Steele, Anne Cator -- Biography

The second wife of William Steele III (1689-1769), Anne Cator Steele was stepmother to the poet Anne Steele (1717-78) and her brother, William Steele IV (1715-85), the latter being the father of the poet Mary Steele (1753-1813). Anne Cator Steele’s marriage produced one daughter, Mary Steele Wakeford (1724-72), another of the poets within the Steele circle. Her husband succeeded his uncle, Henry Steele (1655-1739), as pastor of the Baptist congregation at Broughton in 1739. The two Steeles were not only ministers but also timber merchants and farmers; by the mid-1700s they were one of the wealthiest families and largest landowners in the Broughton area. Their impressive homes, Broughton House (formerly called ‘Pigeon House’) and Grandfathers, both of which still stand, reflected their wealth and social standing. Anne Cator Steele began her diary in 1723 and continued it until just before her death in 1760; unfortunately, only three volumes, covering the years 1730-36, 1749-52, and 1753-60, have survived. Nevertheless, these volumes provide an intimate look at the familial, social, and spiritual joys and trials of the wife of a nonconformist minister/farmer/merchant in the West Country of England in the first half of the eighteenth century. 

William Steele III was educated at a nonconformist academy at Trowbridge, baptized by his uncle at Broughton in June 1708, and shortly thereafter began working in the family timber business, making considerable money from contracts with the Navy, usually for oak timbers to be delivered to the shipyards at Portsmouth.  After his father’s death in 1708, William Steele III became his uncle’s assistant in the Broughton Baptist Church. The younger Steele married Anne Froude, of Tinhead, who was herself the daughter of a Baptist minister, sometime in late December 1713 or January 1714. She died in 1720 during childbirth.[1]  While visiting relations of his deceased with in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, Steele met Anne Cator of Trowle Common. She was still living at home with her parents and, as the courtship progressed, expressed considerable reluctance to leave them for a new home in Broughton. Previous to meeting Steele, Cator had written some poetry, even sharing her poems with another female correspondent, though she requested that she ‘not expose those Imperfect: unpolish’d lines, to the vew of any Critick whatsoever.’[2] William Steele’s letters to Anne Cator, now preserved in the Steele Collection, reveal some of the difficulties he faced before coming to an agreement in 1723 with Thomas Cator about the terms of his marriage to her daughter.  In becoming the second wife of an evangelical Calvinist minister, Anne Cator established a pattern that would be repeated by Frances Barrett, Mary Egerton, Maria Andrews, and Jane Adams Houseman, all women who appear in this Index. 

Among Anne Cator’s relations at Trowbridge was the family of Joseph and Grace Cottle. Mrs Steele would send her two daughters, Anne and Mary, to live with the Cottles during their time at Mrs Hurn’s female academy at Trowbridge in the early 1730s. Anne Steele would maintain a close relationship with her older cousin, Grace, even after the latter’s removal to Bristol upon the death of her husband. There Mrs Cottle lived with her son, Robert Cottle, whose son, Joseph (1770-1853) would become a prominent Bristol bookseller, making a name for himself in the 1790s as publisher of the early poems of Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and some lesser Romantic figures. Joseph Cottle revered his family’s connection to the poet and hymn writer Anne Steele, placing a letter by Steele to his grandmother Grace, dated 18 May 1761, into his album of autograph letters (known as Cottle’s Bristol Album) now residing at Cornell University. Anne Cator Steele’s sister Jane (1680-1756) married John Gay (1666-1729) and resided at Haycombe (just south of Bath). Their daughter, Anna (1710-1784), married Thomas Attwater (1691-1767) of Bodenham, thus joining the Steeles and Attwaters as relations by marriage. The Attwater children – Gay Thomas (1736-92), Caroline (1746-1824), Marianna (c. 1749-1832), and Jane (1753-1843) – will play significant roles within the Steele circle. The marriage of Caroline’s son, Philip (1766-1847) to Anne Andrews (1774-1865) in 1798 linked the Attwaters and Whitakers (and by default, the Steeles of Broughton) with a new circle of women writers centered upon Anne’s sister Maria Grace Andrews (1772-1858), who would the next year become the second wife of John Saffery, Baptist minister at Salisbury, and later a significant poet in her own right. 

The education of her three children became one of Anne Cator Steele’s chief objectives in the late 1720s. William IV probably attended the same academy at Trowbridge that his father had attended.[3] His letters to his daughter, Mary Steele, reveal a well-educated, well-read representative of the Hampshire gentry, and his knowledge of poetry (he was known as ‘Philander’ within the Steele circle) received glowing praise from Mary Scott (1751-93), his daughter’s close friend and sister poet, in The Female Advocate (1774). Between 1730 and 1732 Mrs Steele’s daughters, along with their cousin Elizabeth Gay of Haycombe, attended Mrs Hurn’s school in Trowbridge. Early in 1733 Anne Cator Steele came to the conclusion that Anne and Mary needed a more formal boarding school experience to complete a proper education. The school she had in mind was Mrs Connor’s school in Salisbury Cathedral Close.  Inevitably, her decision to remove her daughters from a school operated by a Particular Baptist woman in a town where they could live in the home of a close relation (the Cottles, also Baptists) and place them in a boarding school in Salisbury operated by an Anglican woman completely unknown to the family and (what would not be lost on many dissenting families at this time) outside the ‘household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10) created tension with the Steele family. She writes on 2 April 1733,

My desires being drawn out concerning the childrens going out to school desireing it may be yet prevented if the lord saw it best yet I have often tho’t the providence of God did direct in it and that came to my mind & who knoweth whither thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this which made me think as I have before whither God has not design’d some work for this his young servant[...] [4]  

Her prescience as to whether God had ‘design’d some work’ for ‘his young servant’, a clear reference to her stepdaughter Anne Steele, is stunning considering what will become of Anne Steele in later life. Though no poetry by Anne Steele exists from the early 1730s, the future ‘Theodosia’ must have shown her stepmother enough indications of poetic talent and spiritual maturity to warrant the above statement and the unusual step of sending her to a finishing school in Salisbury. Henry Steele was not pleased with her decision.  He came to see her on Saturday 9 June, when her husband was in Salisbury, expressly ‘to reprove me’, she writes, ‘concerning our daughters going to scool charging it upon me as sin, I defended my self as well as I could in such a doubtfull case but my tho’ts was pretty much ruffled about it’. When her husband returned home, however, she was ‘entirely freed from' it, an indication he was fully supportive of her decision in this matter.[5]   Anne and Mary would attend at Salisbury only through the fall of that year, and by 1736, they had returned to Mrs. Hurn’s school at Trowbridge. Ultimately, Anne Cator Steele’s loyalty to her dissenting faith and culture proved stronger than anything Mrs Conner’s school could provide. 

Besides her daughters’ education, family and church affairs are the most prominent topics in her diary. She prays for her husband’s safety as he travels to preach and conduct his timber business, worries about his health (both physical and spiritual) and that of her children and house servants, records outbreaks of disease among their sheep or cattle, and even provides accounts of periods of drought or excessive rain. Her husband’s horrific fall from his horse dominates her diary for several months in 1735, a time of great physical and spiritual affliction and trial for both her and her husband as he endures and eventually overcomes his injury, though he will walk with a limp the rest of his life.  Next to her family, her greatest concern is the spiritual well being of the Baptist congregation in Broughton. She takes pride in the congregation’s acceptance of hymn singing, fears the spread of Arian and Sabellian beliefs, and critiques the quality (even at times, questions the reality) of experiential faith possessed by some of the new and old members.  She reserves her harshest criticisms, however, for wayward, or what would often be called ‘backslidden’, members, such as the infamous Betty Jones, whose scandalous affair with the Baptist preacher, John Grant, captures much of her attention between 1730 and 1733. Her diary, however, would not be complete without some political commentary, a tradition continued by all the women writers in these volumes. Anne Cator Steele reads about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, expresses anxiety about the deteriorating relations between England and France and the latter’s growing alliance with Spain in the early 1730s (aggravated by the severing of Robert Jenkins’s ear by a Spanish captain in April 1731), and treats with great seriousness the King’s proclamations declaring Fast Days during the Seven Years’ War with France (1756-63). 

Mrs Steele, like Mrs John Walrond, was an avid reader, particularly of the Puritan divines so popular among the Calvinistic Baptists throughout the eighteenth century, such as John Flavel, John Bunyan, Jeremiah Burroughs, Stephen Charnock, and Joseph Alleine. Steele also reads works on such topics as political history, ‘religious courtship’, and natural philosophy, not what many would have viewed as typical reading for a provincial Baptist woman in the early eighteenth century. As her diary makes clear, she had a pronounced interest in hearing other women’s spiritual experiences, even recording one on a loose folium and inserting it between the pages of her diary.[6] She also managed to get her hands on a manuscript copy of The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont that was circulating among some Hampshire nonconformists in 1730.[7]  She was also directly involved in the management of Grandfathers and the adjacent farms owned by the Steeles, being familiar with all the overseers, labourers, and house servants.

Her entry for 17 September 1749, however, demonstrates the primary purpose of her diary. ‘My head is rather wors yet I would rely on God,’ she begins.


[W]e had a sermon read by Mr Etheridge on I John 5:3.  I heard pretty well & now the commands of God are not greivous for I find it the greatest pleasure to obey God, heard Mr Steele[8] the last on John 5 29 he was on the last head viz a life of Grace perfected in Glory in the State of Endless happyness above & this is an esential part of the life that those shall live whom Christ does raise to life by his allmighty voice, my mind was very different whilst hearing this sweet entertaining discours sometimes believing & longing to be gon hence to this life of open vission to behold God in the full displays of his Glory the blessed mediator & redeemer in the heith of his exaltation & the fullness of his Glory &c[....]  [9] 

Her diary entries for Sundays record the names and locations of the preachers she hears, the texts of their sermons, and some pertinent comments and applications to her spiritual life, a task she maintains faithfully for nearly every week of her life after 1723, establishing a paradigm she repeats hundreds of times in her diary and that is imitated repeatedly by the women in these volumes. These Sunday reflections are saturated in Calvinism and its emphasis upon total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the need for perseverance in faith, with each diarist earnestly employing the means of grace (scripture reading, prayer, church attendance, and communion) in an effort to uncover the presence of grace in her life, the hallmark of an ‘experiential’ faith evidenced by proper religious affections. What the diarist ultimately seeks is assurance of faith, a commodity often in great demand among eighteenth-century Calvinists but not always readily attained, as some of the diaries reveal. Recording the texts of a Sunday sermon (morning, afternoon, or evening) and critiquing the sermon (and the preacher) were preparatory to applying the text and sermon directly to the diarist’s own spiritual life. It is this final phase– the personal introspection generated by the sermon and the committed application of the sermon to the writer’s life – that is the hallmark of all the diaries in this volume. 

In 1758 Anne Cator Steele began to complain of numbness, dizziness, loss of memory, and shortness of breath.  She lived to see Theodosia’s Poems arrive at Grandfathers in late November 1759, an achievement that more than vindicated her premonition in 1733 that God might have ‘design’d some work for this his young servant’, Anne Steele.[10] Mrs Steele died on 28 June 1760, aged 71. Her life had been marked by a vibrant faith ever since she and her sister Jane gave their ‘experiences’ before the Baptist church at Trowbridge in 1706. Her early poem, ‘Retire my Soul, exert thy pow’rs’, incorporates, much like the poem ‘Huswifery’ by the New England Puritan poet Edward Taylor (1642-1729), into a few lines the essence of her Calvinist faith. Steele grants God complete sovereignty in election, with the suppliant poet totally unable, as Calvin would put it, to effect his or her salvation. ‘Great God of Nature and of Grace’, she writes, salvation ‘is thy work alone’. Only Christ, the ‘sun of righteousness’, can drive the ‘shades’ and ‘dispel’ the ‘clouds’ of sin away. Only He can ‘soften’ and eventually ‘dissolve’ the ‘heart of stone’. Human effort is to no avail. Her prose meditation, ‘Draw me we will run after Thee’, continues this theme, presented now as the essence of experiential faith. As one born in total depravity and subjected by her sinful nature to experience ‘alienation from God’, she has now, through no merit of her own, experienced the ‘amazing loving kindness [of God] thus to draw unworthy me’, enabling her to say with a thankful heart, ‘my Salvation is all of grace’. Having conflated into a few lines of poetry the first four tenets of what would become known as the ‘TULIP’ – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace – she now adds the final ingredient, the perseverance of the saint. ‘What longings do I find’, she writes, ‘for perseverance & assurance of the love of God, & my everlasting salvation’. If her ‘evidences’ are correct, her assurance is sealed, but if God hides his face, then she becomes troubled, for ‘Indiferancy takest me’, she explains, ‘& doubts & fears prevail & my dutys appear to be nothing but vain oblations’. Fortunately for Steele, God’s patience is far greater than her perseverance, provoking Him to chide, ‘where O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt’.[11] 

Anne Cator Steele’s brief meditation encapsulates the kind of Calvinist teaching that would become a hallmark of the Particular Baptist churches in the West Country throughout the eighteenth century, a theology that pervades her poetry, letters, meditations, and diary. In the hands of some High Calvinist teachers and preachers, this theology became an oppressive weight and hindrance to evangelical experience. In the life and writings of Anne Cator Steele, however, it is a liberating force, enabling her to know in an experiential way the power of  ‘faith, & love, & zeal, & purity of heart & life’.[12] It was this kind of faith, made visible not only through her life but also, and more importantly, on the pages of her diary, that she passed on to Anne Steele, and through her, to a group of young ladies all of whom would become writers in their own right, including Mary Wakeford, Mary Steele, Mary Scott, Jane and Marianna Attwater, and Elizabeth Coltman (1761-1838). Jane Attwater would continue Anne Cator Steele’s tradition of diary-keeping and her Calvinist faith, and through her relations, the Whitakers of Bratton, she will pass it on to a circle of women writers that will eventually include Maria Grace Saffery, Anne Whitaker, Jane Saffery Whitaker, and Sophia Williams, linking the Steele and Saffery circles across two centuries of nonconformist life in the West Country. 



[1]For more on Anne Froude Steele, see her correspondence in STE 1/2; also Broome, A Bruised Reed, 51-8.

[2]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.36. 

[3]Broome, Bruised Reed, 67-8.

[4]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.62. 

[5]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.63.  

[6]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.30-33.  

[7]Beaumont's narrative did not appear in print until 1760, when a portion appeared in An Abstract of the Gracious Dealings of God by Samuel James, Baptist minister at Hitchin.  

[8]After the death of Henry Steele in 1739, William Steele III became the minister of the Baptist congregation at Broughton.

[9]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.72. 

[10]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.62.

[11]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.23.

[12]Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, 8.27.

                                         This biographical notice prepared by Dr. Timothy Whelan, Georgia Southern University