It has been variously described as a ‘white elephant’ and the ‘playground of Leeds’ – most likely people today would consider Roundhay Park, which has just marked its 140th year, as the latter.
The sprawling Roundhay estate came into public ownership largely thanks to the efforts of one man, Liberal councillor John Barran, who was the mayor of Leeds from 1870-1872. When the formerly privately owned land came up for auction in 1872, he was faced with a dilemma.
Roundhay was originally set aside as an estate for Ilbert De Lacy by William the Conqueror as reward for his loyalty. In the past, it has been owned by Henry IV and Henry VIII and was bought by Thomas Nicholson in 1803.
The private estate came up for auction by court order following a will dispute.
Barran immediately saw the potential of the land for the city and was quoted as saying: “Here we have an estate which would make an ideal playground for the people of this town.”
But there was a problem.
Roundhay lay outside the city boundary and Parliament prohibited the council raising funds to purchase it, which played into the hands of a Manchester-based consortium, who had designs on using the land to build houses.
But Barran was a man of means – he came to live in Leeds when he was 21 and made a fortune in the textile industry, after which he turned his attention to politics. When the day of the auction came on October 4, 1871, Barran, together with two of his friends, used their own money to bid for the best lots.
The opening bid for Lot 19, comprising 601 acres, including the Mansion House and ornamental gardens, was £50,000 and on the day Barran and company ended up paying more than double that, eventually buying it for £107,000.
They bought a further 173 acres for £32,000 and the following year, after an Act of Parliament had made the transfer possible, they sold it to the corporation for the same price. And so it was that Roundhay Park came into public ownership.
It was officially opened on September 19, 1872, an event attended by Prince Arthur, third son of Queen Victoria, who was entertained on a grand scale, being escorted from the Town Hall in a mile-long procession to the park, where he was banqueted before being treated to an hour-long firework display over Waterloo Lake – and the festivities didn’t end there but continued long into the night (and the following day) back at Leeds Town Hall.
The 22-year-old Prince, Duke of Connaught, said at the time he hoped the park “may be amply repaid by a great improvement in the health and comfort of the hard working classes, for whose benefit it has been purchased.”
But Barran was mocked for buying the land, which at that time was several miles north of the city centre – transport networks were not what they are today, so there was no major road or rail links to the park.
In 1882, cartoonist Eli Pitchin produced a pamphlet caricaturing Mayor Barran, depicting him leading a white elephant on a piece of string. There was also a petition against the purchase the same year.
On September 19, 1932, Leeds resident Alf Mattison recalled in the YEP: “The lively, often embittered controversy over the purchase of the park raged for many years. It was argued the park was sure to prove a millstone around the necks of ratepayers.”
A decade after purchase, many still had reservations, as the park was seldom used.
That changed in 1890 when the corporation agreed to lay tram lines connecting the park and they were duly opened on October 29, 1891. The system was modified but essentially remained in use until the 1960s, when trams were replaced by buses.
By 1872, the 30-acre Waterloo Lake was already there – it had been dug by soldiers who had fought against Napoleon – hence its name. They were taken on in a bid to relieve unemployment, which was rife following the wars.
The folly, or castle, was built around the same time by one George Nettleton, master builder, for Thomas Nicholson, the first of that family to live in the mansion.
In 1896, tight-rope walker Charles Blondin crossed the lake on a wire at its widest point – he was 72!
Houdini was thrown into the lake handcuffed and came out free a few seconds later.
Perhaps, however, the most poignant recollection must go to Barran himself, who said with great foresight: “Future generations will remember us with gratitude as they stroll along the pleasant walks and enjoy the ease and shade of the trees.”