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LEYS, JOHN, marine engineer; b. c. 1791 in Aberdeen, Scotland; d. 8 April 1846 in St Croix (Virgin Islands).

John Leys may have been the John Lees of Nineveh, England, who in 1812 signed articles of employment for five years with the Birmingham engineering firm of Boulton and Watt. Lees was to work in the “business of Filing, Turning, & Fitting wrought, and Cast Iron Goods for the Manufactory of Steam Engines and other purposes.” For this work he was to be paid 19s. weekly for the first half of the term and 20s. weekly for the balance.

In the spring of 1816 Gillespie, Gerrard and Company of London [see Samuel Gerrard*], acting as agents for the owners of the Frontenac (a paddle-wheel vessel then under construction at Bath, Upper Canada), ordered a steam-engine from Boulton and Watt. The London firm also requested that a competent engineer be sent to assemble, install, and operate it. Leys offered to go for two years at £160 a year. This sum was considered high but, when no one else offered to go, he was engaged. By the time these arrangements had been concluded, the 56-horsepower engine had already been shipped to Liverpool. Leys had to rush off quickly. He did, however, manage to arrange for some of his salary to be sent to his mother in Aberdeen.

The account in the Kingston Gazette of the launch of the Frontenac in September 1816 sparked predictions that it would be “finished and ready for use in a few weeks.” It was not, the delay being caused, in part, by wrangles over the engine with customs officials at Quebec which began in December. Not until the following May did the steamship sail across Kingston harbour, damaging the machinery of one of its paddle-wheels in the process. Although the Frontenac was the first steamboat to be launched on the Great Lakes, the subsequent delay had allowed the American vessel Ontario to make the first voyage under steam. Much of the delay may be ascribed to problems with the Boulton and Watt engine.

Once the Frontenac went into operation, relations between Leys and its captain, James McKenzie*, were far from smooth, as later attested by Henry Scadding*: “At the outset of steam navigation, men competent to superintend the working of the machinery were . . . not numerous, and Captains were obliged in some degree to humour their chief engineer when they had secured the services of one. Capt. McKenzie . . . was somewhat tyrannized over by Mr. Leys, who was a Scot, not very tractable; and the Frontenac’s movements, times of sailing, and so on, were very much governed by a will in the hold, independent of that of the ostensible Commander.” Despite such friction, Leys and McKenzie both enjoyed salaries which John Spread Baldwin, a York (Toronto) merchant, described in 1817 as “immense.”

A brief partnership of uncertain nature with his brother Francis in Pickering Township broke up in the spring of 1827, when John (or Jock as he was familiarly known) returned to the lake as engineer of Captain Hugh Richardson*’s Canada. According to Scadding, Leys “was long well known in York.” One of those who claimed him as a “good friend” was William Lyon Mackenzie*. In August 1827 he noted in his Colonial Advocate Leys’s departure for Montreal to get a new paddle-wheel shaft for the Canada. Five years later Leys supported Mackenzie in his bid for re-election to the House of Assembly.

Beyond his experience in the Canadas, Leys’s career as a marine engineer is still a mystery. It is relatively easy to identify steamboat captains but the rest of the crew lived in obscurity. The Toronto directory for 1837 describes him simply as an “Engineer,” living on Lot (Queen) Street. He must have accumulated some wealth; in the same year he was a minor shareholder in the British America Fire and Life Assurance Company. When he died in St Croix in 1846, he was said in an obituary to have gone there for his health. He had left more than £600 and an annuity to his mother and sisters in Scotland, and had instructed his executors to convert the balance of his assets into cash, to be invested in mortgages, real estate, and the erection of buildings for rent. The resulting income was to go to his brother William and his children so long as they maintained the properties and the insurance on them.

Walter Lewis

AO, RG 22, ser.155. Birmingham Public Libraries (Birmingham, Eng.), Boulton and Watt coll., articles of agreement concerning employment of John Lees with M. R.. Boulton and James Watt Jr, 26 May 1812; letter-book 40, Boulton and Watt to Gillespie, Gerrard and Company, 21, 23, 30 May, 3, 10 June 1816. UTFL, ms coll., Western Assurance Company papers, vol.100 (British American Assurance Company, day-book, 1837–41). Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth), 39–40. Colonial Advocate, 2 Aug. 1827, 9 Feb. 1832. Kingston Gazette, 14 Sept. 1816, 24 May 1817. Upper Canada Gazette, 21 April 1827. Death notices of Ont. (Reid). Toronto directory, 1837. Scadding, Toronto of old (1873), 556.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Walter Lewis, “LEYS, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leys_john_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leys_john_7E.html
Author of Article:   Walter Lewis
Title of Article:   LEYS, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   October 1, 2023