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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lees, Samuel Edward (1843–1916)

by Alan Roberts

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Samuel Edward Lees (1843-1916), printer and politician, was born on 8 July 1843 in Sydney, second of seven children of Samuel Lees, painter and glazier, and his wife Caroline, née Whitehead. Samuel attended the William Street National School and then was apprenticed to a printer. By 1866 he was partner in the printing firm of Lees & Ross, Castlereagh Street, and within two years had his own business, the Metropolitan Printing Office. He advertised as 'printer, publisher, machine-ruler, book-binder and rubber stamp maker'. In 1908 he took C. P. Mortlock into partnership; the firm of Samuel E. Lees Ltd continued after his death. On 30 September 1871 he had married Sarah Amy Davies at the York Street Wesleyan Church.

A Freemason, Lees held important positions in the Loyal Orange Institution of New South Wales in the 1870s and was foreman of the grand committee of the Grand Lodge in 1876. He was president of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society of Australasia in the 1880s, and a director of the Protestant Hall Co. Ltd and of several land and building companies.

By 1871 Lees was also involved in the Protestant Political Association of New South Wales formed in the wake of the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh to promote the election of Protestants to parliament and municipal councils. In 1879-1909 he represented Macquarie Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council, serving on every committee, and represented the council on the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board from 1886. In the midst of financial stringency he was elected mayor in 1895 and initiated substantial economies in council's budget. He declined requests to stand again in 1896 in order to make a world tour. In 1904 he was lord mayor; his administration was noted for 'prudence, economy and sound judgement'.

Twice defeated for East Sydney in the 1880s, Lees was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Nepean in 1887. Although a prominent free trader, he was defeated in 1895, but was nominated to the Legislative Council. He resigned in 1898 and regained the Nepean but was defeated in 1901. He contributed only briefly to debates, often on municipal matters. His judgements were moderate, and he showed sympathy to the emergent Labor Party. He was interested in the overall progress and development of the colony, especially the pastoral and agricultural industries. In 1907-16 he was a vice-president of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales.

Raised in the Wesleyan Methodist church, Lees was a prominent layman. After teaching and working in the York Street Church and Sunday school, for nearly forty years he was a member and office-bearer in the William Street Church. He was honorary treasurer of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. Lees was interested in charity and moral reform. In 1879 he was provisional secretary of the Sydney Coffee Palace which had a temperance purpose. He was a director of Sydney Hospital in 1882-1916 (vice-president in 1915) and from 1895 foundation chairman of the Nepean Cottage Hospital at Penrith.

Lees died on 14 June 1916 at his Potts Point home, and was buried in Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife, son and four daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £9973.

With a walrus moustache and hair parted in the middle, Lees had a dignified bearing. He was a worthy citizen, prepared to sit for years on committees whether they gave him prestige or not. Though he occasionally rose to high positions he did not have a dominating personality. What prominence he achieved in public life was due more to sturdiness and perseverance than to any brilliance. A posthumous oil portrait by Bruce Sharp hangs in the Sydney Town Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Protestant Standard, 27 May 1871
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 Mar 1887, 14 Sept 1895, 16 Dec 1903
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 July 1894
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Dec 1903, 15 June 1916
  • Methodist, 24 June 1916
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972)
  • proceedings of committee and council meetings, 1895, 1904 (Sydney Municipal (City) Council)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Roberts, 'Lees, Samuel Edward (1843–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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