The Short and Adventurous Life of Alfred Charles Steiner
“Jimmy, seven years younger, was already the character of the family. There could never have been two brothers more different than Jimmy and Leslie. Jimmy was gregarious where Leslie was shy, independent where Leslie leaned on his mother. Jimmy was the wit and the despair of his family, the author of endless practical jokes, his gaiety undampened even by his father’s disapproval. He kept the household between horror and laughter and brightened their days considerably.”
This is the little cameo Leslie Ruth Howard made of Alfred Charles Steiner, Leslie’s younger brother, in her book A Quite Remarkable Father. It was really too short a tribute for such a unique personality, and I was very intrigued with Alfred’s story, so I started to research his rather mysterious life. We have a good deal of information about the other Steiner siblings, who gravitated around Leslie and were more or less connected with the entertainment world, while Alfred has always remained quite an obscure figure.
Alfred Charles Steiner (also known as James) was born on August 11, 1899, in Hampsted, London. His parents had just come back from Vienna, where his elder sister, Doris, had been born in 1896. The three Steiner children were baptised at St. Chrysostom’s, Peckham, in January 1902.
I could not find any piece of information about Alfred’s education, but I presume he attended some boarding school, as he was not at home in 1911 and therefore was not recorded in the 1911 England Census.
In August 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Alfred was fifteen, too young to enlist as his elder brother Leslie did in October. But Alfred had an adventurous spirit, and could not delay his entrance in the enticing world of swords and rifles for so long. His military records, kept at the National Archives in Kew, include a document of the Territorial Force, 28th Battalion, The London Regiment (Artists Rifles), dated November 12, 1915 and containing the attestation of recruit Alfred Charles Steiner. The medical inspection report describes him of “apparent age 18, height 5 feet 6 inches, physical development fair.” He was therefore considered fit for the Territorial Force. In fact, Alfred was only sixteen.
In spite of his bold, venturesome nature, Alfred was not of good health. He suffered from chronic bronchitis, and was discharged on August 26, 1916, under the para. 392 XVI K.R. (i.e. no longer physically fit for service). But Alfred was not the kind of young man to stay peacefully at home. He got an appointment in Iquique, Chile, to work for Harrington, Morrison and Co., a subsidiary of Balfour, Williamson and Co. in the nitrate field. The 22nd of February, 1917, Alfred embarked on the “Oriana,” in Liverpool.
Alfred worked in Iquique until 1918. According to his own tale, “in February 1918 the British Consul called for men to come home join the Army, which I did and I came home on R.M.S. Oronsa which was torpedoed.” (Alfred Charles Steiner’s letter to the Repatriation Record Office, July 29, 1919)
It was quite an adventurous journey. The “Oronsa” sailed on March 8 from Talcahuano and arrived in New York on April 9; after a few days, the ship left New York, on April 13. On 28th April 1918, the Oronsa was torpedoed off Bardsey Island, North Wales. All the passengers and crew members were rescued, with the exception of three men. Alfred arrived safely in Liverpool on April 29.
On May 31, 1918 Alfred enlisted at the Inns of Court O.T.C. Once again, his health problems soon led to his discharge, on May 2, 1919. As soon as he was freed from military obligations, Alfred sought another position abroad, and was offered a good appointment in South Africa. He then applied for repatriation, and was told he could only obtain a passage to Chile, where he had left from. This eventually proved not true, and Alfred’s records show a number of initiatives taken by himself and by his mother Lilian, who wrote a letter to the Repatriation Record Office on July 25, 1919. She was afraid her son might lose his good appointment in South Africa, and was worried about his health, as the doctors suggested he should leave England before “cold wet weather sets in“.
Alfred also applied for the Silver Badge for his service with the Territorial Force, which he obtained, and was given a pension for a 20% degree of disablement.
The passage to South Africa was eventually granted, though I could not find information about the ship or the date in Alfred’s Military Records. He is not listed in the passenger lists of ships sailing to South Africa. I have no information about his position in South Africa either. The only fact is that he later moved to Rhodesia, where he worked as a farmer, as he appears on the passenger list of the ship Beltana arriving in London on August 10, 1923 from Sydney via the Cape: “Mr. A.C. Steiner – 54 Comeragh Road, London – Farmer – age 24 – Country of last permanent residence: Rhodesia – Port of embarkation: Durban.”
This time, Alfred spent more than one year in England. But he could not settle down. Unable to adapt himself to London and its climate, once again he sought a position abroad. He eventually got an appointment in Western Australia under the Government immigration scheme, and boarded the Largs Bay, sailing from Southampton to Fremantle on November 11, 1924. But nothing went as hoped for. On his arrival (December 12) he was sent to the rural village of Yandanooka (180 miles north of Perth) where the promised employment proved nonexistent. He found himself unemployed and tried his best to earn a living as a farmer and in town, but his health started to decline very quickly.
On February 2, 1925, he was brought in front of the Police Court under the charge of having been in possession of £9 3s. 6d., suspected of having been stolen. He pleaded guilty to the charge, and admitted that he had taken the money from clothes in the locker of a member of the Cottesloe Golf Club in Perth. “No words of mine can express what I feel about this, but I had had little to eat for two or three days,” he said at the conclusion of his address to the Bench. He had only twopence left in his pockets (The West Australian of February 4, 1925).
Here I lost his traces once again. In her book, Leslie Ruth Howard wrote about a family reunion for. Christmas 1928. Leslie had come back from America, after his Broadway success in Her Cardboard Lover, and all his family was gathered in the Onslow Square house, with the exception of Alfred, still abroad: “Christmas was a family gathering at 39, Onslow Square. Happy in their first united celebration, the various members peered at Leslie’s camera–a group of rapt smiles crowned by incredible paper hats. All Leslie’s relations were together with the exception of Jimmy, once more planting tea or in some other way adorning the British colonies. Lilie missed him, but Frank Stainer was greatly relieved to have this problem out of his life.”
Was Alfred able to go to South Africa once again? It seems so. I retraced him disembarking the Ranpura in London, on December 4, 1930. He had boarded the ship in Port Said, and the passenger list recites: “Steiner, James A. – 39 Onslow Square, London W. – Planter – age: 32 – Country of last Permanent Residence: South Africa.”
So Alfred had eventually come back to England, where he lived with his parents in Onslow Square. He worked as a car salesman, or at least, this is what the newspapers wrote the 1st of June, 1931, when giving the news of a terrible car accident happened the day before.
Alfred Charles Steiner was not yet 32. He had lived a short, adventurous life.
I hope I will be able to find further information about Alfred Charles. I must confess I have taken a fancy to him. I guess he was less handsome than his famous brother: he was shorter, and maybe lacked Leslie’s blond charm. He was 5 feet 6, with brown hair and grey eyes. I wish I could add a face to his description, but the only photo I know of him is the old one you can see here.
I disagree with Leslie Ruth’s opinion: after all, the two brothers had more in common than she thought. They shared the same romantic view of life, they were both unable to live according to the dull standards of their time. They were both free, independent souls.