Story: Rees, Annie Lee
Rees, Annie Lee
Writer, teacher, lawyer, community leader
This biography was written by Sheila Robinson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Annie Lee Rees was born at Beechworth, Victoria, Australia, on 24 April 1864, the eldest of seven children of Hannah (Annie) Elizabeth Staite and her husband, William Lee Rees, a congregational minister who was subsequently a notable lawyer and Liberal politician in New Zealand. The family emigrated to Dunedin in 1866 and later lived at Hokitika, Auckland, Napier and Gisborne.
Annie, who was better known as Lily or Lil, grew up in a stimulating, happy environment. Fair-haired and short-sighted, she was regarded as intellectually precocious, and clearly adored her father. She wrote vividly of her first 24 years in an unpublished autobiography, 'Life's amazing zest'. After attending schools in Auckland, Wellington and Napier she returned home to Gisborne to help teach her younger brothers and sisters. She frequently visited relatives in Auckland, where she 'came out' into society in 1882. An intelligent and articulate young woman, she revelled in music and reading and excelled at swimming, riding and tennis.
During her 20s Lily Rees helped her father write pamphlets expounding his political views. She was also his secretary when he was seeking to establish trusts and group settlements for Maori lands on the East Coast. She travelled with him and the Maori parliamentarian Wi Pere to England in 1888 in a vain attempt to promote these schemes. In 1892 father and daughter wrote The life and times of Sir George Grey, an uncritical full-length biography of William Rees's political ally and close friend.
Lily Rees subsequently published articles on historical and current topics. She also returned to academic study, matriculating in 1894 and becoming an extramural student of Auckland University College. In 1898 she leased a girls' college in Dunedin, Obern Lodge Private School, and while principal there passed her first law exams. She transferred to the University of Otago in 1899, graduated BA in 1901 and MA with honours in political science in 1902. She was by now a certificated teacher with seven years' experience.
In April 1902, with 19 other New Zealand women, Lily Rees was selected from 222 applicants to teach in the Boer concentration camps of South Africa. While there she wrote a number of articles describing the country and her experiences in the camps, which were published in New Zealand newspapers. Although the tenor of these articles was pro-British, they frankly discussed the difficulties encountered in maintaining concentration camps, including the misuse of aid, and transport and supply problems. When the camps were disbanded she stayed on to teach at Pietersburg high school until sometime in 1906. Then she visited her sisters in England before returning home.
Lily Rees resumed law studies at the University of Otago, graduated LLB and was admitted to the Bar in September 1910 at the age of 46. At the ceremony in the Supreme Court, Gisborne, the presiding judge, Frederick Revans Chapman remarked, 'I have known your father for many years and I firmly express the hope that you will keep alive his distinguished name.' It does seem likely that Annie's career change was inspired by her regard for her father. She practised in the firm he had founded, alongside her brother Arthur, during 1911 and 1912, but when her father died she turned once more to teaching.
She founded Cook County College, a girls' school in Gisborne offering a boarding facility, which she ran until 1923. In 1924 she embarked on a lecture tour of England and Scotland for the Victoria League, a pro-imperial organisation she supported staunchly. The venture, which reinforced the league's aim of promoting understanding between member countries of the British Empire, was later described as an 'outstanding success'. She became president of the Gisborne branch of the league in 1927, later accepting a life appointment to the office.
Lily Rees received a Coronation Medal in 1937. The Gisborne Herald regarded it as a 'somewhat belated recognition of her public services' for 'it was felt by many Gisborne residents that her selfless devotion to social work and her unique standing in the community deserved a more handsome award.' She never married, and died at Gisborne on 20 August 1949, aged 85. She was a woman who departed from the expectations of her times and social milieu. Her varied career, fostered by her affectionate, idealistic father, was fuelled by her own boundless enthusiasm. In the honesty, humour, and incisiveness of her writing lies a fine memorial to her zest for life.