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Betsy (Bessie) Lee (1860–1950)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Betsy (Bessie) Lee (1860-1950), temperance evangelist, was born on 10 June 1860 at Daylesford, Victoria, daughter of Henry Vickery, butcher and miner, and his wife Emma Susan, née Dungey. Her mother died of consumption in 1868 and her father was unable to keep his five children together. Bessie was sent to Melbourne relations who mistreated her during their bouts of drunkenness. In 1869 she went to Enoch's Point and the care of another uncle and his wife of stern principles and no sympathy for the young.

The lonely child had little formal schooling, but she read voraciously, began to write verse and also experienced religious conversion before her teens. A miner, Robert Lee, introduced her at 17 to his younger brother Harrison (Harry), whom she married on 14 March 1880 at St Peter's Church of England, Melbourne. The Lees lived mainly in a depressed area of Richmond. For most of his life Harrison Lee was a shift worker with the railways, which left the young and childless Bessie with time on her hands and a propensity to dwell on her constant ill health.

The marriage was not a success. Lee did not approve of his wife's ecstatic social conscience. She began Sunday school classes and sick visiting. She toured slums, refuges and gaols with Dr John Singleton. She went to hear the evangelist, Mrs Hampson, about 1883 and soon afterwards launched on her own career of public speaking. In 1884 the American temperance lecturers, Booth and Glover of the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Army, won her into the active prohibition camp. She helped to pioneer the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Victoria in 1887 but fell into disfavour because of her uncomfortable belief in the sinfulness of all sexual intercourse that had no procreative intention. Leaving the executive of the W.C.T.U. she accepted the sponsorship of the powerful Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic in 1890-96, and fought district local option battles over whether numbers of hotels should be reduced, maintained or increased. Besides incessant travelling, speech-making and pledge-taking, she wrote copiously for daily newspapers and the temperance press. She acknowledged heavenly direction as a speaker and was admired for her fluency and sincerity; she reacted well under pressure and attracted a following, mainly of women, who slaved for her. With no income of her own, she was dependent on the generosity of temperance supporters.

1896 saw the first of her countless trips abroad, principally to Britain, New Zealand and the United States of America. Harrison Lee died on 17 January 1908. When this news reached Andrew Cowie, a well-to-do farmer of Winton, New Zealand, he wrote offering marriage. A widower with a large grown-up family, Cowie had been attracted by Mrs Lee's effective campaigning. He agreed to her terms and, after a brief resistance, Bessie gave in and they were married at Winton on 17 November 1908. Auckland became Mrs Lee Cowie's headquarters between globe-trotting expeditions. Andrew Cowie died on 10 December 1928 aged 82, and Bessie entered the final phase of her career. In New Zealand, where she was a foundation member of the United Labour Party, she had resumed office in the W.C.T.U. and was appointed a world missionary. She spent some years in Hawaii before settling at Pasadena, California. In 1947 her last campaign brought her national headlines in America. She died at Pasadena on 18 April 1950. Her written works include Marriage and Heredity (Melbourne, 1893), One of Australia's Daughters: an Autobiography (London, 1906) and One of God's Lamplighters: Incidents in my Life Work (London, 1909).

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cocker and J. M. Murray (eds), Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand (Lond, 1930)
  • Alliance Record, 1 Feb 1902
  • Pasadena Star News, 19, 20 Apr 1950
  • New Zealand Herald, 24 Apr 1950
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later Nineteenth Century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Lee, Betsy (Bessie) (1860–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 November 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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