Guinness, Sir Benjamin Lee (1798–1868), 1st baronet, brewer, politician, and philanthropist, was born 1 November 1798 in Dublin, third son of Arthur Guinness, head of the brewing firm Arthur Guinness & Co., and his wife, Anne, eldest daughter of Benjamin Lee of Dublin. Benjamin's father Guinness Arthur (1768–1855) was born 12 March 1768 at St James's Benjamin’s Father Gate, Dublin, third of eleven children of Arthur Guinness (qv) (1725–1803), founder of the brewery, and his wife Olivia Whitmore (d. 1814). In 1798 he became his father's full partner at the brewery, and by the latter's will five years later, he inherited the brewery and a flour mill, called Hibernian Mills. His first years of commercial life coincided with the Napoleonic wars and he seized the opportunity they afforded: St James's Gate production grew sixfold between 1800 and 1815. During this period the brewery began modestly exporting to England; however, it was adversely affected by the postwar recession. By 1820 sales were 41 per cent of their 1815 peak, and Guinness also made a loss in his investment in government securities. Furthermore he had frequently to bail out his relatives, most notably his brother Edward Guinness, who went spectacularly bankrupt in 1811, and his son, Arthur Lee Guinness, in 1839. As governor of the Bank of Ireland from 1820, he was involved in the decision to assimilate the Irish and English currencies (1826), which caused widespread deflation and a ten-year downturn in the brewing business. However, he met the challenge by opening up the market to England; in partnership with the shipper Samuel Waring he exported massively to Bristol in the 1820s, and in 1825 established a Guinness agency in London.
He combined devout protestantism with a liberal outlook, and was a strong and public supporter of catholic emancipation allowing his name to be quoted in campaign speeches by O'Connell (qv). He also had long advocated allowing catholics onto the board of the Bank of Ireland. However, he baulked at repeal of the union and in 1836 voted against O'Connell, who termed him ‘that miserable old apostate’ (Corr., vi, 272). O'Connell's supporters instigated a national campaign of boycotting Guinness stout and even attacked the brewery and smashed its barrels. Arthur Guinness died in Dublin on 9 June 1855. He was predeceased by his two wives, Anne Lee (1774–1817) and Maria Barker (1783–1837), and survived by nine children.
Benjamin was educated privately at home and at the age of 16 began working for his father. On his father's retirement (1839) he took control of the company, together with his father's partner, John Purser, jun., who came from a family of London brewers that had worked with the Guinnesses for three generations. Purser's death (1858) left Benjamin Lee in sole control of a business which he greatly expanded. He placed agents, who worked on a commission basis, in all the major British cities and was therefore well positioned to benefit from the rise of artisans' incomes in England and Scotland in the 1840s and ‘50s. He was similarly alert to the post-famine opportunities in Ireland, and it was said that within twenty years of the famine no shop was without its stock of porter. The technical superiority of the brewery also dates from his time. An exemplary employer, he could rely on the loyalty and efficiency of his workers, since he paid them well above the average and also provided health care, pensions, and even housing. Such benevolence, as well as being commercially astute, sprang from deeply held religious beliefs. A member of the Church of Ireland, he began and ended each day in prayer and like his father regarded his wealth as a trust from God, which he was duty bound to distribute. Numerous charities benefited from his sponsorship, his most lasting bequest being the restoration of St Patrick's cathedral. Acting as architect, he completed this massive task in 1865 at a cost of over £150,000. In recognition of this and other public service, he was created a baronet on 15 April 1867.
Though civically and politically minded, Benjamin ensured that his priorities were mercantile. In 1851 he served as lord mayor of Dublin, which increased his standing and that of the brewery; but when in the following year he was invited to contest a Dublin seat in the Conservative interest, he refused (as had his father on previous occasions) on the grounds that the sectarianism and strife of party politics would be injurious to business. Eventually, however, the strength of the brewery in 1865 (when its output was as great as that of the combined production of Dublin's ten other brown-stout firms) gave him the security to stand for parliament and help protect the union on which he believed his prosperity depended. He was elected conservative member for Dublin city (July 1865) and sat till his death. His reputation as a good employer and promoter of Irish manufactures helped garner him cross-party votes, including those of the largely nationalist Dublin vintners. His main concern in parliament was to denounce Fenianism, before and after the 1867 rising. He had the gratification in December 1866 of receiving an address, signed by 515 of his employees, pledging unequivocable opposition to the Fenianism which, they claimed, was threatening the security and therefore the trade interests of the country.
He died at his London residence, 27 Norfolk St., Park Lane, on 19 May 1868 and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, in the family vault, on 27 May after one of the largest funerals Dublin had ever seen, which included 500 employees and 239 private carriages. He was predeceased by his wife (m. 24 February 1837), Elizabeth Guinness, who was also his cousin. Though he had set up various trusts before his death, he was still able to leave an estate of £1,100,000, making it the largest will proved in Ireland to that date. His second son, Benjamin Lee (1842–1900) having taken up a career in the Royal Horse Guards, the bulk of his estate was left to his eldest son, Sir Arthur Edward Guinness (qv) who inherited the estates of St Anne's, Clontarf, and Ashford, Galway, and the third son, Edward Cecil Guinness (qv), later Lord Iveagh, who inherited the town mansion at 80 Stephen's Green.