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Lee, Alfred (1858–1923)

by K. A. Johnson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Alfred Lee (1858-1923), businessman and book collector, was born on 8 June 1858 near Dublin, eldest surviving son of Frederick Norman Lee, army officer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Finlay. His father, who had served in the Crimean War with the 19th Regiment, received a land grant in New Zealand and in 1867 took his wife and three children there. Alfred attended Christchurch and Auckland Grammar schools and in 1874 was sent to Sydney with £10.

Soon after his arrival he was employed as a commercial traveller by Enoch Taylor & Co., boot and shoe importers; he became manager for Australia in 1884 and was senior partner in 1888-1923. He travelled widely on the firm's behalf. At St Clement's Anglican Church, Yass, he married Minnie Dodds (1860-1938) on 10 March 1879. They lived first at The Willows, Yass, then at North Sydney. Early in 1886 they bought Glen Roona, Old South Head Road (later Penkivil Street), Bondi, where they lived out their lives.

In his early thirties Lee began collecting Australiana, influenced by his friend Frank Bladen, editor of Historical Records of New South Wales. His collection attracted the attention of another close friend David Scott Mitchell, especially when his London agents beat Mitchell to some prize such as the handwritten journal of Sir Joseph Banks, acquired by Lee in 1888. Mrs Lee and Mitchell's confidante Rose Scott were also friends. Mitchell urged Lee to give his library of over 10,000 volumes to the nation at the same time as Mitchell himself. Lee, married with five children, felt unable to do this but agreed in December 1906 to sell his collection to Mitchell, who gladly paid him £5700—cost price plus 2½ per cent (according to Lee's descendants). He handed over 'every volume, pamphlet, leaflet, print, portrait, drawing and medallion bearing on Australasia that I was possessed of'. Unlike Mitchell, the Lees had made their collection available to such scholars as Professor E. E. Morris of Melbourne and Professor Hocken from New Zealand, and missed such visitors.

In 1901 Lee, with Bladen and Mitchell, had been a founder and in 1901-04 a vice-president of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society; Mrs Lee was its first female member. He was also a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1906. As a young man he had played Rugby football for the Waratah Club in 1877 and from 1883 was a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground; he was an 'ardent' cyclist and later a horticulturist.

Widely read, Minnie Lee was a member of the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales. During (and after) World War I she was a hard-working member of the executive of the Australian Red Cross Society and was honorary director of the Lady Mayoress's Red Cross Sewing Guild which had some 2000 workers. She was also active in Sydney in the Citizens' Association and the National Council of Women. A warm and gracious hostess in her own home and as honorary secretary of the Victoria League's hospitality committee, she welcomed overseas visitors, who appreciated her kindness.

Lee died at Bondi on 2 August 1923 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at over £61,000. He was survived by his wife, son and three of his four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1919, 27 Apr 1929, 29, 30 Sept 1938
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 Aug 1923
  • N. S. G. Butler, A Collection of Australian Historical Books Amidst Other Achievements (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

K. A. Johnson, 'Lee, Alfred (1858–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-alfred-7143/text12329, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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