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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

On the Anniversary of Fr Robert Henry Joseph Steuart SJ

Fr Robert Henry Joseph Steuart SJ (1874-1948)

This year, 9 July marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Fr Robert Henry Joseph Steuart SJ. According to his obituary in Letters and Notices, Fr Steuart was born in Reigate, but his ancestry and home-life were Scottish. He was first educated at Fort Angus and hoped to enter the Navy but was prevented due to his recurrent hay fever. Instead, having a talent for mathematics, he entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich where he was a military cadet from March 1892 until February 1893. Before he entered the noviciate in February 1893, Fr Steuart often spent weekends at Mount Street, coincidentally in the very room that he would pass his last years. Upon entering the Society, he spent over a year as a junior before his year’s philosophy at St Mary’s Hall, and then went to what is now Campion Hall in Oxford for two years for mathematics (1897-1899). He then taught at Beaumont (1899-1901), at Wimbledon (until 1902), and for a year at Mount St Mary’s. He did a second year of philosophy at Jersey, and in 1903 went to St Beuno’s.

Design for the 'Mariale Novum'

He was a talented draughtsman and designed an intricate cover for the Maiale Novum, a book of sonnets by members of the Society, including Steuart, published in 1905. A copy of this volume, with his name handwritten on the inside cover, can be found in the Archives’ reference library, but unfortunately none of his artwork has survived in his personal papers. Examples of his ‘sculptural’ handwriting can, however, be seen in his diaries and notes. According to his obituary, written by Fr Cyril Martindale SJ, “probably he renounced both drawing and versifying in favour of what became more evidently his vocation.”

From October 1916 to November 1919, Fr Steuart was military chaplain in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI). His war diaries provide an objective account of his years as a chaplain. Attached to the HLI he was witness to the Battle of Arras, which lasted between 9 April and 16 May 1917. In this offensive, the British achieved the longest advance since trench warfare had begun, however it eventually became a costly stalemate for both sides and by the end of the battle, the British had suffered approximately 160,000 casualties, and the Germans 125,000. Steuart recounts his experiences of the battle in his diary.

Diary entries for the first few days of the Battle of Arras in a later, typewritten version of Steuart’s war diaries (Ref. SJ/18/2)

In his entry for 11 November 1918, he writes:

Marched off at 9 a.m. and reached billets at Lynstraat about 1:30 p.m. Crowds cheering us all along the road. News of conclusion of Armistice reached us on the march. It’s almost impossible to realise that the war is over.

Excerpt from Steuart’s original diary. The entry for Armistice Day starts at the bottom of the right-hand page (Ref. SJ/18/4)

Fr Steuart’s papers also include a document called ‘Khaki Days: Studies of Life at the Front during the Great War’. In this document, Steuart sought to share the common experience of War in a way which the War Correspondents were unable to: “when he [the Correspondent] came amongst us he came as one seeking copy: his task was to report upon our life as he saw it, but could not possibly see that life as we did whose task it was to live it.” Steuart includes vivid details and accounts of his experiences, including the roads (“long roads, dreary roads, hard, inhospitable roads…”), and life in the trenches and at The Front, and in the final chapter describes the long and uncomfortable journey in freezing conditions to the Demobilsation Camp in Calais at the end of 1919.

Photographs and trench map from 'Khaki Days'

After a couple of months at Liverpool, he went to Oxford in February 1920 and became superior at St Aloysius’ in December 1921. In January 1928 he became Superior at Mount Street, then went to Wimbledon in January 1935, where he remained until May 1940 when he returned to Mount Street to spend his final years. Fr Martindale wrote of Steuart: “As Superior there, he was generous to a fault” although he “took far too much work on himself... He detested writing letters and during the last 3 or 4 years often left them unanswered or even unopened.” But, “always amusing, always courteous even when desperately bored, he fitted in with very different sorts of company”. Fr Steuart died at the Hospital of Our Lady of Consolation, Lambeth, 9 July 1948.

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