LEAKE, Sir John (1656-1720), of Mile End, Stepney, Mdx. and Beddington, Surr.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 4 July 1656, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Richard Leake, master-gunner of England, of Woolwich by Elizabeth. m. bef. 1677, Christian (d. 1709), da. and coh. of Capt. Richard Hills of Great Yarmouth, Norf., 2s. (d.v.p.) 4da. (d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1696; kntd. 3 Feb. 1704.1
Entered RN bef. 1673, capt. Sept. 1688, r.-adm. Dec. 1702, v.-adm. 1703, adm. Jan. 1708, adm. of the fleet Dec. 1708, r.-adm. of Eng. 1709–Nov. 1714; mate to master-gunner of ordnance 1682–?1700.2
Freeman, Portsmouth 1703, Harwich 1707, Rochester 1709, Plymouth 1709; elder bro. Trinity House 1707–d., master 1709–11.3
Member, council of ld. high adm. June–Oct. 1708; ld. of Admiralty Nov. 1709–14 Oct. 1714.
‘Leake was the best all-round sailor of his age.’ So wrote one naval historian, following the generous assessment of Leake’s eventual heir, Stephen Martin Leake, who considered that he
was certainly one of the best seamen this island has produced, being perfect master both in theory and practice . . . He understood ship-building, gunnery, fortification, and the discipline of the land service, wanting only the practice to have made him both a good land officer and an engineer.
This reference to the army makes it possible that the John Leake listed in 1684 as a lieutenant in the royal foot guards and later in 1694 as a captain was this Member. Gunnery and engineering were skills presumably imported by his father, the master-gunner of England, who used such talents in 1683 to demolish the fortifications at Tangier. Born in Rotherhithe, Leake had little of ‘what the world calls learning’, being put early to sea, advancing to the rank of midshipman before the end of the third Dutch war, serving for a period in a merchantman, and returning to the navy as a gunner. By September 1688 he was captain of a fire-ship. Leake’s attitude to the Revolution is unknown, but he continued to be employed by the new regime, being described on one list of naval captains in November 1691 as ‘a very good man’. He served at Bantry Bay, Barfleur, and in 1694–5, with Admiral Edward Russell* in the Mediterranean, as well as effecting the relief of Londonderry in July 1689. Upon the death of his father in 1696, Leake’s wife sought Russell’s support in obtaining for him the post of master-gunner. Russell vouched for Leake’s ‘knowledge in the art of gunnery, courage and fidelity’, but he appears not to have wanted the post. The end of war in 1697 saw Leake’s transfer to the half-pay list, although influential friends, such as George Churchill*, were able to obtain some voyages for him. Indeed, Churchill was responsible for the suggestion in January 1702 that Leake be made first captain to the new lord high admiral, the Earl of Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†), though given instead to (Sir) George Byng*, and for his appointment in June as commander of a squadron bound for Newfoundland. His achievement there, in taking 51 enemy vessels, was acknowledged in December 1702 in his appointment as a flag officer. Further triumphs followed with the reduction of Gibraltar and the relief of Barcelona, and also at the battle of Malaga. When he returned from the Mediterranean in October 1706, Prince George presented him with a diamond ring worth £400 and a gold-hilted sword. His reputation established as a naval hero, Leake sought to enter Parliament. He contested a by-election at Bodmin in December 1706, only to be defeated. He then switched his attention to Harwich, treating the corporation in April 1707, and apparently finding a receptive audience, for on 19 Aug. it was reported that at the next election he would be returned ‘without any opposition. The interest of the town, which consists of mariners, his father having been a Harwich man by birth, the navy and the transports, all speak for him.’ Ironically, Leake was then the beneficiary of the death of Sir Clowdesley Shovell*, winning a by-election at Rochester, Shovell’s seat, in January 1708.4
Before he began on his career in the Commons, Leake was probably a Tory, being classed as such in a parliamentary analysis from early 1708, and described as a Court Tory on a similar list compiled after the 1708 election. Indeed his elevation to admiral of the fleet, in succession to Shovell, was perceived by the Whig Sir Edward Lawrence* as heralding a Tory revival, Lawrence labelling Leake as ‘a Jacobite’. In the months following his election Leake played no role in the Commons, being at Spithead by the middle of January 1708, preparing to sail with the fleet. Although held back by contrary winds, he was at sea by early March and consequently was abroad during the 1708 election. However, it was reported in April that, having renewed his interest at Harwich, Leake would carry the vote there. Thus, he was duly returned for Harwich as well as Rochester, choosing to represent the latter. After the 1708 election, Secretary Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) recorded his victory as a gain for the Whigs, thus suggesting that Leake was liable to follow the lead of the Court. While in the Mediterranean in the summer of 1708 Leake was named a member of Prince George’s council at a salary of £1,000 p.a. Unfortunately, no sooner had he arrived back in England, around 20 Oct., than the Prince died (28 Oct.). Immediately there was speculation that Leake would be included in a stop-gap Admiralty commission, but rumours also abounded of the return of Lord Orford (Edward Russell). Erasmus Lewis* felt that this news boded ill for Leake, informing Robert Harley* that ‘the cue is given out to speak contemptibly of Leake, and none but staunch men are to be employed’. In the event Pembroke became lord high admiral and Leake found his own status enhanced as commander of the fleet, even though, as Sir Henry Sheeres later put it, ‘somebody else has got a step before him in figure’. Swift, still in his Whig phase, was not unduly worried by these developments, foreseeing the re-emergence of Orford a few months later, whereupon ‘Leake will be turned out’ and Whig pre-eminence confirmed. However, as early as February 1709 rumours were circulating that Leake might gain a place in a revamped Admiralty Board. The desire to safeguard his position may explain why he spent the summer of 1709 in home waters. If this is the case it proved wise, for when Orford returned to the Admiralty as first lord in November 1709 Leake was included in the new commission, even though some observers thought him likely to be pensioned off. His appointment necessitated offering himself for re-election at Rochester, a hurdle he surmounted without difficulty. He then proved loyal to the ministry, voting for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.5
The fall of the Godolphin ministry and the resignation of Orford in September 1710 put Leake in a difficult position. Rumours that he would refuse to serve under the Earl of Peterborough in a new Admiralty commission proved false. He was also fortunate in that he had been in office for too short a period to have become indelibly marked as a Whig. Peter Wentworth could opine in September 1710, ‘’tis known if he’s any party he’s a Whig’; but Wentworth was also aware that a man of such public reputation was useful to the incoming ministry. Henry St. John II* most appositely expressed Tory fears when writing to John Drummond†: ‘my apprehension is that Sir John may have dipped himself a little too much of late with Orford, to be employed in a service of this kind, but I am not certain this fear is well grounded’. Evidently St. John’s reservations were satisfied because Leake was named first in the new commission, although he declined to act as first lord, and refusing a peerage also. So dominant was the naval interest in Rochester that Leake had no problems in securing his return at the 1710 election, although he made a precipitate departure from the borough, probably in order to protect his position in London. He was marked as a Tory on the ‘Hanover list’, a fair assessment given his role as an Admiralty spokesman in the new House. Indeed, his main activity, as recorded by the Journals, was the presentation of information from the Admiralty. Leake was obviously able to establish his credentials within Tory ranks with some speed: he was listed among the ‘worthy patriots’ who, in the 1710–11 session, helped to detect the mismanagements of the last administration, of which he had himself been a member. The same source listed him as belonging to the October Club, but this remains uncorroborated. His name also appears on Harley’s canvassing list for the parliamentary attack on Marlborough in January 1712. The two Members deputed to whip him into line were Sir James Wishart* (a fellow Admiralty lord) and the ‘secretary’ (presumably Josiah Burchett*). The absence of parliamentary activity on his part between 1710 and 1712 has been explained by one historian as an attempt to avoid his political responsibilities as senior Admiralty lord by serving with the fleet as much as possible. If so, it lasted until a new Admiralty commission, headed by the Earl of Strafford, was issued on 30 Sept. 1712. Leake remained an important conduit of information from the Admiralty to the Commons, presenting to the House, for instance, in April 1713 an account of ships employed as cruisers and convoys in the previous year. He also supported the ministry in the division of 18 June, voting for the French commerce bill. Returned for Rochester again in 1713, he was classed as a Tory on the Worsley list. During the 1714 session he presented information from the Admiralty to the Commons on four occasions, and was nominated to a single drafting committee. He was also kept busy at the Admiralty, transacting business with George Clarke* during the summer of 1714.6
George I’s accession effectively ended Leake’s career. Leake had served in a Tory ministry for four years and was thus irredeemably compromised in Whig eyes. The new regime awarded him a pension of £600 p.a. in August 1715, but service at the Admiralty was impossible with Orford once again at the helm. Without the backing of the naval establishment at Rochester, Leake felt unable to challenge for his old seat at the 1715 election. In retirement he divided his time between Greenwich and Beddington, dying on 21 Aug. 1720. His tomb states his age at death to be 64 years, one month and 17 days, thereby providing a birth-date. His only child to survive into adulthood, Captain Richard Leake, predeceased him by a few months, leaving Leake’s first captain and brother-in-law through marriage, Stephen Martin Leake, and his two daughters, as the beneficiaries of his will.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. N. and Q. ser. 8, vi. 282; DNB; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 483–4; Add. 47977, f. 38.
- 2. Navy Recs. Soc. lii. 11; H. Tomlinson, Guns and Govt. 238.
- 3. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 373; Harwich bor. recs. 98/5, f. 72; info. from Medway Area Archs.; Navy Recs. Soc. liii. 339; W. R. Chaplin, Trinity House, 16, 134.
- 4. Mariners Mirror, lvii. 401; Navy Recs. Soc. liii. 147, 428–9; lii. 11–12, 21–22, 28–29, 48–49, 70–73, 91, 93; DNB (Leake, Richard); Folger Shakespeare Lib. Rich mss X.d.451 (98), report on capts. Nov. 1691; Add. 5540, ff. 14, 16; 28893, ff. 241, 245, 278; Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvi. 81; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/054/2, Richard Warre to Alexander Stanhope, 13 Nov. 1702; HMC 7th Rep. 506; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 99.
- 5. Cheshire RO, Arderne mss DAR/H/14, Lawrence to Sir John Crewe, 1 Jan. 1707[–8]; Add. 5434, ff. 3, 61–80; 28893, f. 318; 70420, newsletter, 24 Feb. 1708–9; Addison Letters, 100; HMC Lords, n.s. vii. 66; Navy Recs. Soc. liii. 305–6, 309; Huntington Lib. Q. xv. 41; HMC Portland, iv. 510; HMC Downshire, i. 868, 871; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, i. 115; Surtees Soc. clxxviii. 50.
- 6. Add. 57861, f. 151; 31143, f. 568; 70331, canvassing list [Jan. 1712]; Bolingbroke Corresp. i. 10; Navy Recs. Soc. ciii. 3–4; Centre Kentish Stud. Weller mss U38/21, p.1; Bull. IHR, xvii. 16.
- 7. Add. 5439, f. 57; Navy Recs. Soc. liii. 412–13; N. and Q. ser. 8, vi. 282; PCC 179 Shaller.