LEE, WALTER SUTHERLAND, businessman and office holder; b. 18 Oct. 1836 in Toronto, son of Joseph Lee and Maria Shanks; m. 2 Feb. 1860 Emma Mary Leuty, and they had four sons and two daughters; d. 4 Jan. 1902 in Toronto.
In 1832 Walter Sutherland Lee’s parents emigrated from England to York (Toronto), where Joseph Lee established a general store and later a building-supply business. Educated at James R. Mair’s private school, at 14 Walter went to John Maulson, one of the town’s first public accountants, to learn accounting; he remained for five years and acquired a reputation for perseverance and ability. In 1856 he joined Consumers’ Gas Company as cashier. About this time he became active in the York County militia.
In 1864 the Western Canada Building Society of Toronto decided to expand its operations, which were largely in the mortgage field, by employing a full-time secretary-treasurer. Lee got the job, and became so closely identified with the company that it was popularly known as Lee’s Building Society. Under his management, Western Canada, which was reorganized as a savings and loan company in 1874, achieved impressive growth over three decades. During the depression of the 1890s, however, it became obvious to Lee and his associates that the firm could not easily survive on its own. With interest rates, earnings, and real-estate values being forced down, and with growing competition from new lending sources, such as life-insurance companies, rationalization appeared necessary. A scheme to merge with the smaller Freehold Loan and Savings Company never got beyond the discussion stage, for John Herbert Mason of Canada Permanent Loan and Savings proposed an amalgamation of his company, Western Canada, Freehold Loan, and the London and Ontario Investment Company. The merger took place at the end of 1899 and Lee became general manager of the new company, Canada Permanent and Western Canada Mortgage Corporation.
Among his other business interests, Lee had been a provisional director in 1869 of the Dominion Bank [see James Austin*]. He was perhaps a protégé of John Worthington, a builder and contemporary of his father who was the only board member of both the bank and Western Canada. Lee was not elected to the bank’s permanent board in 1871 but he remained a shareholder. He was, as well, a director of Confederation Life Assurance Company and of the St Lawrence Foundry, and he was involved in the Toronto and Nipissing Railway [see George Laidlaw*]. In 1879 Lee, John Jacob Withrow*, and others formed the Industrial Exhibition Association of Toronto, forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition; he would serve on its board until his death in 1902. As befitted his prominence, he was president of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute in 1880–81.
Lee’s participation in public life was aided substantially by his financial expertise. A member of the Public School Board from 1868 and chairman in 1874–75, he seems to have devoted his efforts to its finance committee. During his membership the board achieved financial independence from city council. He also served on the board of the Toronto Collegiate Institute, being chairman from 1882 to 1885. In 1877 and from 1879 he sat on the board of Toronto General Hospital as the city’s representative, and was chairman from 1889. There too his knowledge of finance and property proved valuable. The hospital’s endowment was invested in real estate, much of it in poor condition. In 1886 music dealer Richard Brooking Butland bequeathed properties to the hospital that were in worse repair. One of two trustees appointed to manage them, Lee persuaded the board to issue debentures rather than dispose of the properties, and so maintain the real investment.
When W. S. Lee died in 1902 of typhoid pneumonia, he was a wealthy man. Aside from owning a large house on Jarvis Street and a farm at Lambton Mills (Etobicoke), he had substantial real-estate holdings in Toronto and the suburbs, both commercial and residential. In the late 1880s, for example, he had developed the area of east Toronto centred on Lee Avenue. He seems to have carried out his speculation with others’ money. His 55 acres in what was to become the fashionable suburb of Forest Hill and his building lots in south Parkdale were heavily mortgaged. It is not known to what extent he had invested in western land, but he sold his last holding in Manitoba just before his death.
Lee’s contemporaries were shocked and saddened by his passing. The Monetary Times said of him: “Constant to his business as a piece of mechanism; public spirited in his various activities, always cheerful, kindly and frank, in whatsoever company, it really seemed as if he were an integral part of the community.” An Anglican in religion and a Conservative in politics, he had also been a grandmaster of King Solomon’s Masonic Lodge.
AO, RG 22, ser.305, no.15189. Daily Mail and Empire, 2 Jan. 1897, pt.2: 1. Globe, 6 Jan. 1902. Monetary Times, 5 Feb. 1886: 888–89; 10 Jan. 1902: 885. World (Toronto), 6 Jan. 1902: 2. Canada Permanent Mortgage Corporation, The story of the Canada Permanent Mortgage Corporation, 1855–1925 ([Toronto], 1925). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Centennial story: the Board of Education for the city of Toronto, 1850–1950, ed. E. A. Hardy and H. M. Cochrane (Toronto, 1950), 112–19. C. K. Clarke, A history of the Toronto General Hospital . . . (Toronto, 1913), 107–14. Commemorative biog. record, county York. W. G. Cosbie, The Toronto General Hospital, 1819–1965: a chronicle (Toronto, 1975), 119–20. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Directory, Toronto, various dates. Dominion Bank, Fifty years of banking service, 1871–1921: the Dominion Bank, [comp. O. D. Skelton et al.] (Toronto, 1922). Toronto, Board of Trade, “Souvenir”.