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William Augustine Leigh (1802–1873)

by Margaret M. Press

This article was published:

William Augustine Leigh (1802-1873), benefactor, was born on 4 November 1802 at Roby Hall, near Liverpool, England, only child of William Leigh, merchant, and his wife Catherine, heiress and daughter of Sir Richard Robinson, Bart. Young William was educated at Eton, then at Brasenose College, Oxford, without taking a degree. After extensive European travel, on 30 April 1828 he married Caroline, fifth daughter of Sir John Geers Cotterell, Bart. Of the Leighs' four children, one son died in infancy and two daughters died young.

Leigh lived at Roby Hall, then at Aston Hall in Staffordshire, of which county he was a justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant. Always of a pious disposition, he supported the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and became a committee-member of the South Australian Church Society, formed in 1834 to raise money to build churches and rectories and support United Church of England and Ireland clergymen in the first British colony in which they would not be funded from the public revenue.

In June 1837, through his Adelaide agent (Sir) John Morphett, Leigh bought seven town acres (2.8 ha) and several country sections in the colony. Morphett made them all income producing. In 1840 Leigh donated two town acres between Hindley and Currie streets, bordering what was named Leigh Street, to the S.P.G., with a written declaration of his intention to add 400 acres (161.87 ha) of rural land for a glebe and £2000 to build a church and parsonage on it. Pending this development, the society held Leigh's £2000 in trust. In the early 1840s the rents from the Leigh Street properties provided three quarters of the Church of England's South Australian income.

Meanwhile, Leigh became interested in the Oxford Movement and in March 1844 joined the Catholic Church. He thereupon asked the S.P.G. that the bulk of the land and money not yet appropriated for Church of England purposes be made available to Francis Murphy, Adelaide's first Catholic bishop. The society agreed. Murphy received 500 acres (202.34 ha) on the Little Parra River and four acres (1.62 ha) in West Adelaide. After building St Patrick's Church and a residence for himself, the bishop had enough cash left to invest in the Burra copper mine. Leigh had thus rescued two denominations from penury, lessening the dominance that dissenters would otherwise have asserted in South Australia.

Another beneficiary of Leigh's generosity was William Ullathorne, bishop of Birmingham, who started the myth, magnified in Monsignor Frederick Byrne's History of the Catholic Church in South Australia (1896), that Leigh had wanted the Leigh Street acres transferred too, and was 'displeased' when they were not. Though vigorously rebutted—on the evidence of Leigh's correspondence with the S.P.G.—the legend was continued by Labor politician W. J. Denny and long persisted.

In 1844 the Leigh family moved to Gloucestershire where, consulting the architects Augustus Pugin and Charles Hansom, Leigh had built Woodchester mansion and a church in Woodchester Park. Pope Pius IX, with whom he had had an audience as a young man, appointed him to the Order of St Gregory the Great (grand cross). Leigh died of congestive heart failure on 4 January 1873 at Nymphsfield, survived by his wife and one son and leaving personalty sworn at under £9000. A photograph showed a serious, dignified man, characteristic of his times and social milieu. His portrait in oils was painted in Rome by Caralleri in 1827.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Jose, The Church of England in South Australia (Adel, 1937)
  • J. Gallow, A Literary and Biographical History, or Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics, vol 4 (NY, 1968)
  • B. Condon (ed), Letters and Documents Supporting Historical Studies of the Catholic Church in Australia (Adel, 1984)
  • J. Tregenza, Collegiate School of St Peter Adelaide (Adel, 1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 13 Nov 1929, p 2008
  • Adelaide Church News, 21 May 1897
  • Leigh papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Church of England newsclipping books, SRG 94/10 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Margaret M. Press, 'Leigh, William Augustine (1802–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 November, 1802
Roby Hall, England


4 January, 1873 (aged 70)
Nymphsfield, England

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