Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 148,117 pages of information and 233,665 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Joseph Leece (1833-1886)
1886 Obituary 
JOSEPH LEECE, eldest son of Mr. John Leece, was born at Edgley, Stockport, Cheshire, on the 8th of September, 1833.
About 1840 the family removed to Manchester, where Joseph received his education, attending first a school conducted by Mr. James Howell, a friend of his father, then, for a time, the Manchester Commercial Schools, and occasionally the evening classes held at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution in that city.
At the age of fourteen he was sent to work at the engineering establishment of Mr. (now Sir) Joseph Whitworth, beginning on the lowest rung of the ladder, as lodge-boy, and rising step by step through the different departments, drawing-offices, tool-shops, &c., till in course of time he became foreman of shops. These, by his organizing skill, he greatly improved, particularly the screwing-tackle and standard-gauge shops. Everything connected with these branches has a world-wide reputation for system and accuracy.
When Mr. Whitworth added to his other manufactures that of guns and rifles, Mr. Leece applied himself zealously to this branch of the business, and occupied himself with scientific experiments in connection therewith, the results of which have proved that they were ably carried out.
In 1863-4 Mr. Leece conducted the more important heavy gun trials of Whitworth versus Armstrong, and the experiments on the Southport range ; in both cases achieving remarkable results. In small-arm practice, too, he distinguished himself, and was mainly instrumental in introducing the weapons of his employer’s manufacture to the notice of influential volunteer officers in the early days of the movement. He attended many important shooting meetings in a business capacity, and had the honour, at the opening of the first Wimbledon meeting, July 2nd, 1860, of sighting the rifle for the Queen.
Owing to the unsatisfactory state of the ground from wet weather, it was difficult to get a good foundation for the machine upon which the rifle, a Whitworth, was placed. In spite of this drawback, at the appointed time all was ready, and the Queen, pulling the trigger by means of a cord, handed to her by Mr. Whitworth, scored a bull’s-eye at 400 yards, 2 1/4 inches from the exact centre. The Committee of the National Rifle Association annually invited gun-makers to compete for the supply of the rifle that should be used in shooting for the Queen’s Prize. Mr. Leece, as Mr. Whitworth‘s representative, whenever he entered the competition was always successful. Mr. Leece was a good marksman. On one occasion, competing with a celebrated shot, he had hit the target five times in succession at 1,000 yards. They tied three times, and at length his adversary missed. Mr. Leece, making nine consecutive hits, won the prize. This was considered remarkably good shooting, especially as a strong wind was blowing at the time right across the range ; also he was equally successful at a contest for a prize offered by the Marquis of Tweeddale, for combined accuracy and rapidity of firing. The muzzle-loading rifle was used, and Mr. Leece far outstripped all competitors in both respects. These and other incidents earned for him the highest encomiums of the press. In the words of one writer, “Nothing in all the stories of Robin Hood is half so good as this bit of real life.”
Among many other important events at which his attendance was required may be mentioned a visit he paid to Osborne, accompanied by Mr. Whitworth. Here they explained their principle of rifling to Royalty ; and Mr. Leece had the honour of a short conversation with the Princess Royal. At another time he was present at a series of important experiments with their light field-guns, which took place at Versailles, in the presence of an assembly of distinguished officers of the French army. A similar meeting was also held at the camp of Chalons. Consultations with the executive of home and foreign Governments, experiments on land and sea, at Shoeburyness and Portsmouth, long journeys hither and thither, at all times and seasons, voluminous reports of his doings, occupied his time and energies for a number of years.
Mr. Leece, still applying himself to the great work of his life, was recently invited to be an Associate Member of the War Office Ordnance Committee, to improve the method of testing and of treating steel, and the armament of the service. His practical suggestions seem to have been much appreciated by the Government, whose thanks he received for the assistance he had given them.. He had several tempting offers of engagements, but he would not forsake the old firm, in whose service he worked with strict integrity and honour till worn out in mind and body. He had been for some time managing director of the company when, in consequence of a cold caught on a journey to Newcastle on business, his health began to fail, and he never really recovered.
Thirty years ago, when the science was in a crude state, Mr. Leece devoted much attention to photography ; and he was joint contributor of a Paper which was read before the Photographic Society. His experiments in photography were of great utility in the Whitworth Company’s Works. Horticulture, especially the cultivation of roses, was another pursuit of which he was very fond, and in which he was no mean authority. His illness at length put an end to his attendance at the works, to which he had devoted thirty-eight years of his life. At the advice of his medical man, he took a voyage to Australia, in the hope that it would restore him to health, and so enable him to resume his duties. But it was not to be.
He died on the 13th of .January, 1886, only eighteen days after landing at Melbourne, where his remains were interred. In business energetic, painstaking, and, as we have said, strictly honourable, he won the esteem and confidence of his employers. In company he was unassuming, affable, and always ready to communicate the information he had acquired by his observation and experience. He was thus beloved by all who knew him, and by none will his loss be more deeply regretted than by his fellow workers at Openshaw.
Mr. Leece was elected a Member on the 6th of May, 1870.