The Sinking of the R.M.S. Leinster

People on board

Robert Ernest Lee

LEE, Robert Ernest, Capt.

Robert Ernest Lee, known as Ernest, was born in 1883 to Edward Lee and Annie Sheckleton who had married in the Methodist church in Blackrock in 1878. From Tyrellspass and Roscrea respectively, Edward and Annie had set up a drapery shop at their home on Goldsmith Terrace, Quinsborough Road, Bray. Here they had eight children between 1879 and 1892, with a further child born in 1906. Tragically five of these nine children died in infancy, leaving just four sons to reach adulthood. The Lee drapery business prospered and branches were opened in Kingstown, Rathmines, Mary St. in Dublin and Tyrellspass. Edward Lee was a very good employer with a social conscience; he was the first employer in Ireland to introduce a half-day holiday for his staff; he initiated a system of profit-sharing for his employees; and he disagreed publicly with the tactics of his fellow employers during the 1913 Lockout, during which none of the Lee employees were locked out. He was concerned with the living conditions of many Dubliners and entered local politics in Bray in an effort to bring about some changes.

It was in this atmosphere of hard work and social responsibility that Robert Ernest grew up with his brothers Edward Shackleton, Joseph Bagnall and Alfred Tennyson. Edward and Robert Ernest went to Wesley College, Dublin while the two younger brothers went to boarding school in Wales. The family were living at 'The Grange’ on the Stillorgan Road at this stage, later moving to ‘Bellevue’ on Cross Avenue in Blackrock. All four boys went to Trinity College Dublin, from where Robert Ernest graduated M.D. in 1911. He was working as ‘Senior House Surgeon’ at Bootle Hospital, Liverpool at the time of the UK 1911 census, and he then returned to Ireland where he was Resident Medical Office at the Royal Hospital for Incurables in Donnybrook.

When war was declared Robert Ernest joined the R.A.M.C. and the 14th Field Ambulance as Lieutenant and was sent to France in early 1915. In May 1915 at Hill 60, outside Ypres, the bravery he displayed under concentrated fire resulted in promotion to Captain. Meanwhile his brothers Joseph and Tennyson had joined the 6th Royal Munster Fusiliers and in August 1915 had been sent to Gallipoli. Joseph was killed at Suvla Bay on the 7th and two days later Tennyson was injured; he was brought home to recover and later returned to the war. Robert Ernest spent the rest of the war on the Western Front and was probably returning from leave when he found himself on the RMS Leinster on the 10th October 1918.

When the torpedo struck the ship, there was not much time for helping people but letters written afterwards to Edward Lee indicate that Robert Ernest helped a nurse and an already injured soldier with their life jackets. He managed to get into a lifeboat, but noticing a woman and child in the water he jumped in again and got them to safety, but drifted away himself and was lost. His body was later recovered near Gorey, Co Wexford and he was buried in the family grave in Deansgrange cemetery, where his brother Joseph had been remembered. Sometime later a woman arrived at the Lee home, identifying herself as the woman who Robert Ernest had saved and expressing her grateful thanks to his parents for his gallantry.

He is remembered on several war memorials, including one in Baggot Street Hospital where he had worked as a trainee doctor. Throughout the remainder of their lives his parents supported both Baggot Street and the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook to honour his name.


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