LEES, JOHN (until about 1780 he added “junior” to his signature; he sometimes signed Jean Lees), militia officer, merchant, landowner, politician, judge, and office holder; b. c. 1740 in Scotland, son of John Lees, a merchant; d. 4 March 1807 in Lachine, Lower Canada.
John Lees came to Quebec with his parents immediately after the conquest. By October 1761 his father was established in Lower Town, where he remained in business until he left for Scotland around 1777. Both father and son became involved in the political struggles disturbing the colony [see George Allsopp]. In 1766 the younger Lees went to England to complain about the laws governing the administration of justice [see Maurice Morgann]; he returned there for the same purpose on two other occasions. In January 1774 he was one of the 148 people who signed a petition to the king requesting a house of assembly, and in November he was amongst those who expressed a fervent desire to have the Quebec Act repealed. On 2 Dec. 1775, when the American army was at the gates of Quebec [see Benedict Arnold; Richard Montgomery*], Lees enlisted as an ensign in the militia company of which William Grant (1744–1805) was captain; soon after he himself became a militia captain. During the siege of the town his property on Rue Saint-Pierre was severely damaged.
In 1773 Lees had entered into partnership with merchant Alexander Davison. From the beginning the firm of Davison and Lees specialized in the import trade and in supplying the British troops in North America, two highly lucrative activities. For example, a contract to provide the army with flour brought the two partners £300 a year, as well as a 25 1/2 per cent commission on their purchases. They also became suppliers for a number of merchants in the Quebec and Trois-Rivières regions, among them Pierre Du Calvet*, who owed them £3,600 at his death in 1786, and Aaron Hart*, for whom they also acted as agent in England. As creditors for small merchants such as Alexandre Dumas and John Justus Diehl, to whom they advanced goods on credit, they occasioned more than one bankruptcy.
Like many businessmen of the period, Lees and his partner engaged in land speculation. Habitués of the sheriffs’ offices in Quebec and Montreal, they concentrated their activity at Quebec and in the parishes west of Trois-Rivières. In this way on 14 Oct. 1784 they bought the seigneury of Gastineau, which they sold three years later to George Davison*, Alexander’s younger brother.
In 1786 Lees and the two Davison brothers obtained the lucrative lease of the king’s posts for 16 years at £400 a year [see Henry Hamilton*]. The acquisition was made through the political contacts of the Davisons, supporters of the French party, with Lees acting as agent. François Baby was also a partner, but the others soon bought up his share and divided the profits, one-half going to George Davison, the other to Davison and Lees.
Because of their numerous activities in the Trois-Rivières region, Lees and Alexander Davison became interested in the Saint-Maurice ironworks, to which they were suppliers. As the lessee, Conrad Gugy*, had died, in March 1787 they obtained the lease and the contents of the inventory for £2,300. The next year the two partners asked the Executive Council for a ten-year extension of their lease, which was to expire in 1799; they argued that they had had many expenses and would have to invest more in the ironworks “to render them of greater and more general utility.” Their request was turned down because Hugh Finlay had applied for the lease before them and the council judged that the reasons they invoked appeared “neither favourable to the common interest, nor their own interest.” Finlay, however, did not obtain the lease; in 1793 Davison and Lees sold it to George Davison, David Monro*, and Mathew Bell*.
Lees and Davison originally entered into a partnership for only a few years, but it was renewed and lasted 18, coming to an end for unknown reasons on 15 Aug. 1791. According to the terms of the final settlement, which did not occur until October of the following year, Lees made over his share, amounting to half of their business, to his ex-partner for £1,000. Davison for his part promised to repay £812 5s. 7d. which had been paid out by Lees on the company’s behalf, plus “further sums not exceeding two hundred pounds currency which the said John Lees may justify.” In addition, if the lease to the king’s posts was renewed, Lees was to receive £200 a year for six years. He undertook, naturally, to hand over to Davison any sums he might receive in the name of their company, which would be wound up in 1794. Lees continued until at least 1800 to serve as an official supplier to the army. During his partnership with Davison, Lees had acted on his own on a few occasions, particularly as agent for friends or merchants in difficulty with the law.
In 1792 Lees embarked on a new career. On 10 July he was elected to the first house of assembly of Lower Canada, for the constituency of Three Rivers, a seat he retained for the rest of his life. He also sat on the Executive Committee as an honorary member from late 1794 until December 1804, and then as an active member until 1807. In addition, during the last two years of his life he was a judge of the provincial Court of Appeals. He appears to have virtually abandoned the business world, although the post of storekeeper general to the Indian Department at Lachine, which he held from 20 April 1795, may have enabled him to carry out certain transactions. In any case it brought him nearly £500 a year. In his first report Lees drew attention to himself by accusing the Queen’s Rangers of stealing goods and presents intended for the Indians. Later he often complained to his superiors of the expenditures he had to make personally to rent and heat his office; moreover, as his landlord was demanding such a high rent, he had to build a house in the vicinity of the storehouse.
In the House of Assembly Lees took part in the debates from the outset, opposing Jean-Antoine Panet’s election as speaker and unsuccessfully nominating James McGill. At the second session he did the same thing, proposing, again unsuccessfully, that John Young preside over the members’ deliberations. He was also fiercely opposed to French being an official language of the house and, along with other members of the English party, advocated that members should be able to introduce bills in the language of their choice but that only the English version should be authoritative. In those early days of Canadian parliamentary government Lees also worked hard at drawing up the procedural rules for the assembly, of which he was one of the most regular members, being absent only three or four times from 1792 to 1804. Although he was involved in all the debates, two problems in particular engaged his attention: economic questions and the colony’s security. Since he was well acquainted with the business world, he was often chosen as a member or chairman of committees on imports, duties, weights and measures, hemp growing, fishing, and the division of customs revenue between Upper and Lower Canada. As an ardent royalist who feared France’s intrigues in her former colony, he proposed or supported various bills for reorganizing and increasing the militia, as well as for punishing “traitors” and deserters.
In addition to these principal occupations, in 1787 Lees had received a new commission as captain in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia; he had been a member of the Agriculture Society of the district since 1789 and one of its directors from 1791 to 1793, the year in which he was on the board of directors of the Quebec Library. In June 1794 he joined the association that had been founded that year to support the British government. The next year he was one of the commissioners of the Lachine toll-roads. He also served as justice of the peace for the District of Quebec from 1795 to about 1799. Like a good many officials of the time, Lees asked for land grants; a request in 1796 came to nothing, but in 1803 he received 541 acres in Granby Township.
From 1805 he was plagued with illness and was unable to attend assembly sessions. He died at Lachine in March 1807. Since he had not married, he bequeathed his estate to his sisters Jane, Sarah, and Nancy, of Stirling, Scotland. His accounts, however, were in such disorder that James McGill, John Craigie, and John Richardson* refused to serve as his executors, and the attorney general seized his books and papers. It would take five years to straighten them out.
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Cite This Article
Yves Frenette, “LEES, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lees_john_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Yves Frenette|
|Title of Article:||LEES, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||May 30, 2023|