LEECH, PETER JOHN, soldier, astronomer, surveyor, explorer, HBC officer, office holder, and jp; b. c. 1828 in Dublin, son of Peter Leech and Susan —; m. 1873 Mary Macdonald in Victoria, B.C., and they had one daughter; d. there 6 June 1899.
Little is known of Peter John Leech’s life before he enlisted in the Royal Engineers around 1855. After training on the Ordnance survey, he volunteered to join the British Columbia detachment under Colonel Richard Clement Moody*. He arrived at Victoria on 29 Oct. 1858, and for five years he served as “astronomical observer and computer” in the survey office at New Westminster. He spent most of this period with the detachment’s observatory, making only occasional surveys in the field.
When the detachment was recalled in November 1863, Leech, then holding the rank of 2nd corporal, took his discharge and remained in the colony. He worked on a contract basis for the British Columbia Lands and Works Department at New Westminster, and he also participated in several privately sponsored expeditions and exploratory surveys. In 1864 he was second in command and astronomer with the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition [see Robert Brown], which examined the resources of the southern part of the island; the following year he participated in the Big Bend exploring expedition to survey and map a route from Fort Kamloops (Kamloops) 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 [see Thomas Elwyn*].
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.
After it 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. 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. While in Bella Coola to survey a town site, he 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, but they unfortunately reveal little about his personality. He is probably best remembered for his participation in the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, which discovered paying quantities of gold in a tributary of the Sooke River. Both the river and the mining town which grew up on it were subsequently named after him.
[A thorough search of the Royal Engineers’ papers in the PRO by the author of this sketch failed to produce Peter John Leech’s record of service. j.d.s.]
The official report of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, [Robert Brown], Vancouver Island; exploration, 1864 (Victoria, ), includes contributions by Leech. The simplified astronomical table which Leech prepared shortly before his death appeared under the title Table for finding the hour angle without logarithms ([Victoria, 1898]). His reminiscences of his work for the Western Union Telegraph Company were issued posthumously as “The pioneer telegraph survey of British Columbia” in British Columbia Mining Record (Victoria and Vancouver), 5 (1899), no.8: 17–26.
ACC, Diocese of British Columbia Arch. (Victoria), Christ Church Cathedral (Victoria), reg. of marriages, 1873 (mfm. at PABC). B.C., Ministry of Health (Victoria), Vital statistics, Victoria, 1875, 1899; Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing (Victoria), Legal surveys vault, P. J. Leech, field-books and maps (most uncatalogued); RE FB no.29 (Leech, field-book and map of Big Bend, 1865); Townsites, 16T3 (Leech, sketch of townsite, head of Bute Inlet, 1863). NA, RG 31, Cl, 1881, Victoria. PABC, C/AB/30.7M2, P. J. Leech, 12 Sept. 1865; E. Conway telegram, 4 June 1866; GR.1372, F 1313, esp. Parsons to Moody, 1 Jan. 1860; Parsons to Airy, 17 July 1860. PAM, HBCA, A.11/83: f.435; B.226/b/34: 213; B.226/b/35: ff.828–29; B.226/ b/46–2: f.451; B.226/g/16–30. Victoria City Arch., City Council minutes, 1884–93, esp. 12 March 1884. B.C., Lands and Works Dept., Report of the operations of the Lands and Works Department of British Columbia in the year 1865 (New Westminster, B.C., 1866). U.S., Senate doc., 58th Congress, 2nd session, no.162, 24 Jan. 1903, Proceedings of the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, convened at London . . . , 4, pt.ii: 72–73. Frederick Whymper, Travel and adventure in the territory of Alaska, formerly Russian America – now ceded to the United States – and in various other parts of the north Pacific (London, 1868). Daily Colonist (Victoria), 4 Aug. 1864; 8 Aug. 1868; 23 Oct. 1873; 17 July 1875; 7, 10 June 1899. Professional land surveyors of British Columbia: cumulative nominal roll, comp. G. S. Andrews (4th ed., Victoria, 1978). B.C., Dept. of Mining and Petroleum Resources, Notes on placer-mining in British Columbia (Victoria, 1963). Beth Hill, Sappers: the Royal Engineers in British Columbia (Ganges, B.C., 1987). Corday Mackay, “The Collins overland telegraph,” BCHQ, 10 (1946): 187–215. J. K. Nesbitt, “Old homes and families,” Daily Colonist, 24 April 1949; “Crumbling Avalon Villa was built by gold-rusher,” Daily Colonist, 9 July 1961: 8. J. D. Spittle, “Royal Engineer observatory, New Westminster; determination of the longitude, 1859–1860,” Link (Victoria), 4 (1980), no.l: 30–35. F. M. Woodward, “The influence of the Royal Engineers on the development of British Columbia,” BC Studies, no.24 (winter 1974–75): 3–51.