Robert James Lees
Robert James Lees - his birth and family
Lees was born into an
environment of poverty. Until the middle of the 19th Century, Hinckley
had been a thriving centre for the stocking frame industry. Many
Leicestershire towns and villages produced textiles, and in Hinckley the
chief business was the production of coarse stockings. Hosiery is still
produced in the town today, with several manufacturers continuing to
supply the chain store trade though on a reduced scale.
Census returns indicate that in 1841 the population of Hinckley was just over 6000 living in 1287 inhabited houses, and some 1500 knitting frames in operation. Gas-lighting had arrived, and a steam corn-mill, built in 1846 at a cost of £10,000, had been converted and had just re-opened as the Midland Sewing Mill, marking the transition of textile manufacture from a cottage to a factory environment.
However, as the century progressed, the hosiery industry fell into a period of serious depression. The decline in Hinckley’s economic viability was precipitated largely by Sir Robert Peel’s free-trade policy. This had the effect of allowing unrestricted low-priced imports to cause serious damage to the home industries. Consequently, the poor rates, which supported those not in work, rose to such an extent that wealthy people were discouraged from moving into the area. Hinckley in the ‘hungry forties’ lacked adequate poor relief, suffered from high unemployment, and did not have a proper water supply or sewerage system.
Richard Muggeridge, in a Commission Report drawn up in1845 noted very low wages and the urgent need to modernise the town’s staple industries. In half the houses in Hinckley visited by the 1845 Commission’s authors, it was found that all the children of the large families that occupied these tenements shared the one children’s bed, and this was generally found on the floor without a bedstead. One schoolmaster reported that he had given up keeping a daily register of children because of the ever-changing attendance figures. Young children were sent out to find employment, rather than attending school, or their families were frequently on the move from town to town in search of work.
Thomas Cotterell, the Medical Officer of Health for the Hinckley Poor Law Union reported at the time that the poor state of housing in the town was a cause of illness and premature death:
“The housing is very badly ventilated and the cesspools in the neighbourhood have the windows overlooking them frequently. Their food is decidely insufficient and I should say their clothing too, all of which tends to predispose them towards disease.”
An independent minister in Hinckley, the Revd William Salt, gave an even more emotional description of the families who came to his services:
"I have never seen a tithe of the distress I have seen here … I have a decided conviction that there is not a town in England worse off than this.."
Alcohol was then, as in every era, a means by which people could escape from the stresses of life. Later, in The Heretic, Lees’ only autobiographical novel, he referred briefly to the effect that drink had on his upbringing and his family’s meagre income:
"To the curse of drink (he) owed a heritage of misfortune which compelled him at the immature age of six – when he was just beginning to play with the alphabet – to turn his back on school, and bring his mite of eighteen pence a week for calling ‘shop’ as a needed contribution to his mother’s slender purse."
Lees’ father was a colourful, dynamic yet tragic figure. William Lingham Lees was a true ‘jack of all trades’, turning his hand to numerous means of earning a living as opportunities arose. It was probably a similar story for the heads of many other families in the area. He had been born in Hinckley in 1818, the son of Robert Lees and Mary Lingham, who had married in the previous year. He had been christened at St Mary’s Parish Church in the town, and named after his maternal grandfather. William served an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner, but in the 1851 census, and in White’s Directory of Leicestershire (1846), he is described as ‘a grocer and tea dealer’. In a later trade directory for 1855 he is further described as ‘a baker of Bond Street’.
He married Elizabeth Patch at Hinckley Parish Church on 28 January 1840. She had been born in 1819 in Willey, a small hamlet in Warwickshire, just south of its border with Leicestershire which is formed by the route of Watling Street, not far from where it crosses that other important Roman route, the Fosse Way.
In 1839, William started up as a grocer in Upper Bond Street in Hinckley, possibly with the help of his father-in law, Joseph Patch. Joseph had earlier purchased or leased some property in Bond Street in Hinckley, and a further building in Lower Bond Street, from where he too was trading as a grocer. He later – in 1848 – moved to the nearby New Buildings, where he traded as a baker and flour dealer. There seems to have been a close business partnership between William and his father-in-law, at least for some years. In 1849 some property, which had been purchased by William two years earlier, was transferred to Joseph.
Various property dealings between 1849 and 1855 indicates that Joseph Patch had accrued a substantial amount of property in Hinckley. His total holdings amounted to the Queen’s Head public house, the baker’s shop with the adjoining bakery, and eleven cottages behind the Bond Street premises. By 1854, William was running the Queen’s Head on behalf of his father-in-law, and in 1860, documents indicate that he was running another of Joseph’s shops, in Hinckley’s Market Place. According to one of his descendants, Michael Hutchinson, who has studied the family’s business enterprises in detail, the various legal documents that remain from this period would suggest that William was a man, not too careful with money and prone to spend even that which was not his by right.
William and Elizabeth registered their son’s birth in Hinckley on 30 August 1849. At that time, he was the third child in the family, a brother for Elizabeth aged seven, and William aged five. A servant and errand boy, Philip Powell, aged twelve years, also lived in the family home. According to his eldest daughter Eva, Robert was the last to survive of eight children, and at least one child had died in infancy before Robert was born.
Lees believed that his psychic abilities were with him from the moment of his birth. He wrote very little about his childhood experiences, but in the preface to The Life Elysian he describes how, even as a very small child, he was aware of ‘visitors’ from another existence:
"I am personally aware that as a child I cried at being left in the darkness unless I saw a mysterious and to others invisible kilted Highlander who remained beside me talking or singing till I fell asleep. And even now, after a lapse of half a century the vivid memory of his strong but kindly face is as freshly recalled as if he had sat beside me whilst this New Year was born."
The Lees family moved to 12 Pennington Street in Rugby in 1861 and then to several different locations in Birmingham. The moves may have been necessary because of the economic depression facing Hinckley and the surrounding industrial villages. It seems clear that William Lees was not a very successful businessman, and his various trading activities were frequently in decline. The family may have needed to seek out better prospects in the more industrialised West Midlands. It is also more than likely that William needed to escape from debts he had accrued in the Hinckley area due to one or more of his mismanaged business enterprises.
In Birmingham, the Lees family took up residence at 15 Cross Street where William Lees is listed in trade directories as a joiner and, in the following year, as a shopkeeper. In 1867, after another move, the family were living at 10 Lease Lane with William listed as a ‘patent cement manufacturer’, and by 1871 yet another move saw the family residing at 88 Pershore Street from where William was then trading as a printer.
This latest change in William’s diverse business activities was to have a significant effect on his son. Robert, in time, was apprenticed to a local, and at the time of his marriage in 1871 his own occupation is as a compositor. Lees remained with the printed word for the rest of his life, first as a member of the staff of the Manchester Guardian, and then as a journalist and advertising manager with other publications in London, and of course as the author of a series of landmark novels about spiritualism. For a child who had very little formal education and whose longest unbroken span of school attendance was only three weeks, Robert’s ability to use the English language was remarkable. This ability to write fluently, and to use language in the form of novels, poetry, lectures and sermons, must have derived from his teenage association with the printers of Birmingham.
At the time of Robert James Lees’ marriage, his family’s address is given as Whitehead Street in the Aston district, and William is described as a cabinet-fitter. Later still, a commercial association was formed between the Lees family and Aston Villa Football Club. Spiritualist sources in Leicester have often recounted the ‘fact’ that Lees’ mother made the strip for Aston Villa’s players. Certainly, the family lived for several years in the neighbourhood of Aston Hall in Villa Park. However, this particular trading activity must have taken place some years after Lees left home, because the club was not founded until 1874, when Lees would have been about twenty five years of age. Aston Villa’s archives include early records of orders for a chocolate and blue coloured strip. One member of the large Lees family, J.T.Lees, later became a director of the club. There is a memorial to him in the local churchyard and an obituary notice in an early copy of the club’s magazine. It is said that the Hutchinson family, the descendants of one of Lees’ sisters, continued the association with the football club for many years.
Mystery surrounds the ultimate fate of William Lees. After a lifetime of financial struggle in the Midlands, he died in Liverpool Workhouse on 13 May 1880. The details of his decline to this state, and why he relocated to the Liverpool area, and why his children seemingly failed to help him are not known.
The story of the Hydesville Rappings and A.J.Davis’ account of a haunted house have a number of obvious parallels with Lees’ own early psychic experiences. The Lees family also believed that at least one of their homes was haunted. One story from later spiritualist sources tells that, while he was living with his family in the Aston area of Birmingham, the young Lees would wake at night and tell his parents that he had seen or heard some form of violent activity in the cellar of their home. His parents investigated the boy’s claims, and it was later established that a child had been killed in the house. The skeletal remains of a young boy aged about eight years were found after digging in the cellar. It is said that the child’s parents were later tracked down to an American address and convicted of their son’s murder.
Another story suggests that the family had prior knowledge of the building’s history, and had therefore been able to purchase the house at a low price because other people were afraid to live in it. After moving in, the family was naturally curious to see whether any unworldly or inexplicable incidents would occur. On some evenings, Robert and his father would wait up until late to see if a ghost would appear. In the early hours of one morning Lees reportedly became very pale and collapsed to the floor, only regaining consciousness more than three hours later. The boy told his parents that he had ‘seen’ a boy of about his age walking down the stairs, but that when the ghost was about four steps from the bottom, it had lifted up its head, and blood had poured from a gash in its throat.
According to this story, Lees and his father sat up again on the following evening. The boy saw the figure again, but this time it continued down the stairs, passed through the kitchen and disappeared behind a door leading to the cellar.
Following these events, the initial attitude of Lees’ parents seemed to change from a sense of curiosity to a feeling of fear. In keeping with their strict non-conformist principles, they sought the guidance of their church. They turned to one of the leaders of the church, Aaron Franklin, who was superintendent of the Sunday school class attended by the Lees children. Franklin had attempted some psychic ‘experiments’ of his own, so when the Lees family related their experiences to him, he willingly invited them to take part in séances at his home.
A further strand of the spiritualists’ stories says that the Lees family participated in table-turning which had recently become popular as a parlour activity in England. Initially Lees himself was not involved, but one day asked if he could join in a session with his parents. During this session, he fell into a deep sleep. His parents believed that whilst he was asleep, their first baby boy, who had died when he was only twelve hours old, was reincarnated through him.
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© 2003 Stephen Butt