Speaker - Stephen Butt
Report by Adrian Morris
Our speaker tonight, Stephen Butt, took to the stage in the soon-to-be revamped upstairs function room of the Princess Alice (formerly known as the City Darts) public house. The carpets had been ripped out to reveal an authentic wooden floor and part of the wood panelling to the right of the stage had been removed to reveal two sash windows making the venue more roomier and breathable compared to previous meetings.
Stephen has been working in Leicester for many years now and we were to learn that the subject of our talk tonight, Robert James Lees (born in 1849) was also connected with Leicester being brought up in Hinckley just outside the main conurbation. Stephen’s interest in Lees was whetted when he was researching that other Whitechapel 1888 phenomenon, Joseph Merrick, (The Elephant Man), who was also brought up in Leicester. These two personalities of the late Victorian era were to collide into Stephen’s research when Stephen discovered that an old theatre in Leicester where Joseph Merrick was initially exhibited was now a pawnshop/house-clearance depot. Within this warehouse-type affair Stephen was to discover some old family documents that pertained to the Lees family. Of course, these personal documents should not have been retained by the house clearing firm - but they had been, and so Stephen was able to have access to them and so began a twenty year period of research into Robert Lees. Research, as we were to find out later on in the evening, that was still being conducted!
THE MAKING OF ROBERT JAMES LEES
During Stephen’s twenty year research on Lees he could not fail to notice the discernible influence Robert Lees has had on the research into the Whitechapel murderer. Stephen could also not fail to see the irony of his talk to the The Whitechapel Society 1888 - a club based in the Whitechapel area, and the fact that the original ‘cast iron’ connection between Lees and the Whitechapel murders evolved as the result of the Chicago Sunday-Times Herald’s famous article on Lees in 1895 as the result of a story engineered by a Chicago based group calling itself the Whitechapel Club. In a reversal of our motto this article made a legend out of historical facts; or certainly facts that had been tilted obliquely. So began the legend, (Stephen would ultimately conclude as such), that was undoubtedly the life and times of Robert Lees. So much so that on his death in 1931, the very same Chicago article of 1895 would be quoted as an obituary. The writers and researchers of later generations, most notably the late Stephen Knight, but also Peter Underwood , would insure Lees would reach the afterlife, albeit, a literary one. The connection was made and for many years, even to this very day, there is a perception that Robert Lees was actively involved in the pursuit of the Whitechapel murderer and was Queen Victoria’s personal medium.
What of the man himself? Stephen was able to elucidate. Lees was born into a very economically volatile time. Despite this, the Lees family were able to find a stable business concern, being mostly publicans. Yet, Lees childhood was blighted by the financial frivolities of his father. This was to be Lees’ father’s downfall as he was to become estranged from the Lees family ultimately dying in a Liverpool workhouse forgotten by his family. It was this inward economic uncertainty that made for the transient nature of the Lees clan who often found that they had to be geographically mobile to find business ventures that would provide for them. Eventually they moved and established themselves in Birmingham. The Lees family would be responsible for the production of the very first Aston Villa football strip! They obviously knew the concept of flexible specialization before the term was invented.
What schooling Lees had was minimal but a later apprenticeship as a printer in Birmingham would light a life-long literary fire in the young Robert. This can be seen in his later literary output of six novels and other literary pursuits, especially journalism.
When Lees was still relatively young, the family - during a period of economic volatility, ended up moving into a house that had the added bonus of having a very cheap rent. This was in part due to the belief that this house was haunted by the spectre of a murdered child. It was apparently in this house that the young Robert began to realise that he could contact, or at least experience, a spiritual dimension. It must be added that this period in the Victorian era was defined by the growth of psychics and spiritualism.
After Lees got married and had a son; Norman, he began a job on the Manchester Guardian. This obviously meant a move to Manchester because, as the name suggests, the Guardian newspaper originated in Manchester. During this time Lees really does take up his spiritual side by conducting seances. In reality these were dreams Lees had, but a bit of drama here and a darkened room there one could term the event a seance. Coming from a deeply religious family Lees’ early psychic inclinations had been a cause for concern for them, but the intervention of a trusted Sunday school teacher had persuaded them to believe that these were in fact a gift from God.
It wasn’t long before a noted Victorian spiritualist author, James Burns, began to take notice of the young Robert Lees. According to legend, and Stephen would stress that this is where history becomes legend, Burns apparently sent articles and information concerning the expertise of Lees to the grieving Queen Victoria in the period after Prince Albert’s death. Queen Victoria was so impressed that she reciprocated and invited Lees to attend to her spiritualist needs. Eva Lees, Robert’s daughter and keeper of his flame, if you like, would aver that these articles by Burns existed. Stephen would make clear that despite detailed investigations through psychic journals of the time, there are no articles of this nature. Victoria’s records, it would appear, no longer exist.
The only Royal connection that there does appear to be between Lees and the Royal court is a letter dated 23rd January 1899 sent by the privy office. This communique thanks Lees for sending the Queen a copy of one of his books, Through The Mists. It would also transpire that Lees had sent three other copies to other notable Royals. Essentially, this is the only known link between Lees and Queen Victoria that can be proven and it appears to be a polite acknowledgement for a gift received. It would appear not to be part of a detailed communication by a trusted confidant. Stephen would be inclined to believe that this was a sale’s gimmick by Lees. In the event, Lees’ alleged connections to the Royal household would be bolstered by the psychic press. So much so that the famed spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took to writing to Lees with no obvious reply.
ROBERT LEES AND THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERER
One canard seemingly dealt with, Stephen turned his attention to another one that has nevertheless exerted enough pressure on some researchers to tend towards authenticity.
Whilst working for the Manchester Guardian, Lees was sent by the head office to London in 1863 to investigate the prospect of expansion by buying up smaller titles. Lees did, however, take up lodgings in Whitechapel. Whilst trying to search for a prospective title or three Lees was approached by the head of a smaller journal in London and offered a job on it. Lees, in an act of almost quixotic folly, accepted and moved his family to Peckham, London and took up the job. It turned out to be folly of a monumental kind for the journal folded and Lees ended up crippled by debt and eventually homeless!
Lees, ever the resourceful man, embarked on a career as a tour guide after a chance visit to Westminster Abbey and an impromptu tour of the Abbey with some American gentlemen. Eventually Lees built up a sound reputation and was able to gain passes to some noted addresses. One of Lees’ daughters would claim that this gave him access to the Royal buildings but this seems highly unlikely and there is scant evidence to show this. Yet, Lees was asked to guide people around the less salubrious parts of Metropolis. This vogue for slumming at arm’s length affected Lees as he witnessed the poverty of the East End. So affect was he that he would join the efforts of reformers such as Dr. Thomas Barnardo and W. T. Stead. So Lees, it would be safe to say, was well versed in the mores and culture of the denizens of the East End.
So is there any evidence linking Lees to the Whitechapel murder investigation? Yes, and no, it would appear. There are no direct police or press reports of such. The only evidence linking Lees to the ‘Autumn of Terror’ is an entry in his own diary in October 1888 when he refers to the ‘double event’, claiming that he went to the relevant locations and could sense something....until the police moved him on thinking him a madman! So much for his alleged help with the investigation. Stephen would say that Lees’ diary can still be seen at Stanstead Hall, (new runway permitting), which is the head of the Spiritualist’s National Union.
THE CHICAGO SUNDAY-TIMES HERALD ARTICLE - 1891
Basically we finish where we started from, the whole genesis of the legend that surrounds Robert James Lees - the 1891 Chicago Sunday-Times Herald article. More than anything, as we have seen, this single article did more to link Robert Lees to the Whitechapel murders and the Royal household than any other facet of his life. So what was this article and were did it get its evidence from?
In 1895 an article appeared in the Chicago Sunday-Times Herald linking Lees to the Whitechapel murder investigation. Mere speculation and bluster one might assume, but the details of Lees’ life were absolutely on the button. For instance, they knew that for a concerted period prior to 1886 Lees had abandoned spiritualism altogether - even campaigning against it. Yet, by 1886 Lees had rediscovered it. The article was ascribed to the Whitechapel Club based in Chicago, but the informants must have been from the other side of the Atlantic.
Many names have been mentioned such as W. T. Stead who was known to the Whitechapel Club and had visited Chicago in 1894. Stead was in correspondence with Lees right up until his death on the Titanic in 1912. Stephen would tend to rule Stead out. Who else?
Roman Shaw was a man who knew Lees’ sons Norman and Douglas very well and both were in correspondence with Shaw in Chicago in 1894. We can then deduce that the most likely informant was none-other-than Norman Lees talking to Roman Shaw. It must be remembered that Norman was himself a journalist, and as we saw earlier, Lees’ kith and kin were not adverse to ‘talking up’ Lees’ reputation. It is also worth remembering that the Chicago article was not the news splash that it has since become. Stephen would remind us that it was not a headliner - it appeared on page 34 amongst mainly adverts! Yet, in Britain it hit big and would set Lees’ reputation for good and ill. In its immediate aftermath it would have a discernable toll on the life of Robert James Lees and his current high-minded venture; The People’s League.
THE PEOPLE’S LEAGUE
In the midst of this Chicago inspired ‘revelation’ Robert James Lees was indulging in the high minded and socialistic endeavour called The People’s League. This was based in Peckham High Street, in fact, as Stephen would inform us, some of the League’s buildings are still standing. The People’s League was rather typical of late 19th century socialist entrepreneurial zeal before the establishment of the welfare state; self help and syndicatism were more widespread in such social ventures. Almost of the Guild socialism of Cole, rather than theoretically based one of Marx, these groups mushroomed in poor areas and nearly always had a strong religious and/or spiritual gravity to them being controlled by a small elite at the top - an elite that often gave it its whole raison d’être. The People’s League was no exception. For in 1895, when the ripples caused by the Chicago Sunday-Times Herald article became apparent, the effect on Robert James Lees and the People’s League was seismic.
Within a month of the publication of the Chicago article, the once flourishing People’s League folded. Lees himself became ill due to the pressure - Lees had always succumbed to psychosomatic illness when such crises hit his life, this was no exception. Despite what conspiracy theorists may have said; that Lees was offered money or threats to disband the People’s League, the truth is more obvious and mundane. Always distrustful of committees, Lees was the generalissimo of the People’s League. He made it tick. When he stopped, the League stopped. It was as simple as that.
In the immediate wake of the dissolving of the People’s League, Lees moved his family of wife and 14 children...(yes, you read right), down to St. Ives in Cornwell. Lees, for the first time is able to purchase a large enough house for his family, and it must have been a fair size, and he is able to escape the pressures that London and his unexpected fame brought with it. Eventually, the Lees clan would make other moves to Ilfacombe and finally back to Leicester.
All throughout his professional life Robert James Lees always seemed to invite some kind of enigmatic dalliance with the Whitechapel murders as well as the court of Queen Victoria. Both, according to the extensive research of Stephen Butt, appear to be wholly down to the 1895 Chicago Sunday-Times Herald article. Despite the vexatious impact of this story on Lees, the simple fact is that most, if not all, of this story originated from within Lees’ own family. Even if he had no direct control over this, he did very little to quell these claims. Lees may have been a high-minded, devout Christian socialist, but he was not adverse to flagrant self publicity. The journalist Hugh Mogford, who had become acquainted with Lees just before the Great War, did not feel compelled by anything he had discussed with Lees and his family to set the record straight on the infamous Chicago article when he wrote Robert James Lees’ obituary in the Leicester Mercury on the event of Lees’ death in 1931. On the contrary, Mogford merely echoed the claims of the Chicago article causing an instant second wave of interest in Lees’ supposed involvement in the Whitechapel murder case. This was when the Lees legend became a truly international story infecting later works such as that of Stephen Knight and the film Murder By Decree. Stephen would note that the appearance and performance of the Canadian actor, Donald Sutherland in this film was highly authentic in terms of capturing what Lees must have been like in 1888 - whilst also acknowledging that the story-line was pure fiction.
Stephen would also make known a rather telling communication between Lees’ son Claude and the news editor of the Daily Express on 10th March 1931. In it Claude said that he had very little information to give in regard to the fulsome claims that had appeared in the Chicago article.
Like all areas of research into the Whitechapel murders, the wheels keep on rolling. Stephen’s research into Robert James Lees and the Lees family is no exception. Stephen, towards the end of his talk, produced a home produced photocopied pamphlet. The title of this pamphlet was; A Letter To Dear Diana, Sandra, Leon and Roger From Auntie Barb. The Auntie Barb in question is the 79 year old granddaughter of Robert James Lees - her mother being Muriel Lees, the youngest daughter of Robert James Lees. She is very frail and in very poor health. The information held within this private document are mainly recollections of the family and are of little concern outside the actual family unit. However, as Stephen would recount, there is held within this pamphlet a passage that is of particular interest to us. What Auntie Barb has to say seems rather shocking. She claims that Lees’ youngest daughter, Muriel was fostered as a result of being seized by the police, or some other such state organisation, in a house raid where her real parents were also taken against their will. This ‘raid’ must have occurred around the time of the 1895 Chicago article as it is inferred from Auntie Barb’s account that Robert Lees disbanded the People’s League soon after and moved to St. Ives and, with a newly acquired amount of funds, was able to buy a large house in St. Ives and live with his inordinately large brood. Yet, the raid appears to have taken place in the 1880’s as Auntie Barb claims that Muriel was not adopted by the Lees family until she was 11 years old. Muriel was apparently ‘imprisoned’ as an inmate in a hospital. Auntie Barb would claim that there has always been a suspicion within the Lees clan that Muriel was always ‘different’.
What are we as Ripperologists and wider historians to make of these claims of a house raid that could have taken place around the time of the Whitechapel murders? WS1888 Society Fundraiser, Liza Hopkinson would note the distinct similarity between the Stephen Knight Royal conspiracy theory of a police raid on the Duke of Clarence’s child and its associated theories, and Auntie Barb’s exceptional claims! Very interesting - possibly.
Stephen would punctuate the remainder of his talk by claiming that the Auntie Barb pamphlet had only arrived from Australia six weeks before the WS1888 meeting tonight! An act of overwhelming serendipity for us, but for Stephen, he was still to read and evaluate the entire contents of Auntie Barb’s claims.
I suppose we can all make our minds up about Auntie Barb’s claims one way or the other. Many did on the night. Nevertheless, we are all highly interested in what a member of the Lees family has to say, and with Auntie Barb we wish to know the provenance, if any can be gained, of such a claim.
Can any eyewitness evidence back up the ‘raid’ that Auntie Barb describes? Well, yes. Well, sort of. Auntie Barb claims that there was an eyewitness to the ‘raid’ who happened to be walking along the London street where it allegedly occurred. This artist’s name? Walter Sickert.
As I said, Stephen’s research is still ongoing and he has promised us more information as he gets it. When we do get it you will be the first to know and the WS1888 Journal will be the first to provide it!