Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Steel Byrnes (1899–1979)

by J. S. D. Mellick

This article was published:

Robert Steel Byrnes (1899-1979), Presbyterian administrator and writer, was born on 6 June 1899 at Goldsborough, near Dunolly, Victoria, youngest of eight children of Patrick James Byrnes, goldminer, and his wife Agnes, née Cairns, both native-born. Educated at Melbourne High School, Robert worked for the Melbourne City Council. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 28 October 1918, but was demobilized on 24 December. Subsequently appointed an organizing and travelling secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, he was engaged in youth work for two years. On 3 August 1922 at Northcote he married a teacher Janet Mafeking Perkins. That year they moved to Sydney where he was employed by the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales and graduated from the University of Sydney (B.A., 1932) with the Wilfrid E. Johnson prize in economics.

On 5 August 1940 Byrnes was attached (with officer status) to the A.I.F. as a representative of the Young Men's Christian Association; he embarked for the Middle East with the 7th Division in October. Posted to the 2nd/1st Battalion, he remained with the unit during its service in Egypt and Syria—except when in the Western Desert (October 1941) with the 9th Division—and was made senior representative of the Y.M.C.A. in Egypt. He returned with the battalion to Australia in August 1942 and his appointment terminated in September.

Next month Byrnes became general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland and treasurer of its assembly. He initiated several developmental projects, including cottage homes for the elderly. A councillor of Emmanuel College, University of Queensland, and of the Presbyterian and Methodist Schools' Association, he was a board-member of Scots College, Warwick, and of the Presbyterian Girls' colleges at Warwick and Toowoomba. He was also president (1952-57) of the Queensland Y.M.C.A., and governor of St Andrew's War Memorial Hospital, Brisbane, and of the Freemasons Homes for the Aged.

Scholarly and courteous, Byrnes was charming and erudite. He wrote Serving the Church (1948, 1958) and The Kirk in Queensland (1951), and edited (1963-65) the religious journal, Outlook. In 1954 he published Endeavour and Other Poems. A member (1954) and deputy-chairman (1957) of the Queensland Literature Board of Review, he was co-editor of The Queensland Centenary Anthology (1959). State (1952-57) and federal (1960, 1962) president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, in 1961 he visited the Soviet Union. A volume of his collected poems, The Light of Setting Suns, was published posthumously in 1980.

Byrnes was appointed M.B.E. in 1964 and next year retired as the Church's general secretary. Proud of his British heritage and its customs, he was deeply interested in contemporary affairs. He had a shrewd appreciation of personalities, a wide circle of acquaintances and friends, and was a Freemason. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, he died on 16 November 1979 in St Andrew's Nursing Home, Brisbane, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Presbyterian Outlook (Brisbane), Aug 1965, p 15
  • Presbyterian Church of Queensland, Assembly Minutes, 1942, pp 5, 76, 1965, p 55
  • University of Queensland, Alumni News, Mar 1980
  • Bulletin, 15 June 1960
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 1 Jan 1964
  • R. S. Byrnes file (Presbyterian Church of Queensland Archives, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. S. D. Mellick, 'Byrnes, Robert Steel (1899–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1899
Goldsborough, Victoria, Australia


16 November, 1979 (aged 80)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.