John Arnold Lees


This biography was written by Victoria Doran.

John Lees was a career Royal Navy officer who died in November 1914 during the Battle of Coronel, the first sea battle that the Royal Navy had lost since 1812. 

HMS_Monmouth wiki.jpg

HMS Monmouth – from wikipedia

John Arnold Lees was born on 31 May 1886 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, probably at the home of his maternal great-grandfather. He was the only child of Arthur Richard Lees (1842-1887) and Annie Russell Gilbert (1857-1936).

Arthur Richard Lees  was the son of Sir John Lees (1815-1892) and his wife Maria Charlotte Sullivan (1820-1881). The Lees baronetcy dates from 1804 when an earlier John Lees had been honoured in recognition of his army service on the continent. The Lees family were part of the Irish Protestant ascendancy, living at Blackrock near Dublin. Arthur Richard Lees was a younger son and made his career in the British Army from 1860 when he joined the 1st Battalion of the 60th Regiment by purchase of a commission as an Ensign. On 19 Dec 1866 he married Amy Godwin (1838-???). It is not known what happened to Amy, but on 29 September 1880 when he married John’s mother he was a Major in the 84th Regiment of Foot and described himself as a widower.

Arthur Richard Lees marriage 1880 jpg.jpg

John was the only child of the marriage and his father died on 15 September 1887 when he was only 15 months old. His father was by then a retired Colonel, but he only left £335.

However it is likely that that other family money came to John and his mother as there was actually a great deal of wealth in the Sullivan family, mostly derived from service by the Caldwell family with the East India Company. John’s great grandfather, Edward Richard Sullivan (1791-1823), a civil servant with the East India Company, had married Elizabeth Maria Caldwell (1797-1870). Her father James Lillyman Caldwell (1770-1863) spent all his working life as an employee of the East India Company, finishing as a General and making a substantial fortune. He moved to Ryde not long after his retirement and maintained an establishment in some style with at least 8 household servants.

Annie managed to live comfortably and support John through private education.

Annie Russell Gilbert certainly did not inherit any money from her own family. She was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, the younger daughter of Francis John Gilbert (1827-1898) and Mary Ann Russell (1826-1863). She had one older sister and a brother. Her father, also from Coventry, seems to have been educated at a boarding school and when he married on 8 August 1849 in Coventry he was a farmer. By 1851 he was farming 150 acres in Warwickshire, employing 3 labourers. However by 1853, when Annie’s brother Charles was born, he was a ribbon manufacturer in Coventry. After Mary Anne’s death in 1863, he moved his family to Leeds and became a commercial traveller. By 1871 they were living in Headingley and he was apparently married to Rebecca (1840-???) from Knaresborough, Yorkshire. Funds must have been available as Annie was at a boarding school in Kent in 1871.  No record of a marriage to Rebecca can be found, and the only other trace of Francis John Gilbert is a death recorded in Manchester in 1898, which is possibly him. Annie’s sister Sarah vanishes completely after 1871. Brother Charles was married on 15 December 1875 in Leeds and then moved to Harrogate, Yorkshire by 1881 with his wife Lucy. He was a currier (leather worker) but after that he and Lucy vanish. Possibly they emigrated.

John almost certainly spent his early years at Ryde, Isle of Wight. At some point in the 1890s he and his mother moved to West Kirby. It is not known what brought them to West Kirby, but John’s grandfather died in 1892 and probably they were no longer welcome at Ryde. Sir Harcourt James Lees (1840-1917), the new baronet was certainly not a good role model. At some point John attended Braeside School, Devonshire Road. This was a private preparatory school with some other pupils included in the Imperishable Record, including John Kenneth Kniveton, Eric Blackburn and Geoffrey Ellison Wilkinson. His mother left West Kirby around 1898. He probably then became a boarder at Braeside.

On 15 January 1901 John joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman; he was 14 years old. He was confirmed as a Lieutenant from 8 October 1906 in the London Gazette.

J A Lees LG 9 Oct 1906 jpg.jpg

On 21 October 1913 John married Katherine Gibbons in London. Nothing is known about her and they do not seem to have had any children.

In August 1914 John became a Lieutenant on HMS Monmouth, an armoured cruiser, when she was recommissioned from the Reserve on the declaration of war. He was a qualified Torpedo Lieutenant having been on shore at HMS Vernon, the torpedo training establishment. HMS Monmouth was assigned to the 5th Cruiser Squadron in the South Atlantic and then ordered to join Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock’s Squadron in their search for the German East Asia Squadron under Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. They found the Germans on 1 November 1914 off the coast of Chile. Rear Admiral Cradock had little choice but to fight even though outnumbered by German ships which were faster and better armed. The Germans only lost 3 men, but they used most of their ammunition, which lead to their defeat at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Battle of Coronel map jpg.jpg

from Wikipedia

HMS Monmouth was lost with all hands. John probably did not know that he had been promoted 2 days earlier to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He was 28 years old.

J A Lees LG 30 Oct 1914.jpg

from the London Gazette

His service record gives many opinions of him; all praise his zeal, energy and ability and he was considered to have excellent judgement.

He had a further connection to West Kirby as at the beginning of 1899 his mother married Henry Lawrence Harrison (1867-1936) who was a curate at West Kirby from 1891 to 1898. Although not commemorated anywhere in the area, John would certainly have been known to a good number of local people, and a report of his death appeared in the West Kirby News.

115c 1914 Nov 21 Lt John Lees.jpg

from West Kirby News

He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.

Plymouth Naval Memorial jpg.jpg

Plymouth Naval Memorial, Devon

Birth: 31 May 1886 at Ryde, Isle of Wight
Death: 1 Nov 1914 at sea; Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile
Addresses: 1 Dover Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight (91); Royal Naval College, Romney Road, Greenwich, London (11)
Occupation: Royal Naval officer
Unit: HMS Monmouth
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Medals: 14 Star, Victory and British War
Commemorated: Plymouth Naval Memorial, Plymouth, Devon
Sources: CWGC, MC, SR, Census: 91, 11, WKN, LG, Prob, PR


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