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John Henry Alexander Lee (1853–1927)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

John Henry Alexander Lee (1853-1927), sailor, surveyor and military engineer, was born on 13 May 1853 in Calcutta, India, son of David Henry Lee, merchant and tea-planter, and his wife Clara, née Moubray. He was a grandson of the celebrated polymath Dr John Lee, principal of the University of Edinburgh. He left school in Britain at 14 to train for the merchant service. After three years in H.M.S. Worcester, at the end of which he gained a first class extra certificate, he joined the firm of Devitt & Moore whose fleet plied between Britain and the Australian colonies. He served seven years with this line, passing the examination for ship's mate.

In 1877 Lee gave up the sea, settled in New South Wales, and found work as a surveyor in country districts. In 1879 he joined the Surveyor-General's Department as a draughtsman in the Sydney office. On 15 September 1880, at St Paul's Church, Melbourne, he married Anna Maria Anderson, a 23-year-old Scotswoman who had only recently arrived in the colony after having been shipwrecked; they had two daughters.

In 1883 Lee was commissioned as a lieutenant to command the newly raised New South Wales Naval Artillery Volunteers. Five years later he was given the task of choosing men for the army's proposed submarine mining unit, and was himself appointed to command it, as a captain. In 1891 he was sent to England for training with the Royal Engineers. He returned with satisfactory certificates from the electrical and the submarine mining courses as well as from that on the Brennan torpedo which was widely used in coastal defence. In January 1894 he was promoted major, his command being No.3 (Submarine Mining) Company of the New South Wales Engineers.

On the outbreak of war in South Africa in 1899 Lee applied to join a contingent from Australia but could not be spared from submarine mining duties. In January 1902 he was allowed to join the 1st Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, as second-in-command. The regiment reached South Africa too late to take part in the major campaigns, but was used in May to clear scattered Boer units. There was little fighting. For a period Lee acted as brigade major to the column commander. Early in June he was promoted lieutenant-colonel to command the 1st Battalion, but hostilities were at an end and the unit was disbanded. He reverted to major and returned to his former unit in Sydney, by this time a company of the Australian Engineers.

In April 1903 Lee was promoted lieutenant-colonel and assumed command of the Corps of Australian Engineers in New South Wales. His command included two field companies, a submarine mining company and an electric company. He served on the defence committee of the 2nd Military District, and in 1906 was member of a committee to consider all Australian coastal defences. That year he was seconded in his corps and appointed to command the 4th Military District, with headquarters in Adelaide. His term was twice extended until October 1911 when he was placed on the retired list with an honorary colonelcy.

Lee was appointed inspector of rifle ranges for the Commonwealth. When war broke out in August 1914 he was made transport officer in Sydney, handling the embarkation of units of the Australian Imperial Force. He filled this appointment until the end of July 1918. Lee died at the home of one of his daughters, in Auckland, New Zealand, on 18 December 1927. He was buried in Weikumete cemetery with Anglican rites. His record shows that he was competent and versatile. It was his misfortune that he had so few chances of active service.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • R. McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers, 1835 to 1902 (Canb, 1977)
  • Royal Commision into the Military Service of New South Wales, Report, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1892-93, 7, p 881
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1927.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Lee, John Henry Alexander (1853–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 May, 1853
Kolkata, West Bengal, India


18 December, 1927 (aged 74)
Auckland, New Zealand

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