Robert James Lees - Privy Pension

Robert James Lees


Did Lees receive a Royal Pension?

The first reference to the claim that Robert James Lees received a pension from the Privy Purse appears to have been made by Eva Lees shortly after her father's death in January 1931. A brief biography in an article in the Ilfracombe Chronicle and Gazette (31st March 1923) about a dramatic healing carried out by Lees, does not refer to the claim. An obituary in the Northampton Echo dated 15th January 1931 mentions his alleged involvement in tracing Jack the Ripper, and even a unique claim that Lees once escorted King Edward and the Prince of Wales incognito around a recently-opened London Mission, but again contains no reference to a royal pension

The story does of course link the two most prominent claims made by Eva, namely that her father, as a boy, acted as a medium for Queen Victoria, and that he was instrumental in tracking down the Whitechapel Murderer. An unpublished biography of Lees by Dan Black, a spiritualist and close friend of the Lees family, claims that the young Lees was asked to serve as the Queen's `official' medium, but that his spirit guide told him to decline the invitation, saying that he had more important work to undertake, but that John Brown could act in the same role. If, however, Brown failed in his spiritualist tasks at any time, Lees could be could for. Eva claimed that her father was indeed summoned by the Queen on several occasions, the latest being shortly before her death.

Eva further claimed that the Queen talked to Lees about the Jack the Ripper murders, and that her father received a pension from the Privy Purse for his services to the Queen.

From the narrative of `The Heretic', which tells of Lees' life in London, it is clear that he and his young family suffered ten years of financial hardship following the events that made him fall victim to `loan sharks' in 1878. However, ten years on from the resulting court case (in 1879), and thanks to the assistance of the mysterious `St Clear', Lees is able to rebuild his life by charging for the help he is able to provide as a result of his newly re-discovered powers. It appears that he is consulted by, not only the public and individuals, but by institutions as well, including banks. This return to financial stability occurs in about 1889, just months after the last of the Ripper murders. A few years later, in November 1893, Lees was able to set up his own philanthropic mission, The Peoples League, in Peckham.

Dan Black and other spiritualist friends of the Lees' family state that Lees accepted a proportion of the reward offered for the apprehension of Jack the Ripper, and that he used this money to establish the League. They further claim that he was directed `by the authorities' to leave London (in 1895) to live in relative anonymity in St Ives, to prevent the press from discovering the truth behind the identity of the Jack the Ripper, namely that the Whitechapel Murderer had royal connections. Intriguingly, Lees' sudden departure to St Ives, and the winding-up of the League at a time when it was obviously a success and providing a valuable service, took place within weeks of the publication of the Chicago Sunday Times-Herald article on 18th April 1895, telling the oft-repeated story of Lees tracking down the Ripper.

However, there is simply no firm evidence to support these claims. There is some circumstantial evidence. In the Lees family papers is an acknowledgement card dated 23rd January 1899, and addressed to Lees from the Office of the Privy Purse, thanking him for a specially-bound copy of his book `Through the Mists' which he had sent to the Queen, but this proves very little. In his personal diary, and entry for New Year's Day, 1895, Lees, writing in St Ives, does make the comment that the local people of the town are slightly suspicious of him:

".. as a resident, with my undoubted power of speech, and a financial position which no one knows anything about, I am regarded with mixed feelings ..."

Again, it is impossible to confirm that this is an oblique reference to a royal pension.

Researcher Martin Fido has told of a further example of Eva's promotion of the mystique surrounding her father which he heard about whilst researching one of his books about Jack the Ripper. He met an elderly woman who had met Lees when she was a small girl. Her father who was grieving the loss of his wife had taken her to see Lees. While they were waiting for Lees to see them, Eva showed them a document that suggested that her father had been consulted by royalty. On this occasion, the document was from Queen Alexandra.

Research into other claims made by Eva about her father have generally revealed that they are based on real events, but that Eva's interpretation translated fairly ordinary occurrences into the realm of the remarkable or incredulous. One example is Eva's statement that her father had free access to most of the Government and state buildings in London, the implication being that he was because he was recognised and respected by the authorities. The basis for this claim was that when Lees took on the role of a tourist guide for visiting Americans during the period 1879-1889 he applied for permission to take parties of visitors into some of the famous London landmarks such as the Tower of London. Therefore, he held a letter from the authorities to that effect.

My feeling is that Lees did benefit from some form of pension, retainer or grant that enabled him to present himself as a man of `independent means' and to support his large family. I also believe that this income was terminated at some time, because there is no indication that Eva inherited a significant amount of wealth from her father, despite her being his sole beneficiary. One would have expected a man with such impressive connections, and with a number of widely-read published novels to his credit, and who was widely revered and respected for his spiritualist powers to have amassed a fortune during his long life. Yet, when he returned to Leicester for the last two year of his life, he lived in a house donated to him by spiritualist friends.

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2003 Stephen Butt