Thomas Robert John Leece: 1990-2022

We are sorry to announce that Thomas Robert John Leece has passed away. The following obituary is courtesy of his family.

Tom Leece dressed in a navy suit and pink corsage, smiling towards the camera

Witty and wise historian and journalist who improved thousands of articles, ensuring that stories were accurate, engaging and easy to understand.

At a wedding Tom was a self-styled ‘impact guest’. He coined the phrase when recounting his late-night limb-flailing to the tune of the Rattlin’ bog, cheered on by the newlyweds’ friends and family, many of whom he hardly knew. He threw himself into squat dancing as he threw himself into life, never missing an opportunity to have fun and make memories.

Off the dance floor, Tom would still find himself in the centre of rooms or conversations, without always meaning to be. He drew people to him, regaling stories that could start with Do-It-Yourself plumbing and end with a visit from the fire brigade; or begin with dog-sitting and end with a trip to an Accident and Emergency department. It was the same in all social contexts, Tom had an energy and a glint in his eye which were impossible to refuse, and once he got started on a subject you couldn’t help but be swept along by his gleeful exuberance. He was someone who you wanted at your party, or on your quiz team.

His intellectual abilities were always evident in his passionate enthusiasm for criticism and debate whether of deep political crises, strikingly inventive poetical form or the latest hit TV series, the product of a mind which was both free-thinking and steeped in a rich and intimidatingly detailed sense of history. His memory was the stuff of legend but he carried all that knowledge very lightly, and offered it up like a gift in every conversation.

Tom was born in Queen Mary’s hospital in Roehampton on March 6, 1990. He was the younger son to John and Kate Leece. After leaving Homefield Preparatory School, Sutton he moved to King’s College School, Wimbledon with an Exhibition. A tutor there observed that “there is never a dull moment when Tom is around. He possesses a wonderfully dry and witty sense of humour, while harbouring a great sense of determination and drive to succeed”. Tom was as serious about making people laugh as he was about his studies. A teacher wrote in one of his school reports that he once called himself “King of Latin”. This was a confident assertion a few weeks into senior school, especially given that, in the margin you can see that the King has treasonably been given a B. He left sixth form having gained 45, the maximum points in the International Baccalaureate, and a group of friends with whom he’d not only remain close but come to be described as “the glue that held us all together”.

While his schooling had been exclusively in the company of boys, he matriculated in 2008 in the first cohort of young men ever to study alongside female students at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Before heading to university, he rejected the premise of the ultimatum he’d been given by a family friend and refused to choose between getting a First and making lasting friendships, and graduated with both. The fellow History undergraduate whom Tom asked to be his best man, Joe Rice, said that “being a friend of Tom’s is to be, in some way, at the very centre of his life”. He remained in Oxford for four years, staying on after gaining a Bachelor of Arts in History to complete a Master of Studies in Modern British and European History at Mansfield College in 2012. His passion for his subject was infectious and he managed to be as much the life and soul of library study breaks as college bops, which he more often than not attended wearing a crocodile onesie, regardless of the theme.

For a short time after moving back to London, Tom was Film and TV editor at Fourth & Main magazine and a freelance TV critic. In a 2013 review for The Independent Tom suggested the best line in an episode of Borgen was “No one wants to read about the EU. It’s too complicated and unsexy” and commented that the character who uttered it “may be a heartless demagogue but at least he’s got an eye for the elephant in every newspaper’s editor room.” Tom was about to make his way into that room.

When he became a trainee sub-editor in 2013 at the Daily Mail and took the Press Association’s course in news and features subbing and design, Tom found his true passion and use for his talents in production journalism. Most people outside of a newspaper office, and probably quite a few people inside a newspaper office, are unable to tell you what a sub-editor is. A colleague of Tom’s defined it as “An eye for detail that verges on the irritating, the ability to bring order to the disorganised elements of a raw story, the inquisitiveness to question every facet of every fact, the instinct to know when things need sorting out and the initiative to just get on and do it. A natural way with words and simple desire to make things correct. Or to define it more succinctly: Tom.”

2013 was significant for the start of his career, but it was also in January of that year that he sat beside the woman who was to become his wife eight years later. Before the meal that led to their first date, she knew of him only as the one who exclaimed “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you” after a few drinks. Jessica Ferguson was intrigued by the guy who quoted from Dubliners for a laugh on a night out, before even encountering his 6-feet and 5-inches. Long walks, loud singalongs and laughter-filled weekends exploring England’s countryside and stately homes were the backdrop to their early relationship. Jessica later described that she fell in love with a man that “goes on more dates with his friends than with me”, with “someone whose anecdotes get funnier the more times you hear them. Someone with an intimidating amount of knowledge, who has surprisingly high EQ but surprisingly bad table manners. A person who describes water as ‘the good stuff’, whose thirst for life is unquenchable who is articulate, sensitive and romantic, caring, ambitious, talented.”

After moving to the London Evening Standard the following year, he rose up the ranks quickly becoming a senior sub-editor and then a splash sub-editor serving as the print production department’s lead sub-editor, working on the front page and rolling stories such as 2017’s terror attacks in London, the general election and the fire in Grenfell Tower. During this time, he lived with a rotating cast of friends in Lexham Mews in Earl’s Court. The place developed its own lexicon with Christmas soon becoming Lexmas. After a day editing a London newspaper, he was a regular contributor and reader of the house’s group chat, Mews News. Despite having the smallest room, Tom drew up a complicated formula to demonstrate that, in fact, he got the most value for money out of his rent based on time spent at home playing board games, baking cheesecakes and hosting film nights.

Tom was proud to begin working as a freelancer on the Comment section in 2017 and then as permanent staff from 2018 at The Times which he saw as the nation’s newspaper of record. At the bottom of notes he wrote to prepare for interview he summarised “Best job in the world.” Tom was excited by the fact that, in addition to informing and entertaining readers, he was creating, as he put it, “a primary source” for future historians. His breadth and depth of knowledge impressed colleagues and stories such as how he politely corrected a distinguished historian on a detail about 18th century Russia which the academic had got wrong became office legend.

It was Tom’s interest in people and the detail of their lives which made the past feel so present to him, and which helped him bring it so vividly to life for others. He had a way of making historical events seem as relevant and as interesting as current affairs. Partly inspired by attending the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Charles I: King and Collector with his parents in 2018, he began writing what he envisaged as a trilogy of novels based on the life of Sir Thomas Fairfax. He was drawn to this overlooked figure who was on both sides of the civil war at different stages of his life. At 32, as Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, Fairfax played a key role in defeating the Royalists. Later, he was instrumental in restoring the monarchy. Tom didn’t get to finish this project but he wrote enough to immerse himself in the mind of another Thomas who lived four hundred years before him. In Tom’s manuscript, Thomas Fairfax, after a failed battle against the Scots in Newcastle, thinks about the fact that the defeated men have fallen back across North Riding’s border to Northallerton, where five hundred years ago the men of the northern counties had gathered to defeat King David of Scotland. “This is how Thomas sees the landscape now: he has ridden through the great veiled stone archway of the past and into a plane of annals and memory, where his forefathers battle the enemy beneath dark and lighting-scratched skies.”

While historical fiction occupied his imagination, Tom was also a disciplined scholar of history and in 2020 he was accepted to begin studying part-time the following year for a Doctor of Philosophy at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He intended to give firmer form to the Stuart knight, who was familiar to contemporaries but has only rarely attracted academic attention. Given that a blend of cynicism about and reverence for state honours is an enduring feature of British society, Tom hoped that by studying the system’s former idealised and functional forms in the Caroline period, it would further our understanding of the role of honour and power in British culture and society. Tom got a buzz from a day with the archives and described “fist-pump-under-the-desk” moments of discovering interesting accounts or letters such as the one in which Judith Barrington shares the gossip with her mother-in-law that Charles I offered, on the spur of the moment, to knight the husband of a woman who had been mistakenly accused by Henrietta Maria of stealing one of her gowns. The offer was rejected, apparently the king bestowing a knighthood on her husband couldn’t make up for the embarrassment of the wife.

As well as his work and his studies, Tom was also a keen cyclist and often cycled across London to meet friends. He hugely enjoyed the thrill of cycling from Paris to Geneva in 2018 and had hoped to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2020 when the pandemic prevented the emergent plans from going ahead. He also loved being out on the river, and had many adventures with friends on the Cherwell, the Wye and latterly the Thames in his own kayak.

When Tom asked Jessica to marry him in 2019 he thought the biggest challenge between then and tying the knot would be working out whether her cousin was serious in noting Guinness as a dietary requirement when accepting their invitation to join them in celebrating. Five months later, the world went into lockdown on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Reflecting on the intervening time at their wedding in August 2021, Tom said “I know this past year has been different things to different people, at different times: an upheaval or an inconvenience; a setback or a success; an epiphany, a tragedy; an ending, or a new beginning. To me it has chiefly been a test of hope. And what I’ve come to understand, more than I ever knew before, is that to be with you is to be hopeful. To be with you is to believe in the best in people, and to believe in tomorrow. So, while tonight is about tonight, I’d like my last toast to be to tomorrow.”

Tom’s funeral was held on October 19, 2022 at St Bride’s church in Fleet Street, London which has historic links to printing and journalism and was packed with many of his industry colleagues as well as his family and many friends.

Tom Leece, was born on March 6, 1990. He died in a road traffic accident on September 11, 2022, aged 32.