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Steel, Robert (1827–1893)

by Alan Dougan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Robert Steel (1827-1893), Presbyterian minister, was born on 15 May 1827 at Pontypool, Monmouthshire, England, son of James Steel, Blaendere colliery agent, and his wife Ann née Gillespie. His mother died in his infancy and his father took him home to Scotland at an early age. He attended the Ochiltree Parish School, the Royal Burgh Academy at Ayr, and matriculated at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1843 (M.A., 1846). He took the divinity course at New College, Edinburgh, studying under Thomas Chalmers, and was ordained by the Free Church Presbytery of Irvine. After assisting at Blairgowrie, Perthshire, in 1852 he was inducted as colleague and successor to the minister of the Free Church Parish of Millport on the Isle of Meikle Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Next year at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, he married Mary Allardyce (d.1890). He moved to Salford, Lancashire, in 1855 and to Cheltenham in 1859. Steel had already published his first book, was contributing freely to religious journals and was co-founder and joint editor of Meliora, a quarterly review of social science. He became interested in working-class education and his work was praised by Lord Brougham. The University of Göttingen awarded him the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1861 for his publications.

Steel was persuaded to accept a call to Sydney by Professor John Smith and two other commissioners from St Stephen's, the Free Church congregation in Macquarie Street. He arrived with his family in 1862. In 1873, after Adam Thomson had become principal of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, his congregation joined with Steel's, and his large stone church in Phillip Street became St Stephen's, with a fine tower and spire added by William Munro. Despite increasing deafness Steel continued a brilliant and eloquent ministry there until 1893, holding a large congregation and generously serving church and community.

Steel was a man of great personal culture and dignity, described as 'liberal without being latitudinarian and conservative without being narrow'. The annual review in his last sermon of each year became a notable feature of the cultural life of Sydney. He founded a young men's society and in 1862-66 he edited the Presbyterian Magazine and later the Witness for five years. Ecumenical in outlook, he supported the union of the groups that became the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales in 1865, and was the third moderator. He collected funds for founding St Andrew's College and headed the poll of clerical candidates elected to the first council, serving until 1893. He was a foundation lecturer when the Presbyterian faculty of theology was created in 1873, and was its first president. In 1872 he had received an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, United States of America.

On 8 May 1869 Steel had published in the Sydney Morning Herald a letter from Thomas Nelson, a missionary, about Captain A. R. Hovell, a blackbirder awaiting trial in Sydney for murder, later sentenced to death. Although he pleaded ignorance of Hovell's committal, two of the three judges concluded that he should have known of the proceedings and 'severely reprimanded' him. At a large public meeting presided over by (Sir) John Hay and attended by (Sir) Henry Parkes he was presented with a purse of sovereigns to defray his legal costs. Steel travelled widely in Australia, visited the New Hebrides in 1874 and America, Europe and the Holy Land in 1880. That year he published The New Hebrides and Christian Missions, with a Sketch of the Labour Traffic. In the 1880s he supported Sir Alfred Stephen's efforts to extend the grounds for divorce.

Steel died on 9 October 1893 at North Sydney and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by three married daughters and three sons, Rev. Robert Alexander Steel, M.A., Dr John James Steel, who died of dysentery in 1900 at Taku, China, while on active service with the New South Wales naval contingent, and Hugh Peden Steel, a solicitor. His estate was valued for probate at £2114. Memorial tablets to Steel are in St Stephen's Church, Macquarie Street, and in St Andrew's College, to which he left his books and a fine portrait in oils. The General Assembly remembers him in the Steel lectureship in pastoral theology in its theological hall.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 1869
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 1869
  • Sydney Mail, 14 Oct 1893
  • H. P. Steel papers, boxes 1-4 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Stephen uncatalogued manuscript 211 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • General Assembly, Minutes 1894 (New South Wales Presbyterian Library, Assembly Hall, Sydney).

Citation details

Alan Dougan, 'Steel, Robert (1827–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steel-robert-4636/text7639, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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