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Sir Rupert Steele (1920–2000)

by Maureen Anne Kutner

This article was published online in 2024

Sir Rupert Steele with his old Bentley, Toorak 1995, by Darren Overend

Sir Rupert Steele with his old Bentley, Toorak 1995, by Darren Overend

Supplied by Mark Bisset

Sir Philip John Rupert Steele (1920–2000), furniture merchant, cattle breeder, racehorse owner, and horse-racing administrator, was born on 3 November 1920 at Malvern, Melbourne, elder son of Melbourne-born parents, Henry Cyril Augustus Steele, furniture merchant, and his wife Doris Ellen Steele, formerly Hug, née Duckett. Rupert also had a half-sister from his mother’s first marriage. Both his parents belonged to wealthy Melbourne families. From 1926 they lived in a mansion opposite Albert Park Lake at 55 Queens Road, Melbourne, with a holiday house at Shoreham. Educated (1930–39) at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Rupert excelled at rowing and was captain of boats and vice-captain of the school in his final year. His privileged childhood was dramatically disrupted when his father died in a boating accident in January 1939. His three paternal uncles had died during World War I, which increased the pressure for Rupert to join the family furniture business, Steele & Co. Pty Ltd.

After brief service in the Citizen Military Forces in Melbourne, Steele volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force on 26 December 1939 for service in World War II. He enlisted on 20 June 1942, commenced training through the Empire Air Training Scheme, and was commissioned on 1 April 1943. Sent to England for training as a bomb aimer, he was promoted to flying officer in October. In April 1944 he joined No. 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force, flying Lancaster bombers. During his fifth mission, on 23 May, his plane was shot down south of Antwerp, Belgium. Three of the seven crew members survived, including Steele, and for two days, hampered by an injured back, he evaded capture by German troops. He eventually surrendered and, after interrogation and twenty-four days in solitary confinement, was sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan (Zagan), Poland, as a prisoner of war.

Steele’s health had deteriorated, and food and medical supplies in the camp were scarce, but his youth and general fitness aided his recovery. In January 1945 the prisoners were marched almost 100 kilometres in freezing weather to Spremberg, Germany. Steele was among those sent by train to a camp at Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. Liberated by Russian forces three weeks later, he returned to England on 14 May where ‘we were feted as heroes, for having survived, if nothing else!’ (Steele 1997). He was promoted to flight lieutenant with effect from 1 April. Back in Australia by July, he was demobilised on 24 September.

On 6 April 1946 at the Melbourne Grammar School chapel, Steele married Judith Carre Sharp, a dentistry student at the University of Melbourne. He returned to the family company, becoming a joint managing director in 1949. Steele & Co. Ltd converted to a public company in 1950 and he was elected chairman in 1953. The business prospered, with staff numbers increasing from 25 in 1945 to 214 in 1960. That year the Steele family and other shareholders accepted a takeover offer from (Sir) Maurice Nathan, managing director of Patersons furniture stores.

In 1947 Steele had purchased a 150-acre property near Dandenong, Rossmoyne Park, where he lived with his growing family. He bred champion Aberdeen Angus cattle and became a councillor (1961–74) of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria. In 1960 he sold Rossmoyne Park, moving his family home to South Yarra and the cattle stud to a farm at Berwick until he sold it in 1964. Another long-term interest was car racing. His father had left him a 4.25 litre 1937 Bentley, in which he won speed trials at Phillip Island before the war and at the Australasian Championship hill climb event at the Rob Roy track, near Melbourne, in 1948. In 1950, driving a Monza Alfa Romeo, he was runner-up at the Australian Grand Prix at Nuriootpa, South Australia.

Steele’s greatest passion was thoroughbred racing. He owned many successful horses, including Noble Law, a winner of fifteen steeplechases, and Ray Ribbon, the winner of the 1956 W. S. Cox Plate. In 1958 he was elected to the committee of the Victoria Racing Club. A man of charm and a persuasive speaker, he immediately made his presence felt as a member of a subcommittee to promote the 1960 centenary of the Melbourne Cup. Among the publicity initiatives he championed was the inaugural ‘Fashions on the Field’ in 1962. He later served as treasurer (1971–73), vice chairman (1973–77), and chairman (1977–82). As chairman he sought greater State funding for horse racing and increased the club’s revenue by expanding television coverage. He was knighted in 1980 for his contribution to the sport and in 1984 the Rupert Steele Stakes at Flemington was named in his honour.

Steele had maintained his business connections as a director of Carlton Brewery Ltd (1964–73) and of Carlton and United Breweries Ltd (1973–84). He was also a director (1984–91) of Union-Fidelity Trustee Company of Australia Ltd, and president (1980–1984) of the Victorian Football Association team Prahran. In 1967 he had separated from his wife, although they never divorced. His son Rupert junior filed for bankruptcy in 1990 and later served a prison sentence for financial fraud. Towards the end of his life, complications from his wartime back injury led to nerve damage in both legs and Steele was confined to a wheelchair. Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and son, he died at Richmond on 20 August 2000 and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Flood, James. The Official 50-Race History of the Australian Grand Prix. Gordon, NSW: R & T Publishing, 1986
  • Jones, Philip. ‘Turf Devotee Spurred on Olympic Bid.’ Australian, 30 August 2000, 16
  • Kutner, Maureen A. ‘The Good Father: A Biography of Sir Rupert Steele.’ MA thesis, Monash University, 1998
  • Lemon, Andrew. The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, Vol. 3, In Our Time 1939 to 2007. South Yarra, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, 2008
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, STEELE P J R
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Steele, Sir Rupert. Interview by the author, October 1997

Additional Resources

Citation details

Maureen Anne Kutner, 'Steele, Sir Rupert (1920–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steele-sir-rupert-20551/text41346, published online 2024, accessed online 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Rupert Steele with his old Bentley, Toorak 1995, by Darren Overend

Sir Rupert Steele with his old Bentley, Toorak 1995, by Darren Overend

Supplied by Mark Bisset

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Steele, Philip John Rupert
Birth

3 November, 1920
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

20 August, 2000 (aged 79)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

multiple organ failure

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.

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