John Leak: Queensland’s first Victoria Cross winner and man of mystery

Private John Leak VC, of the 9th Battalion surrounded by family and friends outside Buckingham Palace on the occasion of being awarded the Victoria Cross.. Australian War Memorial

Private John Leak VC, of the 9th Battalion surrounded by family and friends outside Buckingham Palace on the occasion of being awarded the Victoria Cross. Australian War Memorial collection

Guest bloggers: Ron Siebenhausen and Tom McVeigh

Private John Leak was the first Queenslander to be awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916. Despite the amount recorded about his pre-war background in newspapers, books and on the Internet, it is inconsistent and without proof.

John Leak (2053) was awarded the VC for extraordinary courage at Pozieres France 23 July 1916. This is not in question. The National Archives of Australia has digitised his records, showing he enlisted on 28 January 1915 in Rockhampton, Queensland. Documents relating to his war records and marriage to Beatrice May Chapman may be viewed at their site

He married Beatrice May Chapman in Cardiff, Wales on 30 December 1918. (He had originally given his brother, George, in Saskatchewan, Canada, as his next of kin on his enlistment papers, but later that was changed to ‘Miss May Chapman’ of 62 Bridge Street, Cardiff.) The Cardiff Times 4 January 1919 publicised the marriage with details about the couple and John Leak’s background.

Queensland has claimed John Leak as its first V.C. recipient. Portsmouth, Hampshire claims him because his enlistment papers record his birth there. In various interviews he provided different places of birth. Whether this inconsistency is due to deception or incorrect reporting we do not know. None of what he said or what was reported about his origins has been verified. We would like compelling evidence in records or testimony of his true origin.

When John Leak received the V.C. at Buckingham Palace in 1916 the Cardiff Times ran an article 11 November 1916. The newspaper stated that he claimed his parents were originally from Wales (his mother from Mountain Ash, his father a ‘Bryn Mawr man’), and that they moved to New South Wales. Although they are described as being well-known in these Welsh places, the article says that he could not find those who knew them. The article suggests that he was born in Queensland. When was he born? Depending on the report or record checked, he was born between 1892 and 1899. We cannot locate his birth anywhere in Australia, the UK or Canada. Nor can we find him or his family on the British censuses, leaving England, or arriving in Australia or Canada. Neither is his South Australian death certificate helpful.

Despite his marriage in Cardiff in 1918, William J.E. Leak is listed as a single man marrying Ada Victoria Bood Smith in Western Australia, 12 January 1927; the marriage is indexed at the Western Australian Registry site. His age was recorded as 28 years, and his place of birth as Peak Hill in Canada. His parents were given as James Leak (consistent with his earlier marriage record), and Sarah Wilson (his mother’s name was not required on his earlier marriage record).

John Leak is first reliably recorded in Queensland when he enlisted. Even his stated employment as teamster at Logan Downs, Queensland, prior to enlistment, is unconfirmed as the station records were lost in a fire. After the war he moved throughout Australia, finally settling in South Australia.

An Australian War Memorial photo (above) of him is similar to photos in the Cardiff Times and the South Australian Chronicle (30 December 1916 p 27 on Trove) It shows the family was that of his first wife, Beatrice May Chapman, and that they were snapped outside Buckingham Palace.

This issue of incorrect information is part of the problem of tracing his real story. His children’s stories of his origins are also inconsistent and unsupported.

Beatrice May Chapman, his first wife was born 1897 in Cardiff, Wales to William Thomas Chapman and Elizabeth Bellamy. Her siblings, as recorded on the 1911 census, included Frank Stanley, Ivor John and Hannah (later Willliams). She knew John Leak from at least 1916, when her father was helping him find his Welsh roots. She is holding hands with him in the photograph outside Buckingham Palace surrounded by her family. When they married in December 1918, the understanding was that he would organise her passage to Australia. However, the Australian Government did not fund her passage, and he could not afford it. She stayed in Wales living with her parents until 1935 at 18 Shakespeare St, Roath, according to the electoral rolls, under her single name. We do not know what happened to her after that. A few other women share the same name, and it has been difficult to trace her reliably. She is not recorded as having been buried with her parents in Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff nor is she mentioned in her father’s 1955 Cardiff funeral notice.

Information on important aspects of the life of the V.C. recipient, and his first wife, are missing. Critical parts of John Leak’s and his first wife’s biographies we seek are:

  • the birth and background of John Leak prior to his enlistment January 1915 in Queensland
  • what happened to his first wife, Beatrice May Chapman.

There may be photographs, letters, diaries or anecdotes that are clues to John Leak’s or Beatrice May Chapman’s stories, or lead to other avenues of enquiry.

Any assistance in locating the truth would help clarify part of Queensland’s history.