LEE, John (1733-93), of Malvern House, Staindrop, co. Dur.
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Family and Education
bap. 26 Mar. 1733, yst. s. of Thomas Lee, Unitarian merchant, of Leeds, Yorks. (d.1736) by Mary, da. of one Reveley of Woodhouse, clothier. educ. G. Inn 1751; L. Inn 1754, called 1756. m. 24 Oct. 1769, Mary, da. and h. of Thomas Hutchinson of Staindrop, 1da.
KC 1780; bencher, L. Inn 1780; solicitor-gen. Apr.-July 1782 and Apr.-Nov. 1783, attorney-gen. Nov.-Dec. 1783.
Recorder, Doncaster 1769; King’s attorney and serjeant, co. pal. Lancaster 1782-d., and co. pal. Dur. 1784-d.
‘Honest Jack Lee’, as he was known at the bar, an inveterate Rockingham Whig whose maxim was ‘never speak well of a political enemy’, lost his seat at Clitheroe on the Lister interest in 1790, when the patron’s control was compromised. A founder member of the Whig Club, he had acted with opposition in the Parliament of 1784; but this ‘man of strong parts and coarse manners who never hesitated to express in the coarsest language whatever he thought’, had dried up and professed himself ‘little ambitious ... of public life’ when Earl Fitzwilliam pressed him to accept the vacant seat for his borough of Higham Ferrers in December 1790. Lee accepted it on the understanding that Lord John Cavendish*, who was closer to his patron, would not take it and that Portland and Fox approved; he referred to the connexion in his mind between ‘the name of Higham Ferrers and my dear and inestimable friend’ [Rockingham]. Richard Burke*, who coveted Lee’s seat, wrote after Lee’s death, 16 Aug. 1793, to Fitzwilliam:
It is not possible for me to tell less, in the scale of your political consequence for the remainder of the Parliament than he did and was, in his own estimation, certain of doing, from the first day of it. It could operate to him merely as a compliment—a tribute to passed [sic] services.1
Lee’s only political gesture in his last Parliament was to vote with opposition on Grey’s Oczakov resolutions, 12 Apr. 1791, though the same month he was listed among supporters of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. Ill health incapacitated him from attendance and he died of cancer, 5 Aug. 1793, ‘in his 61st year’, thought to be immensely rich.2 Five guineas were paid for his portrait by Reynolds in 1796 by one Downman, who wished to cut out the landscape background as one of the painter’s best efforts. The Morning Chronicle would have it that Lee’s ‘last minutes were embittered by the desertion of Mr Burke and some other persons ... from the cause of liberty’. Lord Eldon, who was once his junior on the northern circuit and could tell many endearing anecdotes of him, noted that ‘Mr Lee was a dissenter, but very moderate, and never missed going to church, if he was in a place where there was not a dissenting meeting house’.3
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Gent. Mag. (1793), ii. 772; Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, ii. 370; Fitzwilliam mss, Lee to Fitzwilliam, 18 Dec. 1790; Burke Corresp. vii. 396.
- 2. CJ, xlviii. 318; Albemarle, Rockingham, ii. 106-10; Add. 34441, f. 519; 34436, f. 6; Gent. Mag. (1793), ii. 772, 859.
- 3. Farington, i. 149; Burke Corresp. loc. cit.; Morning Chron. 10 Aug. 1793; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 100.