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John Robert (Jack) Lee (1885–1957)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

John Robert Lee (1885-1957), by Sam Hood

John Robert Lee (1885-1957), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 7173

John Robert (Jack) Lee (1885-1957), engineer and politician, was born on 19 October 1885 at Hedleyhope, Lanchester, Durham, England, son of James Lee, coalminer, and his wife Jessie, née Watson. Educated at Leadgate, Jack trained as a plumber and worked for the Weardale and Consett Water Co., Durham. In 1910-11 he studied for the Methodist ministry at Cliff College, Sheffield, and probably migrated to New South Wales late in 1912. He served as a probationary Methodist minister at Yanco and Gilgandra from 1913 to 1914 when he abandoned his vocation and took up wheat-farming.

A member of the Gilgandra Rifle Club, Lee enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at Gilgandra on 9 October 1915 and was prominently associated with the 'Coo-ee', 'Wallabies' and 'North Coaster' recruiting marches. After training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, he was commissioned on 25 July 1916. He embarked on 31 October and served with the 21st Battalion in France. Promoted lieutenant on 17 May 1917 he was injured on 14 November and returned to Australia in May next year. He worked in a recruiting depot until demobilized in September, but remained on the reserve of officers.

Lee set up as a waterworks and sanitary engineer in Sydney and on 28 February 1920 at St Andrew's Cathedral married Gladys Irene Dickinson; they were childless. Defeated as a Nationalist for the Federal seat of Hunter in 1919, he was elected next year to the Legislative Assembly for Botany which he represented until 1927 when he won Drummoyne. He was lively as Nationalist whip in 1922-27 and served as chairman of the select committee on the administration of the Housing Board in 1923-24.

From October 1927 to November 1930 Lee was minister of justice in (Sir) Thomas Bavin's government. He investigated the perennial problem of those gaoled for failure to pay maintenance and devised a scheme to employ them at the basic wage, building roads. However in February 1929 the plan caused a storm of protest from the Kuring-gai Chase Trust and the unions—Jack Bailey, president of the Australian Workers' Union, described it as 'a return to the convict system'. Lee doggedly continued with his scheme. He was also criticized for the early release of prisoners.

Defeated at the general election in November 1930, Lee regained Drummoyne in 1932 and held the seat until 1941. He was a State council-member of the National and United Australia parties in 1931-33 and 1934-37. Disgruntled at his exclusion from (Sir) Bertram Stevens's ministries, he joined other malcontents in the U.A.P. in constantly needling the government, and vigorously attacked (Sir) Michael Bruxner's metropolitan transport policy and the unpopular Gaming and Betting Act amendment bill. On 27 July 1939 Lee crossed the floor and voted for a Labor censure motion which Stevens narrowly survived. On 3 August Stevens was defeated when Lee and nine others voted for E. Spooner's motion recommending a new financial policy.

Later that year Lee chaired the select committee on the conduct and administration of trotting in New South Wales. Called up in July 1940, he assisted with recruiting and in 1941-43 served as a staff captain with the Citizen Military Forces.

Handsome, with regular features and wide-set eyes, Lee was a member of the Commercial Travellers' Club, and enjoyed golf, bowls and gardening. He was an alderman on Drummoyne Municipal Council in 1934-37 and mayor in 1936, a director of John Thompson & Co. Pty Ltd and Ferrier & Dickinson Ltd, and a member of the New South Wales Protestant Federation. In retirement he was 'a frequent visitor to the House, particularly during the luncheon adjournment'. Late in life he moved to Gordon. He died at Pymble on 2 November 1957 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 5 Nov 1957, p 1513
  • Methodist Church of Australia, Minutes, 1913, 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Mar 1922, 27 May 1925, 27 Mar, 19 Oct, 22 Nov 1928, 15 Jan, 18 Feb 1929, 20, 21, 27 Feb, 17, 30 Mar, 7 May, 8 July 1930, 13 June 1932, 26 Aug 1938, 30 Mar, 28 July, 4 Aug 1939, 4 Apr, 2 July 1940, 7 July, 13 Aug 1943
  • Mudgee Guardian, 6 Sept 1934.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Lee, John Robert (Jack) (1885–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 July 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

John Robert Lee (1885-1957), by Sam Hood

John Robert Lee (1885-1957), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 7173

Life Summary [details]


19 October, 1885
Hedleyhope, Lanchester, Durham, England


2 November, 1957 (aged 72)
Pymble, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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