Dunnes Stores currently occupies the premises at the corner of George’s Street Upper and Northumberland Avenue, a very significant building in the rich history of Dún Laoghaire.
On the right of the picture above, you will see an entrance of the old Avenue Hotel, which is now a storage facility for Dunnes. An original archway with ‘1906’ inscribed over it can still be seen on Northumberland Avenue.
Lees Lane, between Northumberland Avenue and Mulgrave Street, is named in honour of its former occupants, Edward Lee & Co.
In 1906, Edward Lee opened a large store here. Born in Tyrrelspass, Co. Westmeath, in 1853, the Lees were a Methodist family. Edward’s beliefs would play a major part in how he ran his business and treated his staff.
After training in the drapery business, Lee opened his first shop, Edward Lee and Co, in Bray, Co.Wicklow in 1885, quickly followed by shops in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown), Rathmines, and Dublin city centre.
An astute businessman, his shops became a great success, but Edward Lee also had a strong social conscience. He was a fair and kind employer, upholding a principle of “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”. It is believed that this common saying actually originated with Lee.
Edward Lee introduced a half day holiday for his staff in 1889, the very first Irish employer to do this, and pioneered a bonus system of profit sharing with all his employees.
Lee was elected a member of Bray Urban District Council in 1900 as a Unionist, and topped the poll there in 1903 local elections. 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 pushed for the construction of housing for the working people of Bray, including the Purcell’s Field scheme, which these days is called James Connolly and St.Kevin’s Squares, and Dargan Street in Little Bray.
Lee also took a strong pro-worker stance against William Martin Murphy during the 1913 lockout. He said: “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.”
This observation was partially inspired by the horrendous conditions that Lee saw in the courts (tenements) along the lanes running parallel to George’s Street, which are explored in great detail in Tom Conlon’s fantastic book, ‘Victorian Dún Laoghaire: A Town Divided’.
Sadly, Edward Lee also saw a lot of tragedy in his lifetime. Of the nine children he had with his wife, Anne Shackleton, only four lived past infancy. Of these survivors, another two of his children’s lives were cruelly cut short.
His eldest son Joseph Bagnall Lee was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, while another son was aboard the ill-fated Leinster, which was torpedoed by a German u-boat on October 10, 1918, after leaving Dún Laoghaire harbour.
Edward Lee died on Valentine’s Day in 1927. He is buried with his family in Deansgrange cemetery.
His great grandson, Michael Lee, published a great book entitled ‘Edward Lee: Model Employer and Man of Moral Courage’ in 2016. An exhibition of the same name runs in Deansgrange library until the end of January, 2020.
In today’s Ireland, in the midst of an appalling housing crisis, we desperately need more politicians and business people like Edward Lee.
Edward Lee, 1853 – 1927