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The Sympathetic Employer: the story of Edward Lee
Edward Lee, a member of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, who urged his fellow employers to 'withdraw the pledge requiring their employees to cease to belong to the Transport Workers’ Union' Photo: Michael Lee

The Sympathetic Employer: the story of Edward Lee

'Employers ought rather to seek to elevate those whom they employ than to inflict an indignity on them'

By Michael Lee

In a letter to the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal on 23 September 1913, Edward Lee, an employer and member of both the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the Dublin Mercantile Association, appealed for a conference to try and break the industrial deadlock and bring both sides to the table. In his letter he stated: ‘The workers must give up the baneful doctrine of 'tainted goods' and the consequent 'sympathetic strike' and must also give effective guarantees for the keeping of any agreements entered into.’

As for the employers, they ‘should withdraw the pledge requiring their employees to cease to belong to the Transport Workers’ Union, such a pledge is an unfair interference with the personal liberty of the worker, though I am sure the employers did not intend it as such. Employers ought rather to seek to elevate those whom they employ than to inflict an indignity on them.’

Edward Lee was trying to find a middle ground and his use of language in the letter is calculated and cautious: the workers ‘must’, the employers ‘ought’ and ‘should’. He didn’t want to be seen to lecture his fellow employers, but he also wanted to hold out the hand of fellowship and reason to the workers. At the same time, he subtly chided the employers regarding their treatment of the workers.

The story of Edward Lee, RTE Nationwide, broadcast 12 September 2013

Edward Lee had been born in Tyrrelspass Co. Westmeath in 1853. The Lees were Methodists and Edward’s beliefs would play an important part in his attitude towards people and business.

After training in the Drapery business he opened his first shop, Edward Lee and Co in Bray, Co.Wicklow in 1885. This was quickly followed by shops in Kingstown, Rathmines and Dublin. An astute businessman, the shops quickly became successful. He was proud of the fact that he was a self-made man.

Edward Lee had a strong social conscience and was a fair employer, his principle being ‘a good days pay for a good days work’. He introduced the half day holiday in 1889, the first employer in Ireland to do this, believing that the working day should be shortened. He also initiated a bonus system for all employees.

He was elected a member of Bray Urban District Council in 1900 as a Unionist, topping the poll again in 1903. He believed that it was ‘the first duty of the council to see that the poor were properly housed’. As chairman of the housing committee, he actively promoted the erection of houses for the working people of Bray, notably the Purcell’s Field scheme, now James Connolly and St.Kevin’s Squares and Dargan Street in Little Bray.

In 1906, he was made a Justice of the Peace (J.P.), becoming Chairman of the Council in 1908. Edward Lee was involved on the committee of the 1907 Irish International Exhibition in Dublin, along with William Martin Murphy, amongst others.

Three of Edward Lee's shopfronts: 2 Goldsmith Terrace, Bray (left); 48 Mary Street (centre) and Kingstown/Dun Laoghaire (right).

The day after Edward Lee’s appeal for conciliation appeared in the newspapers, James Connolly responded that he was not unsympathetic to the idea, but added: ‘My complaint about Mr Lee’s letter is that he appears to wish both sides to give way at the outset on the very points that are alleged by both sides to be in dispute.’During the Dublin Lockout, Lee became greatly concerned with the terrible consequences for the locked out men’s families and with the effects on commerce in general and his own business in particular, which relied to a great extent on imported goods. Disagreeing with the tactics of William Martin Murphy, chief architect of the lockout, he publically broke ranks with Murphy and the other employers.

Some of the employers were not happy with Lee’s letter. 

J. Doyle, writing to the Irish Independent on 30 September regarding  Lee’s idea of the employers withdrawing the pledge stated “How... any employer can be reasonably expected to invest his capital in a business the fate of which is practically at the mercy of the insolent and unscrupulous strike boss’.

Professor Thomas Kettle, on the other hand, contributed a piece called ‘Time to Call a Truce’ to the Freeman’s Journal on 24 September, in which he applauded Edward Lee’s letter.  ‘A middle course must and shall be found. Mr. Lee has spoken for the business world of Dublin’, he wrote.

Edward Lee subsequently joined the Dublin Industrial Peace Committee under the chairmanship of Professor Kettle. Amongst the others on the committee were Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh.

At a public meeting in the Mansion House at the end of October, Edward Lee felt that there were wrongs on both sides, but went on ‘Men of capital ought to be ashamed to have it go out to the ends of the earth that so many families were living each in one room.’

A deputation from the Peace Committee, which included Kettle and Lee, met with the employers to submit a draft agreement.

Another Peace Committee deputation, also with Kettle but not Lee, met with the Dublin United Trades Council. The Truce proposal was generally acceptable to the DUTC, but if Edward Lee felt he could persuade his fellow employers to be reasonable, he was to be disappointed.

A letter from Edward Lee to his son Alfred Tennyson Lee, November 1918, underlines his view on the rights of employees in the workplace

Inevitably, the committee failed to find a solution. A man of principle and strong social conviction, Edward Lee continued to concern himself with workers rights and in a very telling letter to his youngest son - Alfred - in November 1918, it is plain where his sympathies lie: '...possibly you have not heard of the strike at Arnotts, the place is closed since Wednesday night - I fear the firm are wrong as they refused to discuss matters with the union - that day is gone and the workers are determined to get a place in the sun, which I think is quite as it should be.’ Edward Lee died in 1927.

Michael Lee is a great-grandson of Edward Lee


Century Ireland

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