Leech, Sir William
1900 – 1990
Sir William Leech was a Tyneside-based housebuilder, the founder and chairman of William Leech PLC. He was educated at Westgate Road Council School, Newcastle, before training as an engineer at the Swan Hunter Shipyards on the Tyne. He lost his job during the depression of the 1920s, causing him to join his father in the family window cleaning business.
Leech founded his building business in 1932 with a capital of £50 (£3,235 in 2018 prices), aged 32, having acquired land in the Walker area of Newcastle. One of his early ventures was a collaboration with Newcastle City Council to build houses at Bilbrough Gardens, Benwell. Believing that other builders used inefficient construction methods, his aim was to cut costs and sell houses at “the cheapest possible prices.” As a result of his modest upbringing, he wanted to provide affordable housing for people who had never before contemplated owning their own home. The concept of efficiently constructed low-cost affordable homes, yielding good margins at volume, proved a winning formula. The business boomed, supported by the growth of the building society movement, tax breaks for homeowners, and an increasingly aspirational population that viewed home ownership as fundamental to living a good life.
The business was privately owned for many decades, but in 1976, as William neared the end of his career, he took the decision to float the company on the London Stock Exchange. This at a stroke made him a very wealthy man. By 1979, the company was building 2,500 homes annually in different parts of the country. William, at nearly 80 years of age, was still chairman. He retired in 1980 and passed the reigns to Richard Adamson, the son of William’s right-hand man, John Adamson. After considering a number of offers over several years, the business was acquired in 1985 by CH Beazer (Holdings) PLC, and William Leech retired to High House near Morpeth, Northumberland, where he died five years later. He was posthumously knighted in the New Year’s honours list in 1990.
William Leech had embarked on his long philanthropic journey well before his company went public in 1976. In 1955, he set aside 100,000 shares in the business, representing approximately 50% of the equity, to a trust with the intention of supporting five Christian charities in perpetuity. By 1960, he had gifted further shares, then valued at £230,000. The trust made over £353,000 to each of the five shareholding charities in the year to 31 March 2018, at which time its net assets were worth £55 million. The five charities have received over £80 million from William Leech (Investments) Limited since 1955.
In 1960, William established two charitable trusts, the William Leech Charity Trust and the William Leech Foundation Trust. He gave the trusts 25% and 50% respectively of the shares in his building company. The trusts would benefit enormously from the flotation of the building business in 1976, when they sold half of their shares, and again in 1985, when the remainder of the shares were sold to Beazer. In 2018, the William Leech Foundation Trust had an endowment worth £35,184,948, the Charity Trust was endowed with £16,252,345. Since their formation in 1960, these two trusts have made grants totalling £55 million, with the five Christian charities being the main beneficiaries.
Next, in 1972, he established a third charitable trust, The William Leech Property Trust, endowing it with 300 tenanted investment properties he had personally owned, which in 1988 became known as the William Leech Charity. Through the Charity, he contributed to the initial endowment match challenge for the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, and a named fund continues there to this day. The Chair of the William Leech Charity is William Leech’s great-nephew, and at 28 February 2018, the William Leech Charity had funds of £19.4 million.
William Leech lived simply, unostentatiously, throughout his life. He was thoughtful, sincere and shrewd, and within the business community respected for integrity and sound judgement. He subscribed to Christian ideals, as did his wife, expressing their ideals through their unwavering commitment to philanthropy. Following the sale of the Leech business to Beazer in 1985, William expressed his wish for his charitable work to continue in perpetuity. In a telling “Message for the Future” he wrote:
“For many years I have expressed the hope that my wishes will be respected and that in recognition of past generosity the plough back [reinvestment strategy] will continue for all time… who can see its ultimate value or the benefits which will be generated…It is my hope that William Leech investments will continue to grow and provide a secure and ever increasing income for the benefit of mankind.”
After William’s death, his wife, Lady Ellen, oversaw the charities and their investments. In 1997, she established The Lady Leech Fund of the William Leech Charity through the donation of a portfolio of shares. When she died in 1999 the residue of her estate was added to the fund, which makes grants to support projects that help children in the Developing World and in poorer countries. Where possible these projects should have some connection with the North East of England. The William Leech Charity alone, just one part of a remarkable philanthropic legacy, makes grants each year of about £400,000, supporting a wide variety of causes, including path-breaking medical research at Newcastle University.
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BBC. (2018). William Leech - Builder. [Online] Available here (Accessed 08/04/2018).
Northumberland Records Office, “A forward message for the future to the five charities from Mr William Leech”, NRO 3758, 1985.
KIER. (2018). Students move on to “fabulous” new school campus, Available here (Accessed 08/04/2018).
The William Leech Charity. (2018). William Leech. Available here (Accessed 08/04/2018).