John Neal Leach, known as Neal Leach, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1890, the son of John Vincent and Katherine Theodore Leach of Jamaica. His father was an English lawyer and magistrate, practising in Kingston. Neal Leach’s address in England was 35 Mathewson Road, West Kensington, London.
Neal Leach had been a student of modern languages, studying at the University of Cambridge and during the summer of 1914, had been working in Germany as tutor to the son of a wealthy German wine grower. When the war broke out on 4th August, he was interned as an enemy alien, but was released on his own personal parôle to return to the West Indies and not engage in any hostilities against Germany.
He then travelled to New York, in the United States of America where his uncle, who was a provision merchant, lived. According to author Colin Simpson, in his book
Lusitania, published in 1972, Neal Leach had met a German national, a steward named Gustav Stahl, on the boat across the Atlantic, and being impecunious, took rooms with him at a small boarding house at 20 Leroy Street, New York, run by a Mr. and Mrs. Weir, who were known to be German sympathisers and actively opened their property to German agents. Why Leach did not simply contact his uncle and stay with him, or borrow the money to continue his journey to Kingston, is not known.
What is known, however, is that Leach later went with another German national from the house, named Hans Hardenburg to the German Consulate, and on the same date, there was a discussion at the Consulate about the supposed siting of four guns on the
Lusitania! The same evening, Neal Leach finally contacted his uncle and informed him that he intended to raise the money to return to England to enlist in the armed forces.
His uncle was a friend of Staff Captain James Clarke Anderson of the Lusitania and then gave his nephew $25 and arranged with Anderson for him to work his passage across the Atlantic. Consequently, on 30th April 1915, he engaged as a waiter in the Stewards' Department on board the Lusitania at a monthly pay rate of £4-15s-0d., (£4.75). On the same day, he wrote to his mother in Kingston to tell her that he was making a voyage to Liverpool on the liner as it was a highly paid job and that she should not worry about his safety, as the ship was very fast and carried several guns!
It is tempting to think that his decision not to go immediately to Jamaica, and instead to join the
Lusitania was connected with his involvement with 20, Leroy Street and the German Consulate. It is known that his parlous state of finances was discussed at Leroy Street, for instance and perhaps he had been offered a large financial inducement to report on the existence of guns on the vessel!
The exact reasons for his engagement on the Lusitania will probably never be known, however, as she left the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York port at 12.27 p.m. on 1st May 1915 and six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20, whilst only about 250 miles from her Liverpool destination and within sight of the coast of southern Ireland.
Neal Leach was one of the victims of this action, and as his body was never recovered from the sea and recovered afterwards, he has no known grave. He was aged 25 years at the time of his death. Consequently, his name is embossed on the Mercantile Marine War Memorial to the Missing of the Great War at Tower Hill, London.
It is also known that three German nationals - supposed stowaways - were captured on board the
Lusitania, on 1st May 1915, in possession of a plate camera. They, too, perished when the liner was sunk, as they had been imprisoned in the ship’s brig after their capture and could not be released in the confusion surrounding the torpedoing! It is interesting to speculate, however, if any of the three would have been known to Waiter Leach! Colin Simpson makes the point that Leach’s responsibility as waiter included the area where the ‘stowaways’ were captured.
Certainly, after the sinking, Leach’s friend Stahl swore an affidavit in New York, in an attempt to justify the German action against the
Lusitania, which stated that he had seen hidden guns whilst helping his friend Leach take his trunk on board. This was clearly not true, as Leach’s trunk was later discovered at Leroy Street and although it is unlikely that Stahl got on board the ship at all, it does place Neal Leach in a most unfortunate position!
Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, Lusitania, New York Times, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 334.