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Yorston, Sir (Robert) Keith (1902–1983)

by M. D. Prentis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir (Robert) Keith Yorston (1902-1983), accountancy educator and churchman, was born on 12 February 1902 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Robert Magnus Yorston from Shetland, Scotland, confectioner, and his Victorian-born wife May, née Rose. Educated at Caulfield State School, Keith left to work in an office, later joining the Melbourne business college, Hemingway & Robertson, a leading provider of external studies in accountancy. After qualifying as an accountant in 1923, he began to conduct the firm’s teaching program. He graduated from the University of Melbourne (Dip.Com., 1928; B.Com., 1945).

Transferring to the Sydney office in 1927, Yorston brought his mother and sister with him to live in North Sydney; his father remained in Melbourne. He ran the teaching program in Sydney. In late 1932 he resigned from Hemingway & Robertson and accepted the position of principal of the Australian Accountancy College at 133 Pitt Street, Sydney. In April 1933 he was joined by Edward E. Fortescue, formerly of Hemingway & Robertson’s Brisbane branch, as assistant-principal. In the 1930s and 1940s they conducted individual coaching in accountancy and book-keeping. Yorston was to remain as principal of the college until 1966, and a chartered accountant until 1970.

On 19 December 1934 at St Thomas’s Church of England, North Sydney, Yorston married (Vera) Gwendolen Catherine Ridley, a stenographer who had been his secretary and assistant trainer. He wrote and co-authored dozens of textbooks on accounting, law and company practice, some of them with Fortescue. His name and texts were famous across generations; several of the books became standards, going through many editions. He was a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Australia, the Australian Society of Accountants, the Australian Institute of Management and the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators. Campaigning for disclosure and transparency in company annual reports, he sponsored a yearly award through the AIM for the best company annual report.

From 1937 Yorston was a member of the Australian-American Association. In the New South Wales branch he held the positions of honorary treasurer, first chairman of the council and president (1957-63, 1965-74), and he served federally as president (1960, 1962-64, 1966-67, 1972) and council member. He was largely responsible for the establishment (1959) of American Field Service scholarships and always personally farewelled and welcomed scholarship holders. Founding the junior association in Sydney (1958) and the Canberra (1962) and Hobart (1963) branches, he also became the national patron of the association and of the scholarships (1976) and promoted Sydney’s annual Coral Sea celebrations. During the 1950s and 1960s he helped with arrangements for politicians visiting the United States of America.

Yorston was an active churchman. In Melbourne he had attended Sunday school and bible classes at St Kilda East Presbyterian Church. In 1927 he joined St Peter’s Presbyterian Church, North Sydney, and next year was ordained an elder. He was session clerk from 1929 to 1953. When the family moved to Roseville, he became an elder (1953-77) at St Luke’s Presbyterian Church in that suburb. He was a member (1961-77) of the New South Wales Presbyterian Church Property Trust and chairman of trustees from 1965 to 1977. Yorston served as convener of the finance committee, member (1961-64) of the stewardship committee and chairman of the Presbyterian Foundation. A member of the finance panel of the Australian Inland Mission, he was also on the board (1965-79) of the Scottish Hospital, Sydney, chairman (1964-68) of the council of the Presbyterian Ladies College, Armidale, and a member (1964-73) of the finance committee of the Presbyterian General Assembly of Australia.

Instinctively ecumenical, Yorston was involved in preparations for church union with the Congregationalists and Methodists and was elected a representative on the inaugural assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. Though a member of a Uniting Church congregation, he was apparently reluctant to cease being a Presbyterian.

In 1960 Yorston was appointed OBE and in 1963 elevated to CBE. He was knighted in 1969. Sir Keith was a member of the American National Club. He loved the outdoors, including gardening and the beach, and from the 1950s spent much time at his Palm Beach holiday home. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 16 May 1983 at Wahroonga and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Prentis, ‘God’s Accountant’, Church Heritage, vol 15, no 2, 2007, p 87
  • Commonwealth Journal of Accountancy, 1 Jan 1933, p 158, 1 May 1933, p 282, 1 June 1933, p 312
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Jan 1933, p 22, 1 July 1933, p 24
  • Australian Accountant, Nov 1979, p 666, July 1983, p 447
  • Yorston papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

M. D. Prentis, 'Yorston, Sir (Robert) Keith (1902–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yorston-sir-robert-keith-15748/text26936, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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