Often described as Scotland’s forgotten war poet, Joseph Lee’s work has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years.
While he is best known for his verse written during the Great War, his papers, held by Archive Services at the University of Dundee, make clear these were just a small part of his creative output.
Joseph Johnston Lee was born in Dundee in 1876 and his eventful life included distinguished service in the Great War, which saw him rise from the ranks to become an officer before ending up as prisoner of war.
As well as being a poet he had success as an artist and journalist, and had a keen interest in politics and the creative arts. Between 1907 and 1913 he would combine all these passions when he published his own local periodicals, usually produced on a monthly basis.
The first of these ventures was The City Echo, which ran between 1907 and 1912. Its content, the majority of which was written by Lee was a mix of factual and creative material and looked at both national and local issues of the day.
Lee’s interest in the stage and music was reflected with regular coverage of plays and musical events taking place in Dundee.
While featuring some important written content, including both serious articles and prose and poetic works by Lee, the highlight of the publication was undoubtedly the illustrations Lee produced for it, often using the alias “Crowquill”.
Many of these took the form of cartoons, but while some were gently mocking of local and national figures, many contained serious messages about pressing issues of the day, such as female suffrage and concerns about alcoholism in Dundee.
Some also featured verse by Lee. A good example is a 1907 cartoon about the annexation of Downfield, and potential future annexation of Broughty Ferry, by Dundee, which includes a reworked version of the traditional song “The Piper O’Dundee”.
This may have also been a subtle reference by Lee to an early satirical magazine named after the song, which undoubtedly influenced Lee. Indeed in 1912 he would revive the name The Piper o’Dundee when he started a replacement for The City Echo.
In 1909 Lee launched a new periodical The Tocsin. While similar in style to The City Echo, this publication was intended to support the Labour Party and wider labour movement.
In 1906 Dundee had elected one of Scotland’s first two Labour MPs, Alexander Wilkie, and the new party viewed Dundee as a place it could build-up strength in.
The magazine included regular contributions from Wilkie, and leading figures in the local Independent Labour Party, while the activities of the Women’s Freedom League were also highlighted.
Although only lasting a year, Lee’s work on The Tocsin drew acclaim from many leading Labour figures, with the archives holding letters of praise from senior figures including the party’s founder Keir Hardie.
A politician who had less cause to praise Lee was Dundee’s other MP, the Liberal Winston Churchill, who found himself mocked in Lee cartoons.
Notable examples included Lee mocking him for campaigning in Belfast with his mother and wife, and a critique of his views on female suffrage.
In 1913 The Piper O’Dundee came to an end as Lee concentrated on his job working for the local newspaper publishers John Leng & Co.
However, his periodicals survive as an interesting commentary on life in Dundee in the years before the Great War.