Early Life and Family
Sir Walter Henry Lee moved from being a wagon builder at Longford to becoming Premier of Tasmania. He was also a devout Methodist and a local preacher.
He was born in Longford on the 9th of April 1874 the seventh child of Robert (1836-1907) and Margaret (nee Flood) Lee (1837-1907) and had eight siblings. They were Hester Elizabeth (1861-1907), James Edmund (1863-1956), Herbert Watson (1865-1941), Edith Christine
(1867-1896), Annie (1869-1871), Frederick Robert (1872-1873), Hilda May (1877-1901) and George Alfred (1879-1939).
His father Robert worked as a blacksmith and wheelwright with two of his sons, James and Walter later taking over the business. By 1896 the brothers were actively operating, trading as Lee Brothers, which business they greatly increased and became famous all over the country as items produced could always be relied upon and had a reputation of excellency.
On 17 August 1898 Walter and Margaret Matilda Barnes were married at the Longford Wesleyan Methodist Church. They had eight children – Iris Matilda (1899-1985), Reginald Walter (1901-1913), Lillian Margaret (1903-1999), Gladys May (1905-1980), Norman Henry (1907-1982), Vernon Robert (1909-1986), Jessie Florence (1911-1959), and Lindsay Charles (1915-1987).
Walter was educated at the Longford State School to primary level before entering his father’s business.
Time in Parliament
In 1909 he gained a seat in the Tasmanian Parliament, House of Assembly as a member for Wilmot (now known as Lyons) and would continue in this position till 1946. He soon showed himself as having good skills in political and parliamentary affairs and quickly was rewarded with ministerial positions.
In 1915, Lee became Leader of the Opposition and on his party winning the 1916 election, he was sworn in as Premier of Tasmania (also serving as Minister of Education and Chief Secretary until 1922). Lee became Premier for a second time on 14 August 1923 on the resignation of John Hayes after a year as premier, but this ended on 25 October 1923 on being defeated by a Labor no-confidence motion.
Lee became Premier for a third time in 1934 (15 March), when as Deputy Premier he took over for John McPhee, who retired due to ill health. His term lasted for three months, when Labor won the 1934 election, although he remained as Leader of the Opposition until July 1936. He lost his seat in the 1946 election and retired to his farm, “Barunah”, at Quamby Bend, Westbury.
While in Parliament at times he and his wife lived in Hobart, the Electoral Roll of 1919 recording them at 23 Stoke Street, Newtown and in 1922 at 465 Macquarie Street, Hobart.
Offices Held While in Parliament
- Chief Secretary and Minister for Education from 1916-22
- Treasurer 1923
- Acting Premier and Treasurer 1934
- Treasurer and Minister administering the Agricultural Bank and Hydro Department, March-June 1934
Walter – the Person
Walter was small in stature and possessed a limited education. A newspaper report in 1922 stated he was trim in figure, dapper of dress with neat dark clothes and a bowler hat. In 1941 a newspaper reporter described him as “a short dapper man, forthright and vigorous in his views, thorough in Administration with a sound knowledge of public finance. He was a master of parliamentary tactics, excelling in debate, particularly in his ability to ridicule opponents”.
Title and Honours
In the 1920 New Year Honours, he became Sir Walter Lee, awarded Knight Bachelor and in 1922 appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG).
Walter was strongly connected with the Methodist Church, including being a local preacher and a member of several Church Boards. He regularly was listed to take services in the Longford and Westbury circuits. When the Longford Church Jubilee celebrations were held in 1930 Walter was invited to be the speaker at the main service. His topic was “God’s Multiplying Word”.
After the purchase of the Barunah farm at Quamby Bend, the family mostly attended the Hagley congregation. My father, Eric, also a local preacher, would recall meeting Walter’s family there and on several occasions being invited to join the family for lunch.
He was also a Trustee of the Longford Methodist Church.
The newspaper reporter in 1922 said “ ……. he looks precisely what he is a nice, honest little man who fears God, goes to church at least once every Sunday and does his best for his country”.
Farming at “Barunah” Quamby Bend
Walter purchased the above property in about 1923 with some of the family moving there. Initially, it was operated as a dairy farm by several of Walter’s sons and is still owned by descendants.
Both Walter and his wife Margaret died at Barunah and were buried in the Longford Methodist cemetery.
Written by Ivan Badcock