As many of you know, Beyond Guardian Leeds is shutting the office door December 20, unless some kind soul wants to take it over. That means this will be the final Leeds history column there. But if there’s interest I’ll keep doing one on the first Friday of every month (ish) on my blog – www.chrisnickson.co.uk .
Right, that over, let’s go out with something about the greenest place in Leeds – Roundhay Park.
The history goes back to the late 11th century when William the Conqueror (aka the Bastard), gave the area, and more, to Ilbert de Lacy, for his part in decimating the North of England. It was a hunting park of about three square miles for many centuries. Eventually, in 1803, the land was bought by Thomas Nicholson and Samuel Elam, who divided the land, Nicholson taking what would become the park. He built a house there, now the Mansion, and created the Upper and Waterloo lakes to cover coal mines. Reputedly, for the work on Waterloo Lake, he hired soldiers who’d been made unemployed after the Napoleonic wars. The plan was for a third lake, where the arena/cricket ground now stands, but he ran out of money.
Nicholson was also responsible for the famous folly. This was once roofed, and his daughters would take tea there in the summer; it also had a sewing room for them. The estate passed through the family until it was put up for sale in 1871.
At that time John Barran was mayor of Leeds. He’d made plenty of money in the cloth business, but didn’t have the £139,000 needed to purchase the land, even when he mortgaged his house. Others came in with him. Leeds did take it of their hands later that year, but needed an Act of Parliament to spend so much money. To help finance it all, the southern part of the park (stretching down to Oakwood) was sold off for development, but with strict regulation – the houses had to be made of stone and there could be no businesses.
Landscaping was undertaken, and the park was duly opened in 19th September, 1872 by Prince Arthur. The only thing missing on a regular basis was a crowd. It was too far from the centre of town, where most of Leeds’ population – certainly the working class – still lived, and the only transport out there was Shanks’s pony. The press had a field day, describing the purchase of the park as a huge white elephant.
For a while, they looked to be right. At least until the electric trams came along in the 1890s. They trundled out along Roundhay Road (the original tramway is now Princes Avenue) to the park terminus; today’s car park. Look up when you park your car and you can still see the poles for the trams. To see what Roundhay Park looked like in 1908, look here.
And with that, they really did come. A steam boat, the Mary Gordon, offered trips on the big lake until was replaced (legend has it that the boat is sunk at the deepest part of the water) and soon there’ll be another there.
These days over a million people a year come to the park. There are concerts at times, Tropical World and other attractions. It’s remained a vibrant place, changing with the times. But 141 years ago, John Barran was the real visionary who saw how things could be. Leeds owes him a huge debt.
Chris Nickson has been a total star over the last year, contributing many articles to BGL on the history of Leeds. He’s the author of the Richard Nottingham series of books based on a detective in 18th century Leeds, a brilliant gift for any book lover. We at BGL would like to thank him for all his hard work.