When the new Leigh Woods came into existence after the completion of the Suspension Bridge in 1864 Joseph Leech was one of the very first inhabitants. Burwalls, dated 1872 over the garden entrance, was certainly the first ‘mansion’ in Leigh Woods, designed by the Bristol architects Foster and Wood for a man who had become one of Bristol’s most well known, colourful and affluent citizens.
Leech was born in 1815 in Ennis, County Clare, the son of a prosperous hardware merchant. He was employed by his brother-in-law on his newspaper in Maryborough Queen’s County and first visited Bristol at the age of 23, whilst waiting for a ship to take him home after a holiday in London. His religion was Protestant (Church of Ireland) and his politics were Tory, which together with his Irish accent, fiery temper and famed conviviality combined to produce the colourful character of later years.
Leech’s short stay convinced him that Bristol would support a Conservative weekly aimed at the ‘respectable classes’. Back home, he persuaded his father to give him £500 to get started, instead of an inheritance. Within a year, in 1839, the first edition of The Bristol Times was published. Leech and The Bristol Times prospered. In 1853 he bought the old-established Felix Farley’s Journal and created The Bristol Times and Journal, and in 1865 merged with his great rival T D Taylor’s Bristol Mirror to create a Conservative daily - The Bristol Times and Mirror - to rival Bristol’s first daily, Peter Macliver’s Liberal Western Daily Press. In parallel, Leech had built up press interests on a lesser scale in Bath. In the space of 30 years Leech had exploited the opportunities created by the growing literacy of Bristol’s expanding population and the removal of taxes on newspapers to move into cheap daily papers. By the time the Suspension Bridge was completed and Leigh Woods ready for development, Leech was ready to become “a man of property”, and did.
The family that moved into Burwalls in 1872, twenty years after Joseph’s marriage to Adelaide Bleeck, had grown to include six children, and had moved, as it grew, from Kingsdown Parade to Canynge Square. Ada was the daughter of a wealthy doctor, and her brother became Joseph’s business partner in Bath. Joseph and Ada’s initials are lovingly intertwined in the stonework of the parapets at Burwalls, and in the woodwork of the fireplace in the former breakfast room. Ada was reputed to be a generous hostess, and invitations to dine at Burwalls were greatly valued. Joseph was, of course, the star turn on these occasions, at least until his health began to fail.
Leech was far more than a newspaper proprietor. He was a columnist in his own newspapers. Under the pseudonym of ‘The Churchgoer’ he wrote about the Anglican Churches of Bristol and its neighbourhood. He evaluated the abilities and performance of their clergy. Much as Leech disliked Nonconformists and Catholics, he loathed incompetent or absentee or high living Anglicans. He had a distinctive high flown style that revealed that many a ‘letter to the Editor’ came from Leech himself. He detested hypocrisy, cant, or sharp practices, and sailed very near the wind of the libel laws on many an occasion. Leech was a vigorous Tory, though he never stood for election. He was a prickly member of the Bristol Conservative community and challenged a fellow member of the True Blue Club to a duel over what Leech saw as improper Tory behaviour in an election. He reputedly declined a knighthood in his latter years, when in conflict again over a matter of principle.
The larger than life character of Leech the newspaper proprietor and journalist was matched by that of Leech the speaker much in demand for public dinners. He became the “father “ of The Grateful Society, which became another outlet for his exuberant character.
Leech’s life and lifestyle could well have ended in ruins very soon after he moved into Burwalls. The Bristol Times and Mirror ran a personal attack, almost certainly, from the style, written by Leech himself, on the financial probity and morality of the Bristol coal-owner and Liberal politician Handel Cossham (founder of Cossham Hospital). Leech had been carried away by his dislike of what he saw as the contrast between Cossham’s nonconformist piety and his shady business practices. Cossham sued, and the case went to the High Court in London in 1875. It was a case of enormous complexity, and although the jury found for Leech and Taylor, Bristol opinion seems to have thought them lucky to have won. Leech stood down from active involvement with The Times and Mirror not that long after and left active journalism to Taylor; he himself concentrated on writing his “Romances from Bristol History” at home at Burwalls, into which he poured his inventiveness and his joy in language.
Against this background it is difficult to know how much Joseph and his family enjoyed their years at Burwalls. He was now extremely rich, but was clearly ill for the last few years of his life, suffering from an chronic intestinal condition that required a living in nurse. A son and a daughter both died at Burwalls before their father, who died there in August 1893. All were buried in Long Ashton Churchyard with Joseph’s funeral procession being allowed across Ashton Park to a burial with civic mourning led by his old partner T D Taylor. On Joseph’s death, Ada moved away. Burwalls was put up for sale as required by his will, to be bought by George Wills, who moved along Bridge Road from Woodlands which he had been sharing with one of his brothers. Over the next few years George Wills extended Burwalls, expanded the estate to create “Burwalls’ Gardens”, acquired Burwalls Wood, and bought Nightingale Valley to give to The National Trust, but that’s another story.
©Derek Smith April 2004