This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Jean Lee (1919-1951), murderer, was born on 10 December 1919 at Dubbo, New South Wales, fifth and youngest child of Australian-born parents Charles Wright, railway ganger, and his wife Florence, née Peacock. Her names were registered as Marjorie Jean Maude. After the family moved to Sydney in 1927, she was educated at Chatswood Public School, at a convent in North Sydney and at Willoughby Central Domestic High School (1932-33). She did not sit her Intermediate certificate examinations.
Jean Wright turned her hand to a number of jobs, working as a milliner, waitress, stenographer and as a labourer in a canned-goods factory. Aged 18, on 19 March 1938 at the Methodist Church, South Chatswood, she married Raymond Thomas Brees, a 25-year-old house-painter; their daughter was born in April 1939. From the beginning the marriage was strained by financial difficulties; Brees was regularly out of work and drinking heavily. The couple separated and were divorced in April 1949.
As a single mother, Jean Brees found it difficult to make ends meet. Increasingly she became caught in a cycle of poverty, petty crime and prostitution in Sydney and Brisbane, using numerous aliases, among them 'Jean Lee'. In 1943 she had begun an association with Morris Dias, a criminal who managed her earnings from prostitution. Three years later she met Robert David Clayton, a 'con man' and gambler with whom she formed an enduring, if violent, relationship. Between May 1945 and July 1948 she appeared twenty-three times at Sydney's Central Police Court, mostly on charges of offensive behaviour.
In October 1949 Lee travelled to Melbourne with Clayton, who had just been released from gaol. There they teamed up with another criminal, Norman Andrews. The three committed minor offences which brought them into further conflict with the law. On 7 November a 73-year-old, part-time bookmaker William ('Pop') Kent was found murdered in the front room of his house in Dorrit Street, Carlton. The police alleged that Clayton, Andrews and Lee had accompanied Kent to his home, bashed him, tortured him to find where he had hidden his money, and finally strangled him. Angry and bitter about the charge, Lee pleaded innocence and insisted she was an onlooker rather than an active participant in the crime.
On 25 March 1950, after a long and dramatic trial in the Supreme Court, the three were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. The media and a majority of people were in favour of the sentence being carried out, but, spearheaded by the Labor Women's Organising Committee and groups opposed to capital punishment, some public sympathy emerged for Lee. No woman had been hanged in Victoria for fifty-six years. Telegrams of protest were sent to the McDonald government, but a subsequent legal appeal failed to reverse the decision. At 8 a.m. on 19 February 1951 Jean Lee was carried to the scaffold and hanged at Pentridge prison, Coburg, while protesters and the press gathered outside. Clayton and Andrews were hanged two hours later. Survived by her daughter, Lee was buried within the prison walls. She was the last woman to suffer the death penalty in Australia.
Joy Damousi, 'Lee, Jean (1919–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-jean-10804/text19161, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 October 2014.
This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000