Lees, Sir John (c.1737–1811), secretary of the Irish post office, was born in Cannock, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Adam Lees of Cannock and Agnes Lees (née Goldie) of Glasgow. Educated in Scotland, he first came to the notice of George Townshend (qv), 2nd marquis of Townshend, in the early 1760s while serving with distinction in an infantry unit stationed in Germany during the Seven Years War. Accordingly he came to Dublin as a member of the Townshend household when the latter was appointed lord lieutenant (October 1767). He was made assistant to the second (‘Ulster’) secretary in the office of the chief secretary and secretary to the lord justices that month. In effect, he acted as one of three under-secretaries continuously from 1767 to 1777, where he was positioned advantageously to accumulate personal influence and power from a slender original base. In 1767–8 he acted as confidential agent charged with delivery of information directly from Dublin Castle to court. He was then set the task of reporting to the administration on shifts of opinion and favour within the Irish house of commons. In 1773 he was entrusted with a detailed internal review of executive finances, and within a few years he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish political and administrative affairs. Harcourt (qv), lord lieutenant of Ireland (1772–6), enthused in 1775: ‘no one can give you so precise ... account of everything that relates to the house of commons ... many [members]... he knows intimately, their characters, their views, their particular merits and demerits’ (Johnston, 49). It is likely that he compiled the surviving parliamentary lists of 1775–7. Under Townshend and Harcourt he came to dominate the team of under-secretaries and made himself indispensable to the administration. (He later wrote an unpublished history of the golden age of the Townshend and Harcourt viceroyalties.)
Lee's first fruit of office was control of the customs of Drogheda (1769–81). Appointed secretary of the post office in 1774, he initially made little profit from the post, being obliged to maintain payments to the previous two incumbents in their retirement. He became searcher of the port of Wexford (1776–81) and usher of the black rod in the house of commons (1780–81). The only interruption to his progress occurred in April 1782, when the new lord lieutenant, William Bentinck (qv), 3rd duke of Portland, made a point of taking Lees up on charges of criminal maladministration, less owing to a drive for reform than to a desire to create places for his Irish allies. Though Lees was deprived of office for a time, the charges did not stick, and he was restored on the arrival of a new viceroy, Charles Manners (qv), 4th duke of Rutland, in February 1784. During the winter of 1783–4 he was instrumental in making arrangements for the separation of the Irish from the British post office. The agreement was established by statute in late 1784 under the act 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. cxvii.
This effectively marked the beginning of his unhindered control of the Irish post office, which he exploited to notorious effect, to enrich himself and provide sinecures for family and friends. Postal charges were high. It was found on enquiry in 1806 that ‘that there were frequent delays and irregularities in the delivery of the mails; that there existed an accumulation of errors in the accounts; that frauds were constantly occurring; that private property was frequently embezzled to almost incredible amounts ... economy was disregarded’ (Butler, 142). It was unlikely that these deficiencies had arisen suddenly or that the wealth gathered by Lees was entirely unrelated to the structure of corruption. To his credit, however, he supervised the emergence of a rapid mail-coach system from the early 1790s and oversaw a considerable extension in postal use over the period. He developed the service partly as an intelligence-gathering system, continuing to pass on information likely to be of interest to the executive. It was suspected that he was not above opening letters. A press report of October 1798 was ascribed by William Drennan (qv) to ‘one of the lies, or as the Scotch pronounce it, one of the lees of the day’ (Agnew, 415). He took a predictably grim attitude to the prosecution of the campaign against the rebels in 1798. It was assumed in the early nineteenth century that he played a significant covert role in securing the enactment of the act of union. He was knighted 23 June 1804. However, his power was gradually trimmed, and the post office was formally required to keep annual accounts from 1807. Ailing from 1804, he bore a protracted illness with resignation. He died 3 November 1811 at Blackrock House, leaving assets valued at over £100,000, and was buried in Monkstown church. He married (20 October 1766) Mary (d.1805), daughter of Robert Cathcart of Glandusk, Ayrshire; they had six sons and two daughters. The sons, named after political patrons, included Sir Harcourt Lees (qv), the evangelical polemicist.
The fourth son, Sir Edward Smith Lees (1783–1846), was born 30 March 1783. Not bothering to follow his brothers to university, he was ushered into a position as ‘joint’ secretary of the Irish post office together with his father in early 1801, the practical effect of which was to enable the elder Lees gradually to retire from office while maintaining control and income (McDowell, 85). Over the next two years he was trained in the administrative routines of the various post-office departments in Dublin and Belfast. In 1803 he followed in his father's footsteps, reporting to the Home Office on the movements of Archibald Hamilton Rowan (qv) and the execution of Robert Emmet (qv). By 1804 he was effective head of the post office, theoretically in charge of discipline and incidental expenses but in practice supervising revenue collection and accounting, coupled with the application of current and incidental expenditure.
The authority of the Irish postmaster general had, however, been reduced to a nullity by the activities and evasions of his father over preceding decades. Lees acted also as assistant comptroller of the Dublin penny post and as clerk of the Leinster roads; the latter office was managed, for good measure, at arms length by deputy. Though indubitably clever and willing to experiment with novelties such as jointed table gas lamps in the GPO in Sackville St in 1811–12, he can be credited with little except cool determination to perpetuate the complex system of peculation put in place for family benefit by his father. Parliamentary inquiries (1809, 1823) exposed multifarious swindles in operation but sluggishly failed to penalise Lees. A large ‘suspension fund’, derived from heavy fines imposed on country postmasters, was, like many items of capital and revenue, imperfectly presented in accounts. Allowances were extravagantly exploited and pensions for offices never occupied by the erstwhile secretary supplemented his income and lavish perks. Attracted to one Mrs Draper, his ‘comely as well as gay and innocently endearing’ housekeeper, he set her up in ornately furnished accommodation in the GPO (Reynolds, 56). He was knighted for public service in 1821 on the regal visit to Ireland. Surviving in office until January 1831, when the administration finally dismissed him on proven charges of corruption, he desperately worked connections to find a minor salaried post in the Scottish post office. Though he complained that his income was now such as not to let his wife ‘hold her head up in the presence of her peers’ (Butler, 49), he was left to languish in obscurity. He died 24 September 1846.
He married (1821) Jane (d. 1853), youngest daughter of Capt. Clarke of the 40th Regiment of Foot; they had no children.