Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Steward, Sir George Charles Thomas (1865–1920)

by Chris Cunneen

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

Sir George Charles Thomas Steward (1865-1920), public servant, was born on 18 March 1865 at St George in the East, London, son of George Steward, labourer, and his wife Susannah, née Barnes. In July 1880 he joined the London Post Office as night messenger and was a sorter of foreign parcels, 1st class, by 1890. A sculler and an amateur middleweight boxer, he was living at Stepney when he married at the parish church Edith Jermyn, a fishmonger's daughter, on 27 December 1885. They came to Tasmania in 1892, but the marriage was unhappy and in 1894 Edith returned to London with their two sons. Steward shot to the top of the colony's civil service. A clerk in the Railway Department (1892), chief clerk and accountant in the Education Department (1893), secretary to the premier and clerk of the Executive Council (1894), he was under secretary for Tasmania in 1896. He also held additional offices, including chief inspector of explosives and supervisor of totalizators, and was briefly town clerk of Hobart (1897).

In January 1901 Steward transferred to the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs, expecting to be its head; when Alfred Deakin secured that billet for Atlee Hunt, Steward became chief clerk. In January 1902 it was he who conveyed to Brisbane customs officers Barton's secret instructions for administering the immigration dictation test. Uneasy working under Hunt, in December 1902 Steward became official secretary to the governor-general, Lord Tennyson, and secretary of the Executive Council. Except for six weeks in 1910, when he was Victorian land tax commissioner, for seventeen years Steward was right-hand man to five governors-general, responsible for official correspondence, including coded dispatches, and official expenditure. He was appointed C.M.G. (1909) and K.B.E. (1918).

To his rival, Hunt, Steward had 'no knack of getting men to work for him otherwise than by driving them'. Tennyson thought him 'too big for his boots', but his relations were good with other governors-general. Although Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson described him as an 'exceedingly jealous and domineering character', he also found him 'reliable and very efficient', particularly in the first weeks of World War I when the official secretary was the conduit for secret communications between Australia and Britain. To Melbourne Punch, Steward was 'Distingué'. With a 'military bearing, his moustache rampant a la Emperor Wilhelm, and his air of hauteur', he was 'brusque and decisive in manner as in mind'. An enthusiastic citizen soldier, Steward claimed to have joined the Royal Engineers in 1882 and to have been a 'special duty officer'. Commissioned lieutenant, Tasmanian Auxiliary Forces, in March 1898, he had raised and commanded the Tasmanian Mounted Infantry and was captain from March 1900. He joined the 10th Australian Light Horse in 1905; as a major (1908-12), he served in the Australian Intelligence Corps. In 1915-19 he commanded the 50th Infantry (St Kilda) Regiment (as honorary lieutenant-colonel from 1917).

More shadowy was his other role. In 1916 Steward founded and headed the Counter Espionage Bureau, Australia's first secret service, whose agents pursued International Workers of the World and Sinn Fein activists. Munro Ferguson was as unenthusiastic about these duties of his secretary (whom he dubbed 'Pickle the Spy') and the unsavoury characters who consequently lurked about Government House as he was with the secret political work which Steward sometimes performed for Prime Minister Hughes.

In 1919 Steward became chief commissioner of police in Victoria. The first outsider appointed since 1858, he successfully instituted important reforms, improved systematic police training and expanded the use of fingerprint analysis. Championing better working conditions for his men, he was popular with the force and an efficient administrator, but his health was overtaxed by his new post.

An 'adept' water-colourist and a temperance advocate, Steward enjoyed working on his farm at Cranbourne. He died of heart disease while driving his Cadillac in St Kilda Road on 11 May 1920 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. He had divorced Edith in 1907 and was survived by their sons, and by his wife Anne Lucas Synnot whom he had married in Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, on 20 February 1908. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,071.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Norris, The Emergent Commonwealth (Melb, 1975)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Citizen General Staff (Canb, 1976)
  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • C. Cunneen, Kings' Men (Syd, 1983)
  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • Police Journal (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1919, p 10
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 July, 29 Aug 1907, 23 Dec 1910, 18 Dec 1919
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1919
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1919
  • Australasian, 15 May 1920
  • Hunt and Novar and Tennyson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Victorian Police records, VPRS 3992, unit 2087, file B1940 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • divorce papers, VPRS 283, unit 159, item 1906/58 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • records, Post Office Archives, London.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Steward, Sir George Charles Thomas (1865–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steward-sir-george-charles-thomas-8657/text15137, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014