The Irish Post Office

Relation to the Griffin Family

George Mansfield Griffin (1914 - 1971) married Gertrude Blanche Kelly (1917 - 1992). Gertrude is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sir John Lees (c1737 - 1811).

Summary

Originally from Scotland, Sir John Lees (c1737 - 1811) obtained the position of Secretary of the Post Office in Ireland in 1774 and when he died his son Sir Edward Smith Lees (1783 - 1846) took over the job until 1831. Written accounts suggest that John Lees and Edward Lees were less that conscientious in the performance of their duties. At various times they were accused of cajoling Dublin Corporation1, refusing to employ Irish staff, dining with the domestics, retaining a spacious set of apartments for themselves, venality and an unsavoury influence2,3,4. Many British political appointees in Ireland at that time used their positions for private gain; John and Edward Lees were no exception4. Sir Edward Lees was removed from his job in 1831 following accusations of impropriety4. He went to Edinburgh, where he got a job running the Scottish Post Office.
Sir John Lees
Sir John Lees Boris Wilnitsky gallery
Sir John Lees
Sir John Lees by the artist Gilbert Stuart
Mary Cathcart
Mary Cathcart Wife of Sir John Lees

Introduction

In 1774, Sir John Lees (c1737 - 1811) purchased the office of Secretary of the Irish Post Office although he did not officially take up the position until 17844. Purchasing the office of Secretary involved paying an annuity to the previous occupants of the post. When John Lees dies in 1811, his son Sir Edward Smith Lees (1783 - 1846) became sole Secretary. Edward remained in the post until 1831 when he left for Scotland following accusations of impropriety and misconduct1,2,4. By the standards of their time, John Lees and Edward Lees were honourable men4; by today's standards they were not. During their tenure the Irish postal service was improved with better post roads, mail coaches and mail boats; deliveries increased and new letter offices were opened throughout the country. In addition to their duties at the Post Office, both John and Edward Lees also acted as informants for the British government, reporting on Irish reactions to political situations4. Many accusations of misconduct and impropriety were made against both John and Edward Lees during their time at the Post Office1,2,4.

Private Financial Gain

Many British political appointees in Ireland at that time used their positions for private gain; John and Edward Lees were no exception4. As Secretary to the Post Office John Lees was paid an annual salary of GBP423, but when he died he bequeathed over GBP100,000 to three of his sons and an additional GBP20,000 to his eldest son, Rev. Sir Harcourt Lees (1776 - 1852). How John Lees gained his wealth is a matter of controvesy4. It is alleged that both John and Edward Lees gave jobs to friends and relatives, sold appointments to others and embezzled property. For example, Edward Lees hired his brother Thomas Orde Lees (b. 1788) as senior clerk, promoted him to Chief Clerk within a year and gave him control of a suspension fund that was neither deposited in a bank nor audited; Thomas was also paid additional funds to superintend the port of Wexford4. Another relative, John Anderson, was awarded a contract to operate the mail coach between Dublin and Limerick; the terms of the contract included a payment of GBP1638, considered to be unduly high. The Leinster postal road was subcontracted to William Armit, the brother-in-law of John Lees. The annual profits for this contract were set by the Lees at an inflated GBP850, any shortfall in actual profits being made up by incidental charges to the post office. Harcourt Lees, the son of John Lees and brother of Edward, was allowed to use the services of the Post Office as his own personal office, reportedly using the stationary, the franking machine, and the services of the post office clerks for his personal business. John Lees reportedly sold appointments and contracts to his personal advantage4. These activities were eventually noticed by the authorities but John and Edward Lees only received minor rebukes1,2,4,5.

Charges of Misconduct

In 1823, charges of misconduct were brought against Sir Edward Lees by Frederick Homan, comptroller of the British mail office at the General Post Office, Dublin5. Laurence Parsons, the 2nd Earl of Rosse, who was at that time the Post Master General of Ireland, complained to the Lord Lieutenant, Dublin Castle, that Lees had defied his orders and he also questioned the propriety of the conduct of Lees5. The Earl of Rosse urged a government investigation into the matter. However, Lees was supported by his brother, Thomas Orde Lees (b. 1788), who worked at the Post Office as chief clerk, and by Charles O'Neill, 1st Earl O'Neill, who was joint Post Master General. Frederick Homan was subsequently dismissed from his post5.

Further accusations of misconduct and impropriety followed, and in 1831 Sir Edward Lees was finally removed from his job. He went to Edinburgh, where he got a job running the Scottish Post Office.

The Reform of the Irish Post Office

Following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, several reports were commissioned by the British Government in an effort to improve conditions in Ireland. In response to reports of "the accumulation of errors in the accounts" and "the frequent embezzlement of private property", the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Viscount Althorp who later became the 3rd Earl Spencer (ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales) acted in conjunction with Charles Duke of Richmond (the Postmaster General) to investigate the situation at the Dublin Post Office. The following is an account of their actions from The Authorized History of the Royal Mail2:

Althorp and Richmond ... moved with impressive speed to address the parlous state of the Irish Post Office, another scandal exposed by the 1829-30 Reports. The Government was anxious to set to rights much that had gone wrong in Ireland, building upon the Catholic Emancipation granted in 1829. Leaving Dublin to govern its own postal affairs, as it had been doing since 1784, now looked out of the question. Its Secretary was Edward Lees, son of John Lees whose sometimes unsavoury influence was already paramount in the 1770s. Father and son had held sway in Dublin for not far short of sixty years; and it was said that Edward outdid his father in every way. A statute reuniting the Irish and General Post Offices was passed in August 1831. Edward Lees was sent to Edinburgh - despite endless tales of his misconduct in Dublin - to run the Scottish Post Office. Richmond then pushed for the dismissal of all those on the payroll of the Dublin Post Office who had never actually set foot in the place. This alone cut its staff establishment by half2.

The General Post Office in Dublin

Building work began in 1814 and Francis Johnston, a well-known Irish architect, who had designed some fine private houses like Townley Hall in county Meath and also worked on the Bank of Ireland and St. George's Church in Dublin, was asked to design the new GPO in Sackville Street (now called O'Connell Street). The GPO was designed as a purpose-built General Post Office which would cater for the postal business and its customers. It was also to be a fine, distinguished building that would add to Dublin's architectural beauty and emphasise the important role of the Post Office in Irish life. Johnston's design managed to do all these things. There was a fine public office for business at the front of the building, a courtyard for the mail coaches at the back and an imposing fa├žade complete with classical columns and statues on the roof. The columns were of Portland stone and the rest of the stonework was granite from county Wicklow. There was also some accommodation for staff in the GPO in those days. Sir Edward Lees had a spacious set of apartments for himself, his family and servants and his own entrance door off Sackville Street. Ordinary staff, however, had to make do with rather more cramped rooms, some of them without a fireplace or window2.

Sources

1. John and Edward Lees: Secretaries of the Irish Post Office, 1774-1831 by Beatrice Bayley Butler. Dublin Historical Record (1953). Vol. 13, No. 3/4, pp. 138-150.
2. Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail by Duncan Campbell-Smith
3. Dublin's General Post Office A history of the GPO in Dublin
4. Arthur Cecil Pigou by Nahid Aslanbeigui and Guy Oakes (2014) Part of the Great Thinkers in Economics series published by Palgrave Macmillan, UK. ISBN 9781349553800
5. The records of the Chief Secretary of Ireland's Office National Archives, Ireland