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Steere, Sir James George Lee (1830–1903)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

James George Lee Steere (1830-1903), by unknown photographer, 1898

James George Lee Steere (1830-1903), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-41

Sir James George Lee Steere (1830-1903), politician, was born on 4 July 1830, third of six sons of Lee Steere of Jayes, near Ockley in Surrey, England, and his wife Anne, née Watson. A fox-hunting Tory squire whose ancestors had held Jayes since before the Norman Conquest, Lee Steere late in life represented the western division of Surrey in the House of Commons, setting an example of paternalistic public service which deeply influenced James. After education at Thames Ditton and Clapham Grammar School, James entered the East India Co.'s mercantile marine in 1845, rising in six years from midshipman to chief mate of the Sea Park. In 1852 he took his master's ticket on the Bombay and in 1854-58 was captain of the Devonshire. In 1855 his younger brother Augustus had migrated to Western Australia. James decided to follow after his marriage on 16 June 1859 at St John's Church, Hampstead, to the belle of Perth, Catherine Anne, sister of George and (Sir) Luke Leake.

The young couple arrived in Western Australia in 1860. Within a few months Steere was offered a partnership by the merchant and pastoralist, J. H. Monger, in a grazing property on the upper Blackwood River at the edge of settlement in the south-west. There, from brick and local timber, the Steeres built a homestead, naming it Jayes after the ancestral estate, and there they raised their large family in Anglican principles. In this unlikely environment Steere blossomed as a Tory paternalist: created justice of the peace immediately on his arrival, he fell easily into the squire's role. A just and conscientious, if at times self-important, magistrate, he was a spokesman for local public works, foundation secretary of the Southern Districts Agricultural Society, first chairman of the Blackwood roads board, and in 1865 a leading petitioner for representative government. When in 1868 Governor John Hampton agreed to nominate six members to the Legislative Council on an informally elected basis, Steere easily defeated two opponents to represent the south district. After the council gained an elected majority in 1870, Steere was returned as member for Wellington. Immediately accepted as spokesman for the non-official members, Steere declined the Speakership in favour of his brother-in-law Luke and began to urge responsible government.

In later life Steere liked to think that around 1870 he was 'looked upon as a kind of anarchist, who was going to upset everything in the colony'. In fact he was always identified with the property-owning elite and expected that its control over Western Australia's development would be strengthened by self-government. In 1874 he sponsored a successful motion calling for a Legislative Assembly, elected on a property franchise, and a Legislative Council confined to nominees and substantial property owners. The Colonial Office, however, refused to hand over nearly a million sq. miles (2.59 million km²) to an electorate of under 10,000 White men. Meanwhile, Steere was not subtle enough to reconcile the competing interest-groups in the colony. In 1871 he had taken the lead in the Legislative Council's rejection of state aid for Catholic schools. Although he later spoke in favour of aid, the Catholic vote was alienated. He was perceived as having a rural bias against the urban working class, but in 1876 he served on a tariff commission which recommended that corn imports should remain duty-free, thus provoking a feeling of betrayal among farmers who advocated protection. In 1878 when a group of younger politicians such as (Sir) Edward Stone and (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker formed a Reform League to renew the struggle for self-government, Steere thought them too democratic and stood aloof, choosing instead to take his family on an extended visit to England. Vexed at his indifference, the voters of Wellington rejected him in February 1880, but he was returned in May at a by-election for Swan.

Once more leader of the unofficial members, Steere took advantage of an unexpectedly large deficit in the colony's finances to push through an audit bill to strengthen the council's influence over budget policy. The Colonial Office vetoed the bill, but allowed it to pass in a modified form in 1881, and Steere became a leading member of the council's finance committee. Yet, he was losing ground. Having bought out Monger's share of Jayes, he admitted a new partner who proved incompetent, and between 1881 and 1888 Steere was obliged to live on the property and devote energy to its rehabilitation. In the meantime Parker had seized leadership of the responsible government movement, and Steere was among the conservatives who sided with Government House in resisting the pressure. In October 1884 he had declined to contest Swan, and in July 1885 became a nominated member of the Legislative Council. In December Governor Sir Frederick Broome placed him on the Executive Council as an unofficial representative. In the stormy quarrels between Broome, Chief Justice (Sir) Alexander Onslow, Attorney-General A. P. Hensman and Surveyor-General (Sir) John Forrest, Steere endeavoured to act as a mediator, but was often seen as a stooge for Government House, and his influence suffered. Nevertheless, when the Speaker died in May 1886, Steere was unanimously chosen as successor.

The position was tailor-made for him. By now Steere looked the elder statesman: tall, with authoritative good looks, well-groomed sideburns and moustache, and a dignified but kindly manner. As Speaker he was firm, courteous and a stickler for proper procedures; members respected him because he was seen as embodying English tradition. He believed that 'no legislature could have very much power in the country unless it had the confidence and respect of the people', and accordingly imposed a high standard of parliamentary decorum. In 1888 he was knighted and came to reside permanently in Perth. When the first parliament under responsible government was elected in November 1890, he chose to enter the Legislative Assembly as member for Nelson. One or two newspapers credited him with a lingering hope of becoming the first premier, but he made no public move and the commission went to Forrest. As a member of the outgoing Executive Council, Steere had considerable influence on the nomination of members for the new Legislative Council. He also held for some months during 1890 and 1891 a dormant commission to act as governor in the event of the incumbent's death or incapacity. Despite early reservations he soon became a steady, though never uncritical, supporter of Forrest and his policies.

Until overshadowed by Forrest, Steere served as Western Australian delegate to several sessions of the Federal Council of Australasia, of which he was a consistent supporter. In 1886 in Hobart he had spoken cogently on defence issues and in 1888-89 was chairman of committees. After supporting the smaller colonies at the 1890 session he was savaged by Sir Henry Parkes, but went imperturbably as a delegate to the 1891 National Australasian Convention. Alfred Deakin described him as having the 'slowness of the Englishman, uniting a very practical sense of all the issues involved, and a kindness of disposition which made him a general favourite'. Steere was a delegate to the 1897-98 Federal convention. He cooled towards Federation, seeing it as insufficiently protective of Western Australian interests, but accepted Forrest's decision to press ahead.

During the 1890s Steere was regarded as the figure without whom no respectable Perth board of directors would be complete. He was foundation chairman of the Western Australia Trustee Executor & Agency Co., a local director of the board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and of Dalgety & Co. Ltd, and a director of Millars' Karri and Jarrah Forests Ltd as well as many more. Naturally, he was president (1893-1901) of Perth's elite Weld Club. Excluding two breaks totalling five years, he was a governor of the Perth Boys' High School from its foundation in 1876 until his death. He served on the committee of the Victoria Public Library and was its chairman from 1890 to 1903, the year in which the main library building was completed. He was also foundation chairman of trustees (1895-1903) for the Western Australian Museum, again presiding over the erection of a new building. For many years he served on the Anglican synod of the Perth diocese. In 1898 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and with his wife made his final visit to England. It was no longer home. The man whose Western Australian public career was so largely founded on the perfection of his image as an English gentleman returned complaining that London was full of strangers and nobody wanted to know anything about Australia.

With the 1890s gold rush Western Australia was also changing in ways unwelcome to Steere's conservative temper. Although originally a supporter of votes for women on a limited property franchise, Steere had become an opponent before the measure passed in 1899. He disliked the rising influence of the Trades and Labor Council after 1897, but his habitual courtesy did not desert him in 1901 when the first Labor members entered the legislature. In 1902 he was present at the laying of the foundation stone of the new Parliament House in West Perth, and busied himself with the building's planning. With diabetes undermining his health, he resisted the idea of resignation. Survived by his wife, four sons and seven daughters, he died at St George's Terrace, Perth, in the early hours of 1 December 1903. He was given a state funeral and interred in Karrakatta cemetery. He left an estate valued for probate at £39,759. In later life he and his wife were usually known as Sir James and Lady Lee Steere. Most of the family followed this practice including his nephew (Sir) Ernest Lee Steere, one of whose grandsons inherited Jayes in Surrey.

Steere was the epitome of that type of English gentleman for whom character is more important than brains. Methodical and deliberate, he was not without financial ability, but was no master of long-term political strategy. In his active career as a colonial politician during the 1870s and 1880s his manner gained him an ascendancy which he lacked the skill to consolidate. As Speaker and company director in his later years, he gave Western Australia a valuable model of probity at a time when public morality risked succumbing to a get-rich-quick mentality.

Select Bibliography

  • F. K. Crowley, Forrest, vol 1 (Brisb, 1971)
  • Early Days, Dec 1945
  • West Australian, 3 Dec 1903
  • P. D. Tannock, Sir James George Lee Steere (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1975).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Steere, Sir James George Lee (1830–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steere-sir-james-george-lee-8639/text15097, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

James George Lee Steere (1830-1903), by unknown photographer, 1898

James George Lee Steere (1830-1903), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-41