CFHS code : ML41

Parish : St Mary the Less

Inscription : In Memory of / WILLIAM JOHN STEELE BA Fellow of St Peter’s College, Cambridge / who was born at Stranorlar / Donegal, Ireland Sept XVI MDCCCXXXI and died at St Peter’s College March XI MDCCCLV / Till call of time marked this stone

Monument : Coped Stone/Footstone

Above information from Cambridge Family History Society Survey (amended with information provided by a  relative)

Lat Lon : 52.202727, 0.13781361 – click here for location

William John Steele side view
Steele monument –  side view
Steele Grave
Steele monument – end view


This cruciform coped stone is hidden under a large ivy bush three rows to the left of the path that runs east from the centre circle.


In Memory of WILLIAM JOHN STEELE BA Fellow of St Peter’s College, Cambridge, who was born at Stranorlar, Donegal, Ireland Sept XVI MDCCCXXXI and died at St Peter’s College March XI MDCCCLV. Till call of time marked this stone.

William John Steele (1831 – 1855)

William was born on 16 September 1831 at Stranorlar in Co. Donegal, the third son of the Rev. James Steele, D.D. (1787 – 1859) and his first wife, Mary Anne (née Patton, 1798 – 1833), who died when William was but two years of age. William’s father, minister of the Stranorlar Presbyterian Church, was probably the most widely known and admired minister in a family which produced a not inconsiderable number of earnest clerics.

William’s father remarked when William was five months old that he ‘has always been a little delicate’, although by contrast his brothers and sister are ‘very healthy, blooming and promising children’.

The scholastic ability of elder brother Henry Stewart (1828 – 1874) and of William was recognised at an early stage.   William benefited from the instruction of an excellent English master and was taught classics etc. by his father. It was no surprise when in November 1844 William and Henry matriculated at the University of Glasgow. James crossed the North Channel with his two sons and of the crossing he records ‘we were almost lost at sea on hallow eve night in a furious tempest. Hundreds were lost that night and for hours we had not hope of escape. In great mercy we at break of day got on shore. We were very ill of seasickness for 24 hours….. My dear boys are so young they could not go alone, their ages being 16 ¾ and 13 years respectively.’ Proud of his boys as any father would be he continues: ‘Yet I rejoice to say they entered with applause and stand in the highest Greek class, their other studies being Logic, Rhetoric and Hebrew this first session. They were entirely my own pupils….. Besides Latin and Greek they all read a little of German, French and Italian….. Indeed if William be spared he will with God’s blessing be an honour to the age. Tho’ least and youngest in his classes he is first and this is no trifle at so learned a college where about 3,000 students annually attend.’ The Matriculation album of 1844 reads: filius natu tertius viri reverendi Jacobi VDM apud Stranorlar incomitatu de Donegal.

The Londonderry Journal in his 1855 obituary recorded that he excelled ‘in all the classes of a very comprehensive curriculum, the languages, the sciences, and philosophy in its various departments’. William was a pupil of William Thomson, a graduate of St Peter’s College (as Peterhouse was frequently known) in Cambridge. A great friend while at the university in Glasgow was James Porter, who in 1876 became Master of St Peter’s College and who, like Henry and William graduated MA in 1847. William, not yet 16 years old, graduated cum magno honore and with highest distinctions, receiving the Dean of Faculty’s gold medal. In October 1847 he was awarded the Breadalbane scholarship ‘of great pecuniary value and honour’.

In October 1848 William, recommended for admission (the usual method then) by Professor William Thomson, by now, aged 22, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow, entered St Peter’s College in Cambridge. A close friend at St Peter’s was Peter Guthrie Tait and both William and Tait followed William Thomson in having as their private mathematical tutor and coach William Hopkins, also a St Peter’s man and regarded as the ‘senior wrangler maker’. Steele and Tait soon were regarded as potential high wranglers. It appears that William was generally in front of Tait in the college examinations and many tipped him as the future Senior Wrangler, a position often regarded as signifying ‘the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain’. However when they both sat the Mathematical Tripos in 1852 Tait emerged as Senior Wrangler and William as Second Wrangler (Proxime Accessit), to the surprise of many. At this annual ceremony the examiner, standing on the balcony of the Senate House, read out the class results and printed copies were then thrown to the waiting participants below.

In 1852 there was brief confusion at Peterhouse, recounted half a century later in the magazine of the Peterhouse Sexcentenary Club:

‘How the old gyp’s face used to light up as he told the story of that January morning when the Tripos list was read. One gyp was in the Senate House to hear the list, and as soon as Steele’s name came out as Senior Wrangler he was to rush out and make a signal by stretching out his arms like a big T; another gyp near the ‘Bull’ was to repeat the signal; and a third at the College gate was to rush in with the news. When that list was read and Tait’s name came first the gyp nearly collapsed, but hearing Steele’s name next he recovered, and noting only that Peterhouse was first, rushed out, made the signal, and fled with all speed to College to correct the pardonable error he had telegraphed.’

Also in 1852 Tait won the 1st Smith’s Prize and William the 2nd Smith’s Prize, awarded yearly to two or more junior BA students who had made the greatest progress in mathematics and natural philosophy.

Sadly William’s time in Cambridge was cut short by fatal illness. In 1854 he became a Fellow of St Peter’s College. He also became a Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a scientific society founded in 1819. According to Rev. William Babington Steele’s ‘Genealogical Notes’ William’s only completed printed work was an advanced scientific paper A Treatise on the Lunar Theories. Today its whereabouts is unknown. William died of tuberculosis (the death certificate gives cause of death as ‘Pericarditis 2 weeks’)in College on 11 March 1855 ‘with his hands entwined in those of his two brothers’, the Rev. Henry Stewart Steele and James Thomas Steele. In due course the Rev. Henry and his offspring were also to perish of tuberculosis. During William’s illness his pupils were taken over by Tait and by Edward Routh FRS (1831 – 1907), another Senior Wrangler, who was a St Peter’s fellow and outstanding mathematics tutor; Routh insisted that William kept the fees and he inherited William’s students. Lecturing to the Mathematical Association in 1935 Professor A. R. Forsyth recollected that Tait had once described W. J. Steele to him as ‘the greatest mathematical teacher who ever lived’. William was referred to variously elsewhere as ‘a famous coach’ and as ‘a Heaven-born teacher’.

At the time of his death William was collaborating with his friend Tait on A Treatise on Dynamics of a Particle with numerous examples, published in 1856 with a further revised final 7th edition in 1900. The treatise was planned and to some extent written during a holiday Tait and William spent together after they took their BA degrees. The Treatise was regarded as ‘shaped by a tradition of mathematical textbooks for prospective Cambridge wranglers’. The manuscript was presented by Mrs Tait to Peterhouse. William’s contribution was sadly incomplete and Tait wrote the larger part. Tait wrote in the Preface that ‘At Mr Steele’s early death his allotted share of the work was uncompleted, and I had to undertake the final arrangement of the whole’. Tait chivalrously published the book under their joint names, William’s reading THE LATE WILLIAM JOHN STEELE, B.A., FELLOW OF ST PETER’S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE.

 William’s funeral was held either in St Peter’s College chapel or more likely in Little St. Mary’s, which had been the college’s original chapel adjacent to the college. An account in the Cambridge Chronicle of 17 March 1855 read:

‘Funeral of the late W. J. Steele, Esq. – On Wednesday last, the remains of W. J. Steele, Esq., Fellow of St. Peter’s college, were interred in the Cemetery, Mill-road. The funeral arrangements were under the auspices of Mr. John Swan. The melancholy cortège started in the following order: the porter of the college, undertaker, two mourners (brothers of the deceased); body, supported by eight bearers, Master, Fellows and Undergraduates of the college. The deceased was much beloved by his fellow collegians. He was second Wrangler in 1852.’

The Cambridge Chronicle does not record the starting point of the procession. It would have been either the College chapel or Little St Mary’s, proceeding to a hearse in the street or maybe even as far as the new Little St Mary’s section of the Mill Road Cemetery, a distance of over a mile, where William was buried. The Little St. Mary’s churchyard had become full in about 1849.

The Master referred to was Henry Wilkinson Cookson and it is possible that he taught William. The porter leading the procession was Daniel Barber, whose grave lies close to William’s in the Cemetery.

By David Steele Grover, relative.

William John Steele