, 20 Jan 1958
  • West Australian, 3 Apr 1941, 15 Jan 1946, 1, 3, 10 Jan 1948, 26 Sept 1950, 23 Dec 1957, 1 Jan 1960, 25 July 1979
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 1 July 1957
  • Weekend Magazine (Perth), 28 Jan 1967, 22 Nov 1979
  • Lee Steere papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Lee Steere, Sir Ernest Augustus (1866–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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