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Lee, Charles Alfred (1842–1926)

by A. R. Buck

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

Charles Alfred Lee (1842-1926), storekeeper and politician, was born on 13 November 1842 at Parramatta, New South Wales, sixth surviving son of Benjamin Lee and his wife Lucy Ann, née Poulton; his elder brother was Benjamin. Educated at West Maitland Grammar School, Charles entered a Maitland store, rising to the position of partner in his early twenties. On 18 July 1865 at Penrith he married Clara Jane Tindale.

A successful merchant, Lee moved to Tenterfield in 1869 for its bracing climate and purchased the Maryland Store. He served as an alderman on the first Tenterfield Municipal Council in 1872-76 and was mayor in 1875-76. Appointed a justice of the peace in 1875, Lee held many local offices such as president of the Tenterfield Prince Albert Memorial Hospital board and of the School of Arts, and coroner in 1873-76. As chairman of the Tenterfield Railway League in the 1880s, he corresponded with Sir Henry Parkes and, retiring from his business, succeeded Parkes to the Legislative Assembly seat of Tenterfield in 1884.

A staunch and consistent free trader, Lee was sympathetic to the rural interest and the small selector, and joined the Farmers and Settlers' Association. He captured public attention on 7 December 1893 when he carried an adjournment motion which censured the attorney-general (Sir) Edmund Barton and the minister of justice Richard O'Connor for accepting private legal briefs to act against the State Railway Department. They immediately resigned and parliament was prorogued. Lee was minister of justice from 27 August 1898 to 3 July 1899, when he became secretary for public works until Reid's free-trade ministry fell on 13 September. Seen as 'remarkably humanitarian', Lee introduced prison libraries, lights in prison cells and nightdresses for female prisoners. He sat on the royal commission on city railway extension in 1897 and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1889-92 and 1894-99.

In April 1901 Lee was elected as a compromise leader of the newly formed Liberal Party of New South Wales after the controversial withdrawal of the favoured candidate (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. Lee inherited a divided party, unprepared for the elections ten weeks later. Respected by those around him, he was, however, hampered by his 'quiet, unostentatious manner' as leader of the Opposition and the Liberals were defeated soundly on 3 July. A 'staunch and reliable party man' but 'no fighter' in Opposition, Lee held the party together for the return of Carruthers, then resigned as leader because of ill health on 17 September 1902.

From 30 August 1904 to 20 October 1910 Lee was secretary for public works in the Liberal-Reform governments of Carruthers and (Sir) Charles Wade. With a tremendous capacity for work and a heartfelt commitment to rural development, he instigated and presided over an extensive public works programme. In January 1905 he chaired the Water Conservation and Irrigation Conference which initiated the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme, involving the building of Burrinjuck dam and the creation of the town of Leeton, to which he gave his name. The many public works with which he was associated included the Cataract dam for the Sydney water supply, negotiation of the sale of W. Sandford's iron and steel works at Lithgow to Charles Hoskins, and the expansion of the State rail network.

Lee would brook no dissension in his department, as was revealed by his removal of Thomas Keele (by having him appointed to the Sydney Harbour Trust) as chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage in March 1908 for public criticism of government policy; Lee was intractable throughout the heated controversy that followed. He was a consistent opponent of female enfranchisement because, he argued, women as a class were not taxpayers; it was, ironically, held to be the female vote that saved him from electoral defeat in 1907 and 1910. During his later years in parliament he remained a champion of the small man on the land and a stern critic of centralism. When he stood down in February 1920 he had represented his constituents for thirty-six years.

Suffering from chronic nephritis, Lee lived in quiet retirement at Claremont, Tenterfield, till his death on 16 August 1926. He was buried with Anglican rites in the Tenterfield cemetery. Three daughters and two sons survived him; two of his sons were killed in World War I. His estate was valued for probate at £14,042. The Daily Telegraph had acknowledged as early as 1894 that Lee's 'parliamentary career has been marked by a sterling integrity to principle'. He was not to betray that integrity for the rest of his political life: few politicians could have claimed so much.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Wharton (ed), The Jubilee History of Parramatta (Parramatta, 1911)
  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales (Syd, 1890)
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 June 1887, 7 Aug 1907
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Jan 1891, 17 Apr, 22 June, 2 July 1901, 17, 18 Sept 1902, 18 Aug 1926
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 July 1894
  • Tenterfield Star, 19 Aug 1926
  • Australian Worker, 25 Aug 1926
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 26 Aug 1926
  • J. H. Carruthers autobiography (typescript, State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. R. Buck, 'Lee, Charles Alfred (1842–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-charles-alfred-7145/text12333, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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

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