LEIGH, JOHN, Church of England minister, lexicographer, and jp; baptized 20 Feb. 1789 in the parish of St Decuman, England, son of Robert Leigh and Maria –; d. unmarried 17 Aug. 1823 in St John’s.
John Leigh received his education at St Mary Hall, Oxford, and in 1813 he was ordained an Anglican priest at Wells, Somerset. Three years later the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent him to become its first missionary at Twillingate, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. In March 1819 Leigh became involved with the native Beothuk Indians when the expedition led by John Peyton Jr returned from Red Indian Lake with one of their number, Demasduwit*. Leigh accompanied Demasduwit to St John’s, and wrote to the SPG that he believed the society would wish to bend every effort “towards rescuing these poor Creatures from their miserable state. “His was one of many humane voices urging an end to the hostilities between the white settlers and the Beothuks, and he was the first clergyman to express publicly an interest in evangelizing them.
To this end, in the summer of 1819 Leigh took down a fairly extensive vocabulary from Demasduwit. Although there is some overlap with other vocabularies, for example that compiled by John Clinch*, over 200 of the 350 known words of Beothuk may be found in Leigh’s notes. Leigh informed the SPG that he proposed to send the vocabulary of Beothuk, which “from the pronounciation [appears to be] somewhat similar to the Welsh language,” but there is no record of its receipt in the SPG archives. What appears to have been the original, or at least its remnants, turned up in the possession of a Twillingate family in 1957. A copy of this document, made for John Peyton Jr, was the version published by Thomas George Biddle Lloyd in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1875 and subsequently by others. Another copy was made by a British naval officer, Hercules Robinson, at Harbour Grace in 1820, and was published by him in the Journal of the Geographical Society of London in 1834.
Leigh’s health had been eroded by the harsh life on remote South Twillingate Island; in December 1818, for example, he had had scurvy. In the late summer of 1819 he accepted the offer of Commander David Buchan* to transport him to his new mission of Harbour Grace in view of his poor health and the unlikelihood of another vessel being available before winter. Leigh had been a magistrate at Twillingate and continued to be one, administering justice in a surrogate court with Buchan. In July 1820 public indignation was aroused when they ordered the public flogging of Philip Butler and James Lundrigan for contempt of court. Buchan and Leigh were censured and the case was brought to the attention of the British government. As a result, in 1824 surrogate courts were eliminated and provision was made for the appointment of properly trained judges.
The Church of England in Newfoundland early in the 19th century was “entirely without episcopal ministrations” or any other form of church government, and in 1821 Bishop Robert Stanser of Nova Scotia appointed Leigh ecclesiastical commissary to supervise the island’s missionaries. Despite his ill health, Leigh threw himself into his work with indefatigable zeal. He reported to the SPG that in 1822 he had journeyed “280 miles in decked vessels and 291 in open boats,” and he spent the winter of 1822–23 in Bonavista because no other missionary was available. The strain told, and although still young he died on 17 Aug. 1823 after suffering a “severe and painful illness for nearly five weeks.”