Robert James Lees was born on the 12th August 1849, the son of William Lingham Lees and Elizabeth Patch. He was born at 39 Bond Street, Hinckley but the Lees family moved to 12 Pennington Street in Rugby in 1861 and then to several different locations in Birmingham. Robert had very little formal schooling. He was apprenticed to a printer and by the time he was married he held the occupation of compositor. In 1883 he became a member of the staff of the Manchester Guardian and later worked as a Fleet Street journalist and advertising manager for other London publications. He has been variously described as a master engraver (1882), journalist, philanthropist, novelist, medium, tourist guide (1879-1889) and gentleman (1909).
Sarah Ann Bishop was born on December 22nd 1850, at 29 “Brandon” (?) Street, Birmingham, the daughter of Henry and Esther Bishop. As a child she lived close to the Lees family in Birmingham. In 1856 she attended St Mark’s School (probably a Sunday School) and was awarded a pictorial New Testament for “regularity and good conduct”. She met Robert at the Sunday School of the local Congregational Chapel, from where they were married on December 17th 1871. Her husband always described her as a loving and supportive wife. She bore him sixteen children, of whom twelve survived to adulthood. Several pieces of her jewellery are still in our family – an amethyst and pearl pendant (seen in photographs from 1871) and matching amethyst bracelet, a gold fob watch (Robert and Sarah gave this, and a silver watch, to each other to mark their wedding), a heavy crystal necklace with an aquamarine spider pendant (remade into a separate necklace and pendant by Chris James in about 2003) and an 18ct gold cross and chain, reputedly given to Robert, by the prostitutes of London, for his part in solving the Jack the Ripper murders.
Robert James Lees has a number of claims to fame. He held séances for Queen Victoria and assisted William Booth in the foundation of the Salvation Army. In 1886 he conducted a lecture tour in the United States and while there formed a friendship with Thomas Edison and was thus one of the first people to ever have his voice recorded. Scotland Yard consulted him on many occasions, the most notable being the Jack the Ripper case. From 1895 he wrote four novels dealing with life in the spirit world and a fifth – “The Heretic” – which was autobiographical in nature, as well as a short novelette – “The Corner-Wall Mystery”. Finally, in 1979, he was “reincarnated” by Donald Sutherland, who played his part in the movie “Murder by Decree”, about the Jack the Ripper murders.
Robert and Sarah lived first in Birmingham, and then shifted to Manchester in 1876 and again to London in 1878. In London they were living at 13 Wivenhoe Road, Peckham in 1882 but by 1892 they resided at 67 Ondine Road, East Dulwich. In 1895 they moved to St Ives, in Cornwall, and in 1911 to Ilfracombe, in Devon. Sarah died on February 19th 1912. Robert remained at Ilfracombe with his daughter, Eva, until 1925, when they relocated to 200 Fosse Road South in Leicester, where Robert died on January 11th 1931.
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