Peter John Leech

Peter John Leech (24 June 1826[1] – 6 June 1899) was born in Dublin, Ireland. He was a son of Peter Leech and Susan(na) -?-.

Peter John Leech (1885) Image A-01405, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

Peter John Leech (1885)
Image A-01405, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

Little is known of Peter John Leech’s life before he enlisted within the Royal Engineers around 1855. After training on the Ordnance Survey, he volunteered to join the British Columbia detachment under Colonel Richard Clement Moody. Leech left South Hampton 2 September 1858 on the ship La Plata together with Captain Parson and 20 other men (chiefly surveyors) and via Panama arriving at Esquimalt Harbour on 29 October 1858. For five years he served as “astronomical observer and computer” in the survey office at New Westminster where he spent most of this period with the detachment’s observatory, making only occasional surveys in the field. When the detachment was disbanded in November 1863, Leech, then holding the rank of 2nd corporal, took his discharge and remained in the colony.[2]

He worked on a contract basis for the British Columbia Lands and Works Department at New Westminster and also participated in several privately sponsored expeditions and exploratory surveys. On a regularly basis he advertised in the British Colonist as: “P.J. Leech, Land Surveyor, Sea Water Bath House, Government Street.”

On 16 May 1864 Leech sent in his very short two liner application letter to the VIE-Committee in which he wrote; “I beg to offer myself as a candidate for the appointment of Surveyor to the Exploring Expedition. I can produce the most satisfactory testimonials as to ability etc.” On 1 June, at the age of 37, he was formally appointed[3] as lieutenant (second in command) and astronomer of the VIEE. During the 1864 expedition he was put in charge by Robert Brown on several sub-expeditions. It is to be noted that every time the Exploring party split up, Brown gave Leech the hardest route to follow. He is probably best remembered for the Leech River and subsequently Leechtown which were named after him.

After the VIEE, the following year he participated in the Big Bend exploring expedition to survey and map a route from Fort Kamloops [formerly known as, Fort Thompson] to recently discovered gold deposits on the Columbia River.

In 1866 Leech was hired by the Western Union Telegraph Company for the line it was constructing to Europe through British Columbia, Alaska, and Asia. Fearing the transatlantic cable laid that July would fail (as had its predecessor) the company saw the overland line completed from New Westminster to Kispiox (B.C.) by October. That winter Leech explored the desolate region between the Nass and Stikine Rivers. However, the transatlantic cable proved successful and the overland project was abandoned.

Leech probably returned to Victoria in June 1867. Later that year or early in 1868 he was hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company to determine whether its trading post near the mouth of the Stikine lay within British territory. The sale of Alaska to the United States by Russia had put an end to the long-standing agreement whereby the HBC could establish stations on Russian soil. Leech found that the post lay some 20 miles downstream from the boundary and, as a result, it was moved in June 1868. He once again returned to Victoria and remained in the service of the HBC for some 14 years, first as a postmaster and later as a clerk, rising to be in charge of the Esquimalt post.

22 October 1873 Leech married Mary Macdonald (1837 – 28 April 1892) in Victoria. They had one daughter; Fanny Helen Leech – Faucault (16 August[4] 1875 – March 1955), who became a most remarkable woman.

Before Leech seems to have been a restless driven sort of man, but once married he settled down to a very comfortable domestic middle class life.

After the Esquimalt trading post was closed down in the spring of 1883, Leech applied for the position of city surveyor in Victoria, an appointment he received on 12 March 1884[5]. He became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and built a large house for his family overlooking Beacon Hill. Following his wife’s death in 1892, he returned to private practice as a land surveyor. Over 70 years of age he was in Bella Coola on the northwest coast to survey a town site and was appointed Justice of the Peace.

Leech’s aptitude for mathematics did not diminish with advancing years. Shortly before his death in 1899 he published a set of simplified astronomical tables. His reports and journals reflect the significant contribution he made to early exploration and mapping in British Columbia.

Peter Leech died in his sleep on 6 June 1899, at the age of 73. His grave can be found in the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria.

 

Copyright © July 2014, Bart van den Berk.

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Footnotes:

[1] Found by researcher and genealogist, A. Schuyler. Based on a baptism record of the St. Catherine’s church in Dublin stating: “Baptised, 26 June 1826; Peter Leech; parents, Peter and Susanna Leech; 96 Cork Street; born, 24 June 1826.” Since only the first name Peter is given there is no 100% prove this is the same person however the date is in line with other documented statements of his age. An exception though, Peter Leech’s marriage record of 1873 states an estimated birth year of 1830, however these errors were not uncommon in these days.

[2] A thorough search (by author Spittle, John D.) of the Royal Engineers’ papers in the PRO failed to produce Peter John Leech’s record of service.  Source: Spittle, John D., “LEECH, PETER JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 14 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leech_peter_john_12E.html.

[3] Source: Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 4, Contract for monthly stipend of members of the expedition for five months, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.

[4] In some documents it is stated that Fanny Helen Leech – Faucault was born in July.

[5] Author and researcher Ester Hope Darlington wrote; “In 1877, Leech seems to have accepted the post of engineer with the city of Victoria …”. Source: Darlington, Ester Hope, The Fabulous Fanny Faucault, pages 4-14, from; British Columbia Historical News, BC Historical Federation, 1995, Vol. 28, No. 4; 40 pages.

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[Annotated and edited from the following main sources, in order of usage.]

Spittle, John D., “LEECH, PETER JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 14 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leech_peter_john_12E.html.

Darlington, Ester Hope, The Fabulous Fanny Faucault, pages 4-14, from; British Columbia Historical News, BC Historical Federation, 1995, Vol. 28, No. 4; 40 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 4, Contract for monthly stipend of members of the expedition for five months, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.3, file 4, Vancouver Island Exploration Committee: applications for positions on exploring expedition, 1864; 80 pages.

 

(Keyword) biography Peter Leech