Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lee, Benjamin (1825–1917)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Benjamin Lee (1825-1917), shipowner, politician and civil servant, was born on 5 November 1825 at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, England, eldest son of Benjamin Lee and his wife Lucy Ann, née Poulton. His father had enlisted in 1804 in the 14th Regiment, served in the Peninsular war and in 1828 retired with a pension of 1s. a day. Indentured to T. P. Macqueen, he sailed as a bounty immigrant with his family in the Mary and arrived at Sydney in January 1829. He managed Segenhoe for a year and then moved to Parramatta where he bought town allotments. He was the licensee of several hotels and acquired land on the Paterson River. Aged 91 he died at Parramatta on 13 April 1879, leaving goods valued at £8000.

Lee was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and in the early 1840s managed his father's farms. He went to England in 1854 and on his return married Sarah Amelia Stephens at Melbourne on 21 July 1856. Next year he moved to Maitland and with his brother John set up as general drapers. In 1861 Lee was chairman of the Hunter River New Steam Navigation Co. and gave evidence to the Legislative Assembly select committee on the Morpeth and Maitland Railway Co.'s incorporation bill. A magistrate from July he was excluded from James Martin's revised commission of the peace in 1864 but restored in July 1865. In the 1860s he held three runs in New South Wales and, with his father, two in Queensland.

In December 1864 Lee contested the Legislative Assembly seat of West Maitland as a free trader in an unusually violent campaign. The three candidates had almost identical policies but published abusive personal squibs. Lee denied such charges as seeking the local police magistracy, employing only Protestants and reducing wages on the company's wharf. He dispensed free grog and won by 116 votes after a riotous week. On 26 February 1868 in the assembly Lee, tormented by Allan Macpherson, punched his nose. It was the first blow in the House and government members cheered. Escorted outside by the serjeant-at-arms Lee was horse-whipped by Macpherson and a brawl ensued. After long debate the House resolved that both should be prosecuted. In May Lee pleaded guilty in the Central Court to assault 'in contempt of the said Assembly', but Macpherson entered a demurrer that he was not bound to answer the charge and Lee was not sentenced.

Lee, normally even-tempered and moderate, was re-elected for West Maitland in 1869 and 1872. A successful 'roads and bridges' member, he helped to organize Henry Parkes's Hunter River campaign in 1872 and invited him to stay if he did 'not mind the necessary annoyance of a house full of children'. Lee complained that the Morpeth election had been 'sadly bungled'. 'An uncompromising opponent' of Martin's second ministry he was rewarded by Parkes for his loyal support: after a long struggle Lee got a court-house for West Maitland and in October 1872 was appointed a commissioner to collect exhibits for the 1873 London International Exhibition. In 1874 he lost the chairmanship of the navigation company through financial difficulties and resigned his seat. Parkes had him appointed police magistrate at Bathurst with a salary of £500. The Bathurst Times criticized such blatant political patronage but on 25 August Lee was given a silver tea and coffee service by his grateful electors.

Lee became visiting justice to Bathurst gaol, local mining warden in 1875, coroner in 1881 and later a guardian of minors. On 30 June 1889 he was transferred to the Water Police Office in Sydney and on 1 April 1890 became stipendiary magistrate with a salary of £800. On 14 March 1893 he retired with a pension of £247. In 1906 the Lees celebrated their golden wedding. He died from senility at his home in Johnston Street, Annandale, on 15 July 1917 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Gore Hill cemetery. Survived by his only son and eight daughters, he left an estate valued for probate at £5000.

Select Bibliography

  • New South Wales Supreme Court Reports, Cases at Law, 230, 7 (1869)
  • R. H. Parsons, The Fleets of the Principal Steamship Owners Registering Vessels at Sydney … Prior to 1900 (Adel, 1959)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861, 2, 525, 1867-68, 1, 576, 579
  • Maitland Mercury, 8-17 Dec 1864, 16, 18 Dec 1869, 5 Mar 1872, 21-30 July, 6, 25, 27 Aug 1874
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 28 Feb, 2, 4 Mar, 12, 14 May, 9 June 1868
  • Sydney Mail, 19 Apr 1879
  • Town and Country Journal, 1 Aug 1906
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Nov 1915
  • Henry Parkes letters and manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Paterson River small settlers, 2/8014 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's land letters, 2/7905 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Lee, Benjamin (1825–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-benjamin-4005/text6341, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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