Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Lee, Robert George (Bob) (1930–2007)

by John Farquharson

By the time he retired in 1988 after 35 years as a compositor at the Canberra Times, Bob Lee had seen it all – the transition from linotype machines and hot-metal type setting to the computerised setting which was to see the skills of the printing trade ‘taken over by mechanical monstrosities’ and craftsmen of his ilk become ultimately redundant.

Bob, who has died in Canberra aged 77, regretted those changes, but acknowledged that progress ‘could not be stifled’. Like many of his colleagues he left the industry feeling a sense of loss, because ‘there’s not quite the same satisfaction or sense of achievement in bring out a newspaper with computer technology as there was in the hot-metal era’.

For Bob, as for many others, the technological transition took away some of the romance of newspapers. Like many of his colleagues he missed the atmosphere of the hot-metal days – the cacophony of the composing room, the linotypes churning out their slugs of type into galleys (metal trays), the smell of lead pots, of page plates being cast and the permeating odour of printers’ ink hanging in the air. But in an interview Bob did with me at the time of the Canberra Times’ 70th anniversary, Bob said that looking back, ‘If I had to choose, I would do it all again’.

He was born in Mumbil, NSW, during the Great Depression, only child of Darcy and Mary Lee, who in those years were doing it tough. From an early age, Bob had to go out with his father shooting rabbits – ‘underground chicken’ – to help put food on the table. After primary school in Mumbil, Bob had to board in Wellington (20 miles away) to go to high school. He went back home by steam train at weekends. That lifestyle continued until just before the official end of high school, when Bob decided he had had enough. He landed a job with the local newspaper, the Wellington Times, against the wishes of his father who wanted to see him in a ‘safe and steady’ job with the railways.

After completing his apprenticeship, he worked for 18 months on the Dubbo Dispatch. He had gone to Dubbo because the proprietor of the Wellington Times refused to pay him the tradesman’s wage he was entitled to on completion of his apprenticeship. He was paid the award wage in Dubbo, but found the housing situation impossible. Unable to find suitable accommodation, when a friend told him there was a job going in Canberra together with a house, he applied and was hired.

He didn’t know where Canberra was and thought it was ‘somewhere near the Queensland border’! Upon locating it on the map, he calculated he could make the journey with his car and box trailer in about six hours. But his calculations went awry. On breasting a hill, Bob ran into a pile of metal left in the middle of the dirt road, damaging one of the trailer’s wheels. By the time he had made makeshift repairs, and got on the road again, darkness was falling when he and his wife, Kathleen, reached Canberra.

After making contact with his new employer, A. T. Shakespeare, he and his wife, Kathleen, settled into a Canberra Times house in O’Connor. He was employed as a stone hand and told that he would be the day staff in the composing room, to ‘break up and make up the paper’, as A. T. Shakespeare put it. ‘Well, that meant everything’, Bob recalled during our interview. ‘I had to get the forms off the press, break them up and then begin making up by laying in the advertisements for the next day, make up any ads that were set and, as time went on, it became mark-up, make-up. It was varied; multi-skilled, it would be called these days’.

He got on well with the three Shakespeare brothers (Arthur, Jack and Bill) apart from ‘some moments now and again. But you could have a row with A. T. and it was never held against you. The next day his attitude was yesterday’s gone, today is here. Let’s get out a paper’. Bob who was secretary of the Canberra Times chapter of the Printed and Kindred Industries Union ( PKIU) recalled that the Shakespeares were hard in union negotiations. But if staff went to A. T. with a personal problem and needed anything for the family he was always prepared to help.

Bob told me how classifieds were written on bits of paper, or old envelopes, an echo from the Depression years when the paper struggled for survival. It wasn’t until the mid-fifties that printed classified forms were provided. One advertiser had a habit of writing ads on brown paper. ‘I think he had his lunch on it too’, Bob said. ‘If you couldn’t read it you made it up, So I did this one day and the next morning the advertiser (Stan Cusack, from the furniture store) came storming through the door. I thought he was going to eat me. But he grabbed by the hand sand said, “Congratulations, run it again”.

There was also ‘the best dressed comp I have ever seen in a composing room’. That was Mervyn Jones, manager of the Civic and Capitol theatres. Always impeccably dressed, he used to come into the composing room, go over the Ludlow and start setting his own advertisements. Merv always had special privileges because during the Depression years his advertisements often determined whether or not the staff got paid.

Bob remembers how all sorts of people used to ‘drift’ into the office, both day and night and ‘you weren’t always sure whether they were on the staff or not. You’d be talking to someone and you’d think I’ve seen him somewhere before and it would be one of the local MPs, Jim Fraser (Member for the ACT) or Allan Fraser (Member for Eden-Monaro). They would come in, sit down on an old kerosene tin and have a yarn with you’. Of his years with the Canberra Times, spanning the Shakespeare and old Fairfax Company eras, Bob used to say, ‘They were often hard times, but good times’.

Outside the paper Bob had number of ‘passions’, particularly anything mechanical. He and his wife used to race midget cars at Mt Gin racetrack, which was located just past the old Starlight drive-in on the Federal Highway. Later his interests moved to the collection of antique firearms, then to tracking down rusty vintage car bodies, vintage motorbikes and all manner of stationary engines. He spent untold restoring such items. He was a foundation member and president (1983-84) of the Classic Motor Club, which later became the Antique and Classic Car Club. He was also a member of the Canberra and District Historic Engine Club and could often be seen at local shows displaying some of his engines.

Friends and colleagues will remember him for his wry, laid-back sense of humour, his cheerfulness in the workplace and his devotion to his family. His wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Theresa, and her family survive him. A son, Gregory died in 1973.

Robert George Lee, born 19 July 1930; died 30 September 2007.

Original publication

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Lee, Robert George (Bob) (1930–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lee-robert-george-bob-590/text591, accessed 5 December 2022.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2022