Builder and city clerk William Leigh helped guide the City of Victoria, B.C. through its challenging pioneer years

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By Sam McBride

I have long been intrigued by the story of my great-great-grandfather William Leigh (1815-1884), who was city clerk of Victoria for 20 years before his death. His daughter Matilda Caroline “Carrie” Leigh (1852-1885) married Walter Dewdney (1836-1892) in Victoria, and their children included my grandfather Edgar Edwin Lawrence “Ted” Dewdney (1880-1952).

For many years, the info I had on William Leigh was from his obituary and funeral report in the Daily Colonist newspaper, as well as biographical notes put together by City of Victoria staff on past city clerks.  The basic information was that William Leigh was born in 1815 in Warwickshire, and came to Victoria with the Hudsons Bay Company in the mid-to-late 1850s.  His father was a construction contractor in London whose best-known project was the construction of the Sweyn Lighthouse on quicksands.  Before going to work for the Hudson Bay Company, William Leigh was primarily known as a barge builder.

William Leigh managed the Uplands Farm for several years before going to work in 1862 for the city of Victoria as assessor and then city clerk in 1864 after the city`s incorporation as a municipality earlier in the year.

william leigh at bc archives

William Leigh 1815-1884

Recently, I was very pleased to discover additional info on William Leigh in the Victoria Times of April 14, 1917, in correspondence between his son Ernest A. Leigh (1849-1935) of San Francisco with Victoria Times columnist Edgar Fawcett, who had been a school chum of Ernest in Victoria in 1859. Ernest noted that his father left England in 1854 and arrived in 1855 in the employ of the HBC, and his family joined him in Victoria later that year.   He worked as superintendent of several construction projects, including the Victoria District Church and the Colonial School, as well as a structure at Governor Douglas`s residence, and the steamers Emily Harris and James Douglas,  before going to the Uplands Farm to supply food for HBC personnel, and then commencing with the city as assessor in October 1862.  In December 1862 Leigh continued his assessor work and succeeded Algernon  Austin as Victoria`s second city clerk.

After Leigh`s  death, the Colonist noted “he was a man of herculean strength, remarkably suave of manner, and unquestionable ability,” and “one of Victoria`s most genial and kindhearted pioneer citizens.“

Leigh`s sudden, unexpected death was a shock to the community.  After an autopsy, his physician, Dr. Helmcken (founder of the B.C. Medical Association), noted that Leigh`s heart, lungs and liver were “extensively diseased“, according to the Daily Colonist report.

At the request of City Council, Leigh was honoured with a public funeral on Sunday, May 4, 1884.  The funeral train assembled at the Leigh residence on Dallas Road, James Bay, and proceeded to the Reformed Episcopal Church for the service, and then to Ross Bay Cemetery for burial.  Led by a band playing the Dead March in Saul, the order of the funeral procession was: the Victoria Fire Department; the City Police Force; the Hearse; Right Hand Pallbearers; E.C. Baker, MP; Thomas Russell, city assessor; W.D. McKillican, councillor for James Bay Ward; Dennis Harris, ex-city surveyor; Left Hand Pallbearers; ex-mayor Redfern; His Worship Mayor Carey; T.N. Hibben; the Chief Mourners; City Councillors and officers of the corporation; about 30 citizens in carriages; followed by other citizens walking.

I find it fascinating that, even though he was a burly builder, William Leigh began to be involved with the Victoria Philharmonic Society in 1861, and was a flautist with them between 1869 and 1882, often performing for charitable causes.

In addition to Carrie and Ernest, children of William Leigh and wife Matilda Sarah Capron included William Thomas Leigh (1843-1873), Rose S. Lee (1850-?), and Edwin Alfred Leigh (1857-1885), who was clerk of the Supreme Court.

It is interesting to note that William Leigh`s granddaughter Shirley Vanderleur Torrens Leigh (1865-1945), a daughter of Wiiliam T. Leigh, married in 1883 George Ferdinand Donald Simpson (1858-1926), grandson of the famous HBC governor-in-chief, Sir George Simpson (1787-1860).

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Ernest Leigh and wife Ella Lees, from a passport image on ancestry.com

After leaving Victoria for California at age 21, Ernest Leigh gained prominence in the San Francisco real estate industry as a partner in the Davidson and Leigh firm.  Like many in the Bay Area, that company suffered substantial losses in the 1906 earthquake.  A Davidson and Leigh employee, Colbert Coldwell, left the company and started his own business, which became Coldwell Banker, which today is among the world`s leading real estate companies.

A few years ago I visited Victoria and looked for William Leigh`s grave at the historic Ross Bay Cemetery.  With assistance from cemetery staff I found the site where William and his children William T., Carrie and Edwin were buried, but there were no stones or identifying markers – just a patch of open grass.
Apparently, as the caskets below deteriorated over time, the stones sunk steadily into the often-wet ground and disappeared from sight.   Hopefully someday an identification marker will be erected on the gravesite in memory of the HBC man and city clerk who helped establish Victoria through its difficult early years.

75th anniversary of Nelson, B.C.`s “Black Day of World War 2“ on May 23, 1944

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This is the 75th anniversary of the attack of Canadian forces on the Hitler Line southeast of Rome. Sylvia Crooks, author of “Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson, BC in World War 2”, wrote that May 23, 1944 was “Nelson’s Black Day of World War 2”, as two Nelson boys were killed and two others went missing in action, including my dad Leigh.

Ray Hall and Jack Wilson died, and Leigh McBride and Joe Dyck were seriously injured and taken prisoner. The news was a huge hit on the remote community of 7,000 in southeastern British Columbia.

IMG_6032The Dyck family did not learn that Joe was alive and a POW until July 1944, and my McBride grandparents did not find out Leigh was alive and a POW until September 1944.

Leigh was the only survivor of a forward unit, and had suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs, arms and face, causing the loss of his left eye.

He was discovered unconscious by German soldiers and taken to a hospital in Rome. Leigh came back to Canada in a prisoner exchange in February 1945, and Joe came back in July 1945. In 1968 Leigh wrote of the fateful day he was captured in notes for Professor Roy who wrote the Seaforth regimental history. Mark Zuehlke later referenced his comments in his Liri Valley book.

In her 2017 memoirs “Children of the Kootenays”, Shirley Hall Stainton described how the telegraph messenger boy came to their home on Latimer Street in Nelson with the tragic news of her brother’s death, and she watched him go on to the Wilson house just two houses away with similar news. She thought he may have just come down from the McBride house on Hoover Street a couple of blocks away with the telegram that Leigh was missing. The Dyck house was a few blocks up the hill on Delbruck.

All four of them were with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada regiment. Leigh was 26, and the others about 5 years younger. The announcements were in the Nelson Daily News of June 2nd and 3rd of 1944.

One of Ray Hall`s last letters mentioned that he was serving under Captain Leigh McBride from Nelson.  That would have been after Leigh was promoted to Captain in March 1944.  At the time of the attack on the Hitler Line on May 23, 1944 Leigh was in command of D Company (aka Dog Company) but it is not clear in the records I have seen if Ray Hall was still in that company or had moved.

Leigh`s parents (my paternal grandparents) R.L. and Winnie McBride were thrilled to hear by telegram on Sept. 20, 1944 that Leigh was alive and recovering from wounds at a prisoner of war camp in Germany.   Tragically, after two days of celebrating and receiving congratulatory calls and letters from friends, they received a subsequent  telegram on Sept. 22, 1944 advising that their other son, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, had been killed in action near Rimini, Italy on Sept. 16, 1944.

 

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Ray was the only brother of Shirley Hall Stainton, who described their experiences growing up in the Slocan Valley when their father was a cook at mining camps, in her book “Children of the Kootenays“

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One of four clippings in the Nelson Daily News of either June 2, 1944 or June 3, 1944, as it took about a week for war news to get back to Nelson from Italy.

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Leigh was able to contact Bud Dyck while they were in different POW camps in Germany­.  When I was living in Edmonton in 2005 I saw his name mentioned in a Royal Canadian Legion story in an Edmonton newspaper, and contacted him through the Legion.  He told me he had served in a unit commanded by my uncle Ken McBride, who regularly gave him the “honour`of being picked for dangerous night raids.