Henry John Fice Lee was born in Yealmpton in 1861 where he became a baker. Later, he moved to Ivybridge with his wife Amelia. Together they had two sons, Sydney Herbert and Henry John, and a daughter, Caroline who married Naval Officer Lt. William Frank Smallbone in 1918. He later became Commander Smallbone and they lived at Uplands on Exeter Road in Ivybridge. Henry and Amelia Lee lived initially at Clare Street and later, following the success of business, at Greenwood on Western Road. Apparently, he had told his wife he would one day own a mill to supply his bakery business.
During the mid-1890s Henry Lee took his first step in fulfilling his aspirations. Samuel Head, the proprietor of a tan yard in the centre of Ivybridge advertised a corn mill ‘To be Let’. Although a date is not documented it is known that Mr Lee took up the lease of the Union Mills, a former cooperative mill which ceased operating in 1893. The Devonport Union Mill Society, a wholesale bread cooperative from Plymouth, had purchased the old manorial corn mills at Ivybridge way back in 1821 and had operated them with great success during this period. Mr Lee appeared to be a very successful businessman and soon needed to expand. In 1901 he publicised in the newspaper that he was ‘taking into partnership Mr. James Scoble in the Baking and Confectionery Department’. Mr Scoble resided at 5 Western Road whilst Henry Lee stated that his corn and forage business would be carried out under his personal supervision at the Union Mills in Fore Street.
At this time, the neighbouring paper mill, operated by the Holman family was falling on hard times. With poor trading conditions, largely the result of cheap imported paper, the mill was put on the market in 1903. At the auction, which took place at The London Hotel, the successful bidder was none other than Henry J.F. Lee. Over the next few years he converted the premises into a corn and provender mill. He modernised the building suitable for milling and provided a new facade facing Fore Street. A plaque on the exterior read ‘H. J. F. Lee Ivybridge Mills 1905’. With continuing success, he extended his operations at Yealmpton where he founded Lee Bros with his brother Samuel Fice Lee.
The vacated Union Mill now had a new lessee, a Mr Bertie Hawke. This marked the beginning of a period of intense rivalry between Mr Lee and Mr Hawke who were now in direct competition with one another. They were not only vying for business but also competing for the water diverted from the River Erme via the leat which they both wanted for their individual machinery. Documentary evidence records that there were times when they did not speak and the question of whose turn it was to use water from the leat was conducted by correspondence between their respective solicitors.
In 1913 it is recorded that Samuel Head of the tannery emigrated to Canada. It is believed that Henry Lee then went on to purchase the whole site. This included the old Union Mills, tan yard and accompanying properties, including Tannery House on Fore Street. The latter was to become home for his son, Sydney. Sadly he died in 1927 having been, like his father, a successful businessman and district councillor.
The complete site became known as “Lee and Son, Ivybridge Ltd”. The acquisition of the coal yard enabled Mr Lee to diversify into coal and coke merchanting.
In the 1930s, the old Union Mills building, became known as the “Cinema”. Twice a week a travelling cinema, operated by a couple from Saltash, would screen films for the local community. Seats cost between 4d., and 1s. 3d., (1.5p and 6p today) and the music was played by a retired school mistress called Queenie Peline. The young lads often brought their pea shooters with them, and using loose grain and maize which was always lying around on the floor of the mill, would shoot at people in the front rows. Eventually the manager would intervene, turn on the lights and eject the offenders!
Henry John Fice Lee went on to be a prominent member of the community. In 1896 he was elected to the Urban Council and served for 27 years, the last ten as chairman. He was instrumental in progressing the water scheme in Ivybridge. For ten years he was, by virtue of his office on the Council, a Justice of the Peace, and in 1919 he was added to the Commission of the Peace for Devon.
An interesting ceremony took place at the offices of the Ivybridge Urban Council, in the presence of the present and former councillors last night, when Mr H.J.F. Lee, a member of the Council from 1896 to 1923, and chairman from 1913 to 1923, was presented with a large framed portrait of himself from members of the council.
Mr W.H. Martin (chairman), who made the presentation, said they had met to acknowledge the good work of their former chairman. In connection with the Ivybridge water scheme, Mr Lee had been particularly prominent, and had always been behind important work at Ivybridge.
Western Morning News 7 August 1929
Under the Corn Production Act, 1917, and in accordance with the District Wages Committees Regulations, 1918, a Devonshire District Wage Committee was established in April 1918 which Henry Lee served as deputy Chairman. Additionally, he was a member of the Agricultural Millers’ Association in London; Chairman of the local Unemployment Committee, Chairman of the local Conservative and Unionist Association, and a founder member and President of the Ivybridge Bowling Club. One wonders when he had time to play bowls!
Henry John Fice Lee died on Sept 3 1931, just eight weeks before his 70th Birthday. His businesses in Ivybridge and Yealmpton closed for the remainder of the day in respect. Outside Lloyds Bank, set into the pavement, the initials H.J.F.L serve as recognition of his significant contribution to Ivybridge.
After the death of Henry John Fice Lee the business became a private company, before his widow (who died in 1950), sold the business to a Mr Bradshaw. This gentleman then sold it on to British Oil and Cake Mills (BOCM) in October 1964.
During the 1960s, power for the machinery was still supplied in the main by a water turbine, with the leat remaining the water source. The machinery included a corn crusher, a maize cutter, a one-ton mixer, and a chain hoist.
Way back in 1937 a water turbine manufactured by Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon Ltd of Kendal was installed at Lee’s Mill. This water turbine was apparently capable of supplying 30.6hp on a fall of 16ft and running at a speed of 308rpm. It is believed the power was transmitted to the milling and mixing machinery by a series of underfloor belts and pulleys. This turbine was saved when the site was eventually re-developed and is on permanent display at Harford Road Car Park. Its nickname was “The Snail” for obvious reasons.