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John James Steel (1855–1900)

Great and general regret was evidenced by the officers and men of the New South Wales Naval Contingent at the sad and sudden death of Staff surgeon John [James] Steel, and the cable news to Sydney of his decease must have been received with widespread sorrow by his numerous circle of friends The late officer had been in bad health since the Peitang Ports' expedition, in which he over-exerted himself in endeavouring to relieve the sufferers from forced marching privations endured, and he had only left the Gordon Ball Hospital at Tientsin on the day the contingent commenced to march to Peking, and was far from well. He was troubled with insomnia and dysentery, and had been in the habit of taking small doses of chloral to induce sleep. He faithfully discharged his duties in such a kind manner as to earn the gratitude and esteem of his patients and quietly yet bravely he endured considerable pain and maintained his gentle, manly demeanour to the last. It was about 11 o'clock on Saturday night, November 10, that Commander Connor, noticing a light in the doctor's bedroom, looked in to say good night and see how he was. Commander Connor was startled to find the doctor lying at the threshold of the door, evidently just dead. Medical assistance was quickly procured, and an inquiry was held on Sunday morning, and the evidence went to show that Dr Steel had probably taken an overdose of chloral, and the shock caused by a fall whilst getting out of bed, combined with an enfeebled system, had produced fatal results.

The deceased surgeon was a widower, and had one daughter, Miss Ruby Steel, who is at present living in London He was very scholarly and refined, and had an excellent knowledge of German and French, which had been put to practical account many times in China, He was highly esteemed and popular. His conversational abilities were much envied. Only two days before his death, his brother officers will now remember the striking and courageous defence which he made at the dinner table of the much-abused missionaries and their work in China. In military circles general missionary effort is regarded as wasted and the cause of much of the present troubles, but Dr Steel combated the arguments single-handed, and won the admiration of those opposed to him by his able and sturdy plea in favour of missionaries. His remains were buried with full military honours in the little British graveyard outside the western wall of the tartar city on the morning of November 12. The cortege was impressive, and about 100 blue jackets and marines led the way through the narrow streets, followed by a detachment of the 12th battery of Royal Field Artillery, then came the picturesquely dressed pipers of the First Sikhs, who rendered a beautiful Indian dirge—"The broken heart". A gun carriage bore the coffined body, wrapped in the Union Jack, and at each side walked the principal mourners, including Captain Gillespie and Commander Connor, behind followed the ambulance and stretcher party with which the deceased officer had so long been associated, then the chief petty officers, followed by the commissioned officers. A great many British officers also attended, including Lieutenant-General Gasalee, Commander-in Chief, and his staff; Brigadier-General Sir N. Stewart and his staff, whose presence to pay their last tribute of respect to the first New South Wales officer to die in China was greatly appreciated by the sorrowing contingent.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Steel, John James (1855–1900)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]




10 November, 1900 (aged ~ 45)
Taku, China

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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Military Service