Robert James Lees
Petherbridge was twenty-three years of age when she met
Robert James Lees. She had lived as a child with her parents in the
district of Paignton. Her father was a dentist in the town, and was a
well-respected figure. We know now that she was suffering from Anorexia or a
similar eating disorder, but according to her mother’s statement to the
Ilfracombe Chronicle and Gazette at the time, Leona had become ‘insane’
the age of fifteen. "It was at the time of her confirmation. She started
herself, and she nearly starved herself to death," explained Mrs
"I believe she got an erroneous view of religious matters. It became a mania, and we had to feed her forcibly. Her body recovered, but her mind did not."
The girl was later committed to an institution where she remained for five months. The family then sought the help of Christian Scientists, and finally spiritualists, but although Leona showed some occasional signs of improvement, she remained institutionalised, first near Exeter, then at Exminster, and finally in Salisbury. Eventually, Lees heard of the girl’s case, presumably through the network of spiritualist groups in Devon and Somerset. A meeting was arranged, and Leona was brought from her home in Salisbury to the Paignton home of H.P.Rabbich, the President of the Paignton Spiritualist Society. The young woman was accompanied on her journey by a nurse who was also a local spiritualist.
Paignton - the traditional
English seaside resort
Not surprisingly, the girl appeared very upset when confronted by the
gathering. As well as her parents, Mr & Mrs Rabbich were in the room,
with Lees and his daughter Eva. Leona refused to speak for over two
during which time Lees, according to the press accounts, ‘fought’ with
"At the end of two hours", Rabbich later told journalists, "I saw the first smile come into the young lady’s face. Then I saw her hand go out and grasp that of Mr Lees. She sank back peacefully and restfully. She smiled and lifted up her head and spoke to us in a reasonable manner." Leona rested quietly on a couch and was then taken home to Salisbury.
At the end of the two hours’ ‘battle’ with the girl, Lees is said to have fainted. He later told waiting journalists that it had been the biggest struggle he had ever had, but pointed out that he was now seventy-four years of age, and that "in view of the great strain put upon him, it was not remarkable that a man of that age should faint."
Leona returned later to her parents’ home. The change in her was remarkable. For the first time in eight years, she picked up a piece of embroidery that she had discarded many years earlier at the start of her ill-health. "She is like a child, just like she was at the age of fourteen, as if that slice of her life had been a blank." commented her mother. Local reporters accompanied Lees to the Petherbridge household to see Leona’s improvement at first hand:
"When we entered the drawing room, the young lady was reading a magazine. She has made a remarkable recovery, and looks younger than her years. Her reception of her visitors lacked cordiality, but she appeared to be taken by surprise at their sudden entry. In his affable way, Mr Lees soon set her at ease and it was obvious that she was very much drawn towards him, and her gratitude was apparent. She showed quite a keen interest when Mr Lees started talking about his plans to take her away for a rest."
Later, Leona travelled to Ilfracombe to stay with Eva and her father. The family remained in contact with Lees for the remainder of his life.
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© 2003 Stephen Butt