JOSEPH LEACH 1819-1879: Family and Friends in Nineteenth Century Southampton

The June Meeting of the Local Preachers of the Southampton Wesleyan Methodist Circuit, recorded the sudden death of one of their number which had taken place on April 23rd.

“He was a good man,” they said, “and a thoughtful and impressive preacher, quiet in spirit, earnest in purpose, retiring in habit, fluent in speech, spending himself always for the public weal”

This man was not a public figure. He was not a man of wealth or  a politician. “He had a few intimate friends,” we are told, “who mourn for him as a brother”, and he left a wife and grown children to keep his grocer’s shop in Firgrove Road, Freemantle.

But, reading between the lines of the records, we can trace his life from birth to death, through the growing years of Victorian Southampton.

Joseph Leach was baptised in All Saints Church on Boxing Day, 1819. He was the sixth child, and fifth son, of Spicer and Mary Leach, of Mount Street. His father worked in the coach-building trade as a harness-maker and upholsterer, as his father had done before him. It is possible that William Leach had left his home of East Chinnock in Somerset to come here because Southampton was so famous for its coach-builders.

Spicer and his three elder brothers had come with their father and mother and twin  baby brothers to settle somewhere in St Mary’s in 1790, but the babies died soon after, and another little brother in 1794. 1798 saw the death of Eleanor, their mother, and William married Sarah Garrish a year later. So Joseph had two sets of Leach uncles and aunts, some of an age with his own elder brothers. He also had younger sisters: Sarah Jane, and Hannah.

They lived in the streets and alleys of a Southampton barely extended beyond the old walls, just recovering from the Napoleonic wars and not yet re-invigorated by the coming of the railway. Somehow they made a living as harness-makers and coach-trimmers, respectable artisans who seem to have sent their children to school: both Joseph and his sister Mary Anne had enough education to teach later. There were certainly opportunities to learn, Sunday Schools, and National and British Schools supported by the Church of England and the Nonconformists respectively. Indeed, the British School was just round the corner from Mount Street, in Canal Walk.

Disease and danger threatened the family in their teenage years as well as in their babyhood. We do not know how Joseph’s eldest brother, William Spicer died. He was 13, and Joseph was 3, and the year was 1822. But we do know what happened 2 years later, when his next brother, Edward, died, because there was a Coroner’s inquest. Edward had hidden some meat for his dog behind a stone in Hookey’s stone-yard, and the stone had fallen on him as he reached round to retrieve it. Verdict: accidental death.

So Joseph grew. The next significant event in his life was recorded in his gravestone: “He was one of the seven who formed the first Total Abstinence Society in Southampton in 1835”. The Temperance movement was in its infancy, and still engaged in debate between the moderate anti-spirits campaigners and the more radical Teetotallers. To sign the pledge was to mark yourself as indeed “earnest of purpose”. Joseph would have been just 16, and obviously remained true to his purpose for the rest of his life. He may have been poor, but he was respectable. He did not drink his wages away, or fritter away his time.

The 1841 census found him still at home with his parents in Craven Street, his occupation given as “shoe maker”, working with leather as his grandfather and his father, his uncles and his brothers had done. Apart from Sarah Jane, the others had all left home: Mary Anne to marry Henry Welstead out by Hedge End, John James to marry yet another Mary Ann.

Joseph himself married in 1843, in his parish church of St Mary’s, to Eliza Luffman. Eliza  was a little older than Joseph, and she lived with her widowed mother in Charlotte Place, north of the Hoglands and Kingsland, on the other side of the road to Northam. Rebecca, her mother, took in washing, and Eliza did dressmaking. This family was nearer to poverty than the Leaches, even before the death of Eliza’s father: they had found themselves briskly removed back to William Luffman’s home parish of Eling in 1822 when they became chargeable to the parish. In his declaration before that removal, William declared that he “was never apprenticed or served as a yearly servant”, and his occupation is given as “sawyer”

Joseph and Eliza set up home in Charlotte Place, and began to raise their family: Eliza, William Spicer, and, in June 1849, Julia Harriet. But they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, that summer of 1849. The block of streets known as Charlotte Place consisted of upwards of a hundred overcrowded tenements, without sewerage, supplied with water from one small conduit pipe at the top of Bellevue Street. People kept  pigs and horses in the courtyards, and there was a cowshed halfway along Northam Street. We know all this from the Ranger Report, which was an inquiry into the 1849 cholera epidemic. “Scarcely and inmate of Charlotte Place escaped from cholera or severe diarrhoea.” 29 people died.

The Hampshire Independent of August 18th carries the announcement of the death on “August 13, at Northam-street, Charlotte-place, aged 33, Eliza, the beloved wife of Mr Joseph Leach, master of Trinity Church Schools, much repected by all who knew her.” The family rallied round: Mary Ann Leach, widow of his brother John was looking after Eliza when she died, the children were taken out of town and, it would have been hoped, out of danger. We do not know who cared for little 5 year old Eliza, but Joseph’s sister, Mary Anne Welstead, took William to her dame school in Hedge End, and Eliza’s sister, Harriet Berfoot, in Shirley Common, seems to have taken the baby Julia, still only a few weeks  old. But Julia did not thrive without her mother, and she too died, just 2 weeks later, on August the 23rd. We can only guess at the circumstances that led to her death being reported by an apparent stranger, a Ruth Payne, and her death certificate recording her as “daughter of whom unknown”. Perhaps Joseph was ill himself. Certainly the family had sustained another loss, announced in the same columns as Eliza’s death: “August 16th, at Bell Street, James Leach, saddler, aged 29” This was Joseph’s cousin, and his brother-in-law, because he had married Sarah, the youngest of Spicer and Mary’s children.

The religious literature of the day, the conversion stories featured in the denominational press, would often point to the alarm spread by the cholera epidemic as a turning point, when the subject felt his or her mortality, and turned to God in a new way. We have evidence that Joseph was a member of the Southampton Methodist Society by April 1851, when he married his second wife in the Wesleyan Chapel in East Street. But we also know, from the Trinity School papers, that he continued to be Master there up to Midsummer 1850, when his signature appears on a receipt for six months pay, £ 13 for the day school, and £ 3 10s for attendence at evening School for 14 weeks. He would certainly have had to be an Anglican Church-goer to keep that post, so the change was not immediate.

His sister Sarah had joined the Wesleyans very soon after her husband’s death, their last child being christened at East Street Chapel. His uncle Joseph had been a member when the society had met in Union Terrace, Upper Canal Walk. There was a Wesleyan Sunday School and preaching place in Northam Street from 1847. Joseph had plenty of opportunity to make the acquaintance of these “people called Methodists” and find their ways suited to a man “earnest in purpose, fluent in speech, spending himself always for the public weal”

By early 1851, he appears as a visitor in the home of William Mears, a fellow Total Abstainer, and a fellow Local Preacher “on trial”. . A few weeks later, William is witness to Joseph’s marriage to Elizabeth Sait, a servant to Mrs Alice Halls, who was in charge of the Linen Stores for the P&O. The wedding took place at East Street Chapel, and the couple found a new home nearby, above the coffee shop kept by Mr John Kite, a trustee of the chapel. Joseph had another new job: clerk to the corn and merchants, Lury’s. Joseph became a fully accredited Local Preacher in June 1852, and the first child by his second marriage was born in November that year.

The Local Preacher’s minutes do not record his presence very often over the next few years, but he is a man with a young family to raise and an old mother to care for.

He gets a brief approving note in a list of influential Wesleyans supplied by the Minister, John Philip, to T.H. Moody of the Protestant Defence League, who for an anti-Maynooth petition in 1855: “Mr Isaac, Mr Mears, Mr Leach. These latter three are men in humble life but men of good sense who may be able to influence the working classes.”

By the 1861 census he and Elizabeth have five children of their own, to say nothing of Eliza and William Spicer, returned to the family, and Elizabeth’s son George. George had been out to nurse with one of Elizabeth’s relatives in 1851, as George Sait, and his christening in Wickham confirms our suspicion that he is illegitimate. Yet there he is, one of the family, taking his stepfather’s name.

As his family grows, Joseph takes more responsiblity in the church. He was appointed one of the trustees for the new Wimpson chapel in 1859, and is seen as experienced and reliable enough to report on newer preachers on trial. He is usually chosen to be one of the preachers at special  services, and for the New Year Watchnights.

The family moved to Compton Walk about 1865: the older children have left by the next census, but the girls are still at home. Elizabeth is a dressmaker, and Amy a milliner. Joseph is still at the coal merchants. Things seem to be going quite well for this man of retiring habit, and his stability at home is reflected in his regular attendance at Local Preachers’ meetings, as one of the “senior brethren”. There is a break in his routine in 1874: his daughter Alice died in the October, and Elizabeth married a soldier from Aldershot in December, then half-way through the next year, he retired from Mr Lury’s, and opened a grocer’s ship at 6 Firgrove Road, Freemantle. He was 65 years old, still, every quarter, attending his meetings and attending to his services “faithfully and cheerfully” as his brethren recorded.

On Sunday April the 20th, 1879, he stood in the pulpit at Shirley Chapel, and announced his text: “Romans the 5th chapter at the 11th verse: And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement”

Three days later he was dead, respected and honoured by those who knew him and almost invisible to those who did not.

He was buried in the old cemetery in Hill Lane, his headstone erected by Wesleyan friends, recording his work in the 2 causes he had followed with such dedication: Temperance and Methodism.

And,  in the next plot, we find his old friend William Mears.

(c) Veronica Green 1998

originally published in:

Southampton Local History Forum Newsletter, 1998

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