Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

LEIGH, Samuel

(1785–1852).

Pioneer Wesleyan missionary in Australia and New Zealand.

A new biography of Leigh, Samuel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Samuel Leigh was born on 1 September 1785 at Milton, near Hanley, in Staffordshire. He came under a strong religious influence in his home and joined the Congregational Church. He decided to serve in the ministry and studied under Dr Bogue at Gosport. But in 1812, because he found Congregational theology too austere for his liking, he offered his services to the Wesleyan Methodist Conference at Portsmouth. He was accepted as a probationer and spent two years on the Shaftesbury circuit before being ordained in 1814.

During the 1812–14 War, Canadian Methodists wrote to London requesting that missionaries be sent to Lower Canada. Leigh was appointed to Montreal in response to this request; but, as this had been done without reference to the American Bishops, it was soon found that Montreal could not receive the appointee. Leigh was therefore transferred to New South Wales. He sailed for Sydney on 28 February 1815 and landed there on 30 August, and thus became the first Wesleyan missionary to reach Australia. Although Governor Macquarie had made considerable progress towards developing the material conditions of the colony, Leigh found that its moral tone was at an extremely low ebb. With Macquarie's blessing he at once set out to revitalise the tiny Methodist society in Sydney and, in short order, he formed Bible classes at Sydney, Parramatta, Windsor, and Castlereagh, opened Sunday schools at each, and secured 15 preaching places in the district. Leigh preached regularly at each of these once every three weeks. On 7 October 1817, at Castlereagh, he opened the first Wesleyan Chapel in Australia. This was followed two years later by chapels at Princess Street in Sydney, and Macquarie Street in Parramatta, and by a brick chapel at Windsor – the site for this latter being donated by Marsden.

Unfortunately Leigh's health broke down and, in 1819, soon after Walter Lawry's arrival in Sydney, Marsden invited him to visit New Zealand. He landed at the Bay of Islands on 5 May 1819 and remained nine months. During this time, at Marsden's request, he mediated successfully in a dispute which had arisen among the members of the Church Missionary Society establishment. He also recommended that their mission work should be reorganised as a series of circuits – a good Wesleyan principle – and his subsequent report to Marsden led to the appointment of the first Anglican clergyman, the Rev. J. G. Butler, to New Zealand.

In 1820 Leigh's health again failed and he returned to England. There he urged upon the Wesleyan Missionary Committee the need to strengthen their work in the South Pacific. He especially pressed the claims of New South Wales and Tasmania for their consideration and argued for a separate mission to the aboriginals. He also urged that missions be opened in New Zealand and Tonga. As a result of his plea the conference of that year decided to dispatch Erskine and Mansfield, one of whom was to devote himself entirely to the aboriginal population, to New South Wales, Carbosso to Tasmania, Leigh to New Zealand, and Lawry to Tonga. In addition, two missionaries, still to be appointed, were to serve in the South Seas.

Leigh returned to Sydney via Tasmania, where he stayed to open a new mission station, arriving in September 1821 and sailing again for New Zealand on 1 January 1822. For the next 16 months, while he learned Maori, Leigh remained at Te Puna with Hall of the C.M.S. Towards the end of May 1823 he was joined by William White, who had been appointed by the 1821 conference. Leigh and White travelled to Whangarei, but agreed that it was not a suitable place to begin their work. They next visited several tribes living near Kaeo, in the Whangaroa district, and decided to establish a mission among the tribes who had perpetrated the Boyd massacre some years earlier. Because they suspected it to be a ruse to kidnap their chiefs for trial at Sydney, the Maoris did not welcome the new arrivals at first. Leigh, however, quieted their fears and purchased about 30 acres for a mission site. He named the station Wesley-Dale; and, for the first winter weeks, the missionaries camped in tents until more permanent buildings could be erected. After the first excitement occasioned by their arrival had died down, the Maoris showed alarming truculence and ransacked the mission several times. Leigh suffered a further breakdown in health. Late in August 1823, when Marsden brought Turner and Hobbs to Wesley-Dale, he was alarmed by Leigh's condition and persuaded him to seek medical treatment in Sydney. On 17 September 1823 Leigh sailed from New Zealand in the Brampton, but was shipwrecked near Moturoa Island. This delayed his departure until 14 November 1823, when he left New Zealand for the last time.

From 1823 to 1831 Leigh worked on the Parramatta circuit. After his wife's death in the latter year he returned to England. He acted as a supernumerary at Liverpool until 1833, when he rejoined the itinerancy at Gravesend. During the next few years he served on several circuits and, in 1845, retired from the ministry. Leigh settled at Reading, but still interested himself in church affairs. He travelled widely in England and delivered public addresses on all aspects of missionary work. Leigh continued these labours until 24 November 1851, when he suffered a severe stroke. He died at Reading on 2 May 1852.

Leigh was twice married; first, in 1820, to Catherine Clewes (died Parramatta, 15 May 1831), a Staffordshire girl whom he had known from his boyhood; and, secondly, in August 1842, to Elizabeth, widow of the Rev. William Kaye, a Wesleyan minister. Although he had no family of his own, Leigh adopted and brought up two of his wife's nieces.

Although Leigh possessed no great intellectual powers, he was ideally suited to missionary work. Himself a convert to Methodism, he was imbued with all the zeal and earnestness of an apostle and gave himself so energetically to his calling that he endangered his health repeatedly. He was the first Wesleyan missionary to arrive in Australasia and he supervised the establishment of his church's first missions in New South Wales, Tasmania, and New Zealand and, to the end of his life, he corresponded regularly with the Wesleyan missionaries in the South Pacific. Leigh's exploits in the Wesleyan missions are said to have been rivalled only by those of Dr Coke, the pioneer missionary of Ceylon. The Wesleyan Theological College at Enfield, New South Wales, and the Methodist Chapel in Macquarie Street, Parramatta, both perpetuate his name.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • The Life of Samuel Leigh, Strachan, A. (1855)
  • Papers Relative to the Wesleyan Missions and the State of Heathen Countries, No. XXVII, Mar 1827
  • A New History of Methodism, Townsend, W. J., Workman, H. B., Eayrs, G. (1909)
  • Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, Elder, J. R. (ed.) (1932).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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