It was welcome back to retired teacher Alun Pugh who has been a regular speaker at the Forum since 2013. Today’s lesson was about the history of Roundhay Park assisted by extracts from An Illustrated History of Roundhay Park by Stephen Burt
Beginning back in Doomsday times the area existed as Round Hay and was a deer hunting park for the de Lacy family of Pontefract Castle. It was enclosed with a long perimeter ditch and an inner mound topped with a palisade fence to keep the deer inside and poachers out. At the end of the 18th century, the owner was a Lord Stourton who, in 1803, sold it jointly to Samuel Elam and Stephen Nicholson who divided the land.
Elam was an entrepreneur who began developing his land to the south with elegant Georgian housing meanwhile selling off parcels of land to sustain losses on some of his other risky ventures. Eventually, he was declared bankrupt and Nicholson was able to buy up and extend his land holdings.
Nicholson’s ideas for Roundhay were always leaning towards a country estate with lakes, ponds, and follies. He hired Architect John Clarke to come up with a master plan together with the crowning glory of a Mansion House overlooking the Estate. Located opposite the main entrance to the house was the Upper Lake which was fed by a stream of crystal clear water. At the eastern end of the lake were dramatic waterfalls and several pools, crossed by a single arched rustic bridge.
The upper lake would have been the main lake, but for the fortunate acquisition of a tongue of former Elam land, which gave Thomas Nicholson ownership of the only part of Great Heads Beck not in his possession. This enabled him to construct the most spectacular feature of the park – Waterloo Lake.
The valley bottom was deepened and widened by workmen before work could start on the construction of the main dam. Records state that the main dam was constructed by unemployed soldiers who had just returned from the Napoleonic Wars and that it took two years to construct at a cost of around £15,000. Named after the famous British victory at Waterloo, it covered thirty-three acres, with an average depth of around sixty feet.
Thomas Nicholson died in 1821 without offspring and left the bulk of his fortune to his business partner and half-brother Stephen who was tasked with continuing the Park’s development. As a lasting memory to his brother Stephen commissioned Thomas Taylor to design and build St John’s Anglican Church which was consecrated in 1826 and contains several family wall plaques plus the vaults where the Nicholsons are buried.
In 1858, his nephew William Nicholson Nicholson inherited the land on the death of his uncle and, in 1871, Roundhay Park was put up for sale.
In 1872, Leeds City Council purchased Roundhay’s parkland by auction for £139,000, opening it as a public park for the ‘well-being of the citizens of Leeds’. Leeds architect George Corson won a competition for landscaping the Park whilst parts of the estate were sold as building plots of around an acre to offset the purchase and development costs to the Council.
Although 100,000 people supposedly attended the opening ceremony in 1872 by Prince Arthur, few city dwellers could easily access the park. Neither were there any facilities such as shelters, toilets, and seating to accommodate day visitors.
In 1894 a public electric tram began running quarterly-hour services, leading to a sudden burst of popularity. Followed shortly after by boating on the lake, a sports arena and cycling track, and even a steamboat, the Mary Gordon, on the lower lake. So that is basically the Roundhay Park we can now enjoy.
In thanking Alun for his detailed history of the development of the Park as we know it, Mike South admitted that he had yet to pay the Park a visit. However, he was very much encouraged to go, armed with the knowledge gained from today’s engrossing lesson.
Next week it’s an open meeting for wives and friends to join in some Christmas Carols with Dr Judy Blezzard. She is a renowned promoter of all things musical in the Aire Valley and is looking forward to getting us in the mood for the upcoming festivities.
Recorded by: RICHARD WRIGHT