Robert James Lees - Further Research

Robert James Lees


Further Research

Victoria R.I
Elizabeth Longford
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1964

Elizabeth Longford in her biography of Queen Victoria, lists a number of reasons why she doubts the authenticity of the story that Robert James Lees served as Queen Victoria’s medium. The courtiers who allegedly attended one of the young Lees’ séances were reportedly convinced that the spirit of the late prince was present because he used a secret pet-name known only to the Queen. Lady Longford, however, holds that no such secret name existed, and that his private letters to the Queen were signed simply ‘Albert’ or ‘A’. Lees is also said to have greeted one of the courtiers with a masonic handshake, but Longford insists that Albert was not a freemason, and that Victoria would have strongly disapproved if he joined the masons.

According to Lady Longford, the likely dates are also wrong. Lees’ séances are said to have taken place in 1862, but John Brown was not sent for from Balmoral until 1864, by which time the Queen was over the worst aspects of her bereavement. As Elizabeth Longford explains:

“‘Albert, Albert where art thou?, she had moaned beside his empty bed in 1863. Or again, ‘He remains my sole object and every will – but can’t give me a sign of it - & that is so fearful to bear!’ Those were the moments when she needed, if ever, to communicate with Albert’s spirit through John Brown.”

However, it is generally accepted that Lees’ experiences took place whilst his family were living in the Aston area of Birmingham. If this is the case, then the date would have to be revised to as late as 1867, when Lees would have been eighteen years old. If the seances took place when Lees was thirteen, then the location would have been Rugby, and not Birmingham.

Furthermore, after 1865 Longford says that Queen Victoria felt increasingly uncertain about what her husband would have thought, wondering distractedly how to apply his principles in a changing world. Her behaviour does not suggest that she enjoyed any form of spiritual communion with her late husband.

The loss of the crucial written article on Lees’ alleged contact with the spirit of Prince Albert may be due to the fragmented nature of the spiritualist movement in England at that time. It was still in its infancy, and the first spiritualist newspaper, the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph, had not been published until 1855. The first major study of Spiritualism was not undertaken until 1871 when Sir William Crookes wrote a report for the Royal Society. If a description of the young Lees experiences was published, it is most likely to have been within a local journal for a limited readership and circulation.

A further doubt is cast on the story by the confusing issue of the so-called ‘royal’ copy of Lees’ first novel, Through the Mists, and by the problem of the ‘royal envelopes’. These items were frequently presented by Eva Lees to enquirers and researchers as proof of her father’s association with the Royal court. The book is a copy of Lees’ first work, bound in crimson morocco with the royal cipher stamped in gold on the front cover. Eva claimed that the book had been bound at the Queen’s request and presented to Lees in gratitude for his support and help. Eva also owned four small envelopes, each bearing the royal cipher, which she claimed once held private letters from the Queen. These claims came to be public knowledge mainly through the publication of The Curse of Ignorance by Arthur Findlay. In this book, Findlay recounts the story of Lees’ alleged association with Queen Victoria, and states categorically that:

“Queen Victoria ordered six specially bound copies (of `Through the Mists’) which she presented to members of her family.”

Findlay adds that:

“The foregoing information was given to the author by his daughter Eva Lees, with permission to incorporate it in this book, and this is the first occasion that all the facts have been made public.”

In truth, the books were bound, not by Royal command, but at Lees’ own request. The copy seen by Lady Longford was one of a number of copies similarly bound, four of which he subsequently sent to members of the Royal household. The four envelopes held nothing more dramatic than simple acknowledgements from the secretaries to the four royal recipients. The letters – or in fact cards – are still in existence, and reveal that the four recipients were:

  • The Duchess of York (acknowledged from York Cottage, Sandringham by her Lady in waiting on 18 January 1899).
  • Princess Henry of Battenburg (acknowledged from Osborne House on the same date).
  • The Princess of Wales (acknowledged by Miss Knollys from Sandringham on 15 January 1899).
  • Queen Victoria (acknowledged by the Queen’s Private Secretary, writing from the Privy Purse Office, on 23 January 1899).

    Elizabeth Longford’s biography is rightly acknowledged as a major reference work for those studying the life of Queen Victoria. Her sketchy overview of the role that Lees may have – or may not have played – may be explained by the lack of reliable source material available at the time of her research.

    Queen Victoria’s Other World
    Peter Underwood
    Harrap, London, 1986

    Peter Underwood is the President of the Ghost Club of Great Britain, and his other books include a Dictionary of the Supernatural, and gazeteers of hauntings in various English counties. Consequently, it is to be expected that he writes with conviction about Victoria’s alleged belief in the spirit world. He writes, with conviction, that:
    “All her life Queen Victoria, in common with many members of the royal family, was superstitious.”

    Peter recounts – without critical analysis – the familiar story of Lees’ associations with the Royal court. He recounts many further rumours and stories of Victoria’s superstitions, but sadly fails to provide supportive evidence. He does cite The Spiritual Magazine as the journal in which James Burns first wrote of the boy-medium’s abilities and his contact with the spirit of the late Prince Albert, but that journal was not in publication at the time.

    Peter has provided the owner of this site with considerable help over many years of research into the life and times of Robert James Lees, for which due acknowledgement is willingly given. His books, including “Jack the Ripper, One Hundred Years of History” (Blandford Press, London, 1987) are very readable, thought-provoking, and a valuable addition to our knowledge of this period in British history.

    Jack the Ripper – A bibliography and review of the literature
    Alexander Kelly with David Sharp
    The Association of Assistant Librarians, London, 1995

    As to be expected from such an august body, this is a strictly objective overview of the published material relating to the myriad theories regarding the identity and motives of “Jack the Ripper”. Literally thousands of sources, in books, magazines, part-works, films and television programmes are listed and critically appraised. The book also contains an overview of the principle ripper theories at the time of publication.

    The 1995 edition includes an introductory article by writer and researcher Colin Wilson who was born in Leicester, and who is respected for his consistent and reliable books on Jack the Ripper and related subjects.

    This book contains sixteen textual references to Lees, and the owner of this site is hoping to acquaint the authors with one or two more in time for their next revision of this very useful research tool!

    Jack the Ripper – Letters from Hell
    Stewart P.Evans and Keith Skinner
    Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2001

    A simple but effective concept, and one of the most recent additions to the vast range of published material of “Jack the Ripper”. This book surveys and reprints for the first time, the many letters and notes sent to the police and to the London press during the time of the police investigation into the murders.

    Stewart and Keith place each of the documents in their correct context, and discuss the role played by London-based journalists in `creating’ Jack the Ripper. Chapter 11, titled `They summoned a spirit’ summarises the familiar story of Lees’ involvement in the case, emphasising that Lees was one of many mediums and psychics who were interested in the search for the Whitechapel Murderer. Quite correctly, the authors note that the only extant evidence that Lees had any involvement in the case are the entries in his diary for the relevant period, which is now preserved in the archives of Spiritualist National Union headquarters at Stansted, Essex.

    Both Stewart and Keith have provided willing and enthusiastic advice and assistance to the owner of this site, and Keith in particular remains convinced that the full story of Lees’ activities during the Jack the Ripper investigations has not yet been told.

    This is a major contribution to our understanding of the Ripper case, and of the effect of the saturation press coverage of the murders. Readers will be in no doubt that the book is the result of much diligent, painstaking and objective research.


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    © 2003 Stephen Butt