Project Information
After 1907
1901 Snapshot
Air Photo Study
Image Library
The Lees Family of Ottawa East
By Sue Hill

Robert Lees was the patriarch of the Lees family who lived in a house called Wildwood. It stood, at the end of a long lane, on Main Street, where the Queensway is now.

Born in Scotland in 1814, he came to Canada as a babe in arms. His father Andrew Lees pioneered in Pakenham, Ontario. Robert Lees became first a schoolteacher, then a lawyer and Queen's Counsel.

He courted and married Jessie Dickson of Pakenham, and during their courtship their exchange of letters included both historic and personal events. There is a description of the riots on "Stony Monday" in 1849 on Rideau Street at Sapper's Bridge. He wrote: "Bytown is a fearful place to live in just now... The idea of making you take up your abode in such a place is horrible." He made a reputation in defending some of the radicals against what he saw as persecution by the authorities.

One of the letters refers to a family disgrace involving Jessie's sister, which drove her to ask Robert if he wished to be released from the obligation of his engagement to marry. The letter detailing the disgrace is unfortunately missing. Some of the letters they wrote are difficult to read because they are written in two directions on the same page - paper was dear.

In fact, Lees did stay in downtown Ottawa after his marriage to Jessie in 1852, and they lived at first in the Matthews Hotel (later became the Rideau Convent). With their growing family they lived in a building on George Street also housing the law firm of Lees and Gemmell. Four of their children were born in Ottawa: Ella in 1853, Victoria in 1856, Elizabeth in 1857, and William in 1859. Victoria was a sickly infant and not expected to live, so they did not name her but called her "Sister" for several years. She chose her own name - Victoria, after the Queen.

The crowded town, epidemics of disease and bad drains in the summer led them to move in 1853 to the country, to the suburb of Ottawa East, Nepean Township, just south of the Rideau Canal. When a friend asked why he wanted to live "in the wild woods", Lees took that as the name of his house and estate. Daughter Jessie was born at Wildwood in 1864. The estate included a tenanted farm stretching from Main Street to the Rideau River, and orchards and kitchen gardens near the house. Will sometimes worked on the farm when he was home from university and law school. The whole family worked in the gardens hoeing, weeding and all the other chores familiar to gardeners. In the fall it was harvesting, canning and taking the surplus produce to Byward Market - as reported in a diary: "We took along the girl to hold the horse".

They seemed to do most of the housework themselves as it was difficult to keep a girl to work so far out in the country. Their problem with the yardman was that he was so often "off on the spree". Cleaning out the garret was such a triumph that they marked the occasion with a photograph. Photography was coming into its own as a hobby for amateurs and the Lees family and their neighbours the Ballantynes were keen photo-cranks, taking photos of their homes, neighbours, relatives and the local scenery.

Robert Lees took his role as Patriarch seriously. His five children were all accomplished in music, writing, drawing and other arts. They boated on the Rideau River, played tennis, snowshoed, sometimes to downtown Ottawa to do their Christmas shopping. They formed the Wildwood Opera Society for their own amusement, and presented concerts in the parlour. Every week for years whichever family members, visitors and neighbours, especially May Ballantyne, would meet by the dining room fire for Elocution Class. Members took turns reciting selections of poetry or prose, some written by other members of the class. One member each week was delegated "Critic" and wrote up commentary on the performances for the family newsletter the "Wildwood Echo", published fortnightly. As reported, "one of the younger members fled the room during a recitation of "The Nancy Bell", complete with lip-smacking. (It is a humorous poem about cannibalism by W. S. Gilbert.)

The "Wildwood Echo" was a collection of contributions by many members of the Lees' circle. They took it in turn to serve as editor to hand-write the pages and distribute them by mail around the province. It contained poems; a romance novel serialised over several months, essays, drawings, photographs and watercolours. May Ballantyne was a prize-winning painter of flowers.

Also in the "Echo was "Thistledown", a column on the doings at Wildwood and Ottawa East. These doings included: fighting off fruit thieves at Halloween, gypsies with a dancing bear in the neighbourhood, a chimney fire in which Cousin Bob (Robert Dickson Brown of Ottawa) proved a hero by climbing the roof and extinguishing the blaze, and listing the many visitors from Perth, Pakenham, Brockville and other places. At the time of some troubles with the Fenians William formed the Wildwood Rifle Club and taught the womenfolk how to shoot, in case they need to defend themselves. Once the Fenians tried to burn down their house.

Elizabeth's diary from 1879 recounts her time in Toronto attending the Normal School and contending with a crummy boarding house. The boarders seemed to be fed mostly gruel, but on Thanksgiving, when they hoped for something special, they were given "some bits of fried beef". One day on arriving home from school, she found they had all been evicted.

By 1884 Ella was married to Sidney Preston and living in Toronto. Elizabeth taught school in Ottawa East from 1880 to 1884. When she married Cousin Bob they moved to the house he had built at the other end of Main Street, corner of Riverdale. It was called "The Pines" and was on a large property that included a factory that Robert Brown owned on the Canal.

The part of the farm nearest Main Street was developed for housing about the time that Robert Lees died in 1893. The planned streets were called after the Lees children.

William attained his law degree about the same time. He married Lizzie Turnbull and they built a house, named "Plain Air", on William Street where Lees Avenue is now. They later moved to Wetaskawin, Alberta, where William became Judge Lees.

Jessie studied violin in Germany and gave music lessons at Wildwood and in Ottawa. She later moved to Erindale, Ontario.

Victoria moved in with Elizabeth and her son Robert Lawrence Brown at "The Pines" when Robert Brown died in 1895. She did not marry but built a house on Riverdale Avenue for herself in 1927. She moved to a bigger house on the same street when her sister Jessie came to live with her. Victoria, who had been a sickly child, out-lived the others and died in 1942.

Editors Note: the obituary of Robert Lees has been reproduced here from notes by the above author.
Return to Mainstreeter Page
Go to the Robert Lees Obituary