Sir Ernest leaves a legacy of legend
Sir Ernest leaves a legacy of legend

If racing is the sport of kings, Sir Ernest Henry Lee-Steere was his royal highness.

From the early days of the Swan River Colony to WA's fledgling steps as a State and the post-World War II decades, racing, politics and high society were inextricably linked.

And Sir Ernest, who died on Sunday at 98, was the past immediate doyen of one of WA's most prominent families.

English settlers from the 1830s, the Lee-Steeres built their wealth on farming and grazing but are best known for their contribution to the racing industry.

Sir Ernest Augustus Lee-Steere was chairman of the WA Turf Club from 1919 to 1940 and owned Caulfield Cup winner Eurythmic, perhaps the best WA galloper before Northerly.

His son was also chairman of the WATC, also for 21 years from 1963, and was lord mayor of Perth from 1972 to 1978.

Sport, politicians and public figures have been indelibly linked over the years and Sir Ernest, a tall, imposing figure, "epitomised" their standing in the community, according to leading political academic Harry Phillips.

"These days it's the Eagles and the Dockers, but before cricket, the lord mayor's office and the turf club shared a symbiotic relationship," Dr Phillips said.

Sir Ernest and his wife Lady Jessica, who died in 2001, were leading lights in the WA community when the turf club and Ascot were at Perth's social hub.

Marjorie Charleson was a close associate of Sir Ernest's and as the publicity officer of the WATC for 16 years, has a better insight than many into his contribution to the racing industry.

"The family had an enormous impact on WA," Ms Charleson said. "Sir Ernest was very conscious of the fact he was expected to enhance the image of the office, regardless of whether it be lord mayor, chairman or any other official capacity.

"He made the most incredible contribution, not only to the thoroughbred industry but also to the pastoral industry.

"He cared very much about what people thought about the racing industry, but not in an exclusive way. It was there to be enjoyed by everyone." The two knights were recognised as industry giants across Australia with their red colours flashing past many a winning post.

And the younger Sir Ernest, with long-serving WATC secretary Harry Bolton, is credited with running a golden age of racing in WA.

"As an owner, breeder and administrator, Sir Ernest stands on his own," says Ted van Heemst, chairman of Perth Racing, which is the new WATC.

"He may have battled to equal the old man, but then everyone did. People across Australia still ask about Sir Ernest. He contributed at all levels and is almost a revered figure."

Most of the family wealth came from Belele Station, which was established by the elder Sir Ernest and stretches across about 365,000ha of the Murchison, but the ancestral family home is still historic Hawthornden, near Toodyay.

Two sons died in World War II when Sir Ernest was an army captain who fought in the Pacific.

He was president of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association from 1959-71, chairman of the Albany Woollen Mills and was on the boards of the National Trust and the boy scouts.

Sir Ernest and Lady Jessica had five children, 19 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

In 1998, Sir Ernest lost much of his money as the director of a collapsed mining company but Monaco-based entrepreneur Ric Stowe, who had three children in a de facto relationship with his daughter Jemma Lee-Steere, bought the family home in Swanbourne, where the former lord mayor lived until a few years ago.

"Every morning he was swimming well into his 80s," Jemma Stowe said. "He was an utterly devoted family man and wonderful with his grandchildren."

But Sir Ernest and Jecky, as Lady Jessica was fondly known, will best be remembered for their days at the turf club.

The West Australian

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