Leeds nostalgia: The story behind Kirkstall’s stately Crooked Acres

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In the first of an occasional series looking at important Leeds houses in and around Leeds, Times Past this week looks at the story behind one of Kirkstall’s most important stately homes, formerly known as Crooked Acres.

Amateur historian Mike Harwood has researched the history of the house, which is today known as Kirkside House.

It is a large house which stands at the junction of Spen Lane, Morris Lane and Abbey Walk which was, for over 40 years (from 1883 to 1928), the home of William Henry Kitson and his daughter, May.

William Henry, a quieter version of his uncle James and his cousin (also a James, who became Lord Airedale in 1907), was an engineer, industrial entrepreneur and iron founder involved in the burgeoning railway industry with its call for engines, carriages, rails and so on. He was a master of the Leeds Wheel and Axle Company in Armley, across the river from Kirkstall.

Mr Harwood said: “Crooked Acres has had a varied and colourful history. After it was a family home, it was acquired by the city council to became a home for women, (later both sexes) with severe learning disabilities. Here we have the rather superior, gentleman’s, urban villa at the end of the nineteenth century. For the masters, the appearance of central heating, piped hot water and water closets. For the servants, a room at the top of the house, no separate dining room or bathroom, no central heating. The English, Victorian bourgeoisie at home.

“It was later organised as an annexe to Meanwood Park Hospital in Leeds, a residential home for those with learning disability and not a few women whom today, without batting a moral eyelid and without locking them away, we would call unmarried mothers.

“I became interested first in Crooked Acres and so consequentially in William Henry Kitson because I am as good as from Yorkshire and because I spent five years working as a porter at Meanwood Park Hospital.

“William Henry played some, albeit small and perhaps unintentional, part in preserving what green spaces we have today here in Kirkstall.

“I have found quite a few ‘Crooked’ place names and it seems plausible that our Crooked Acres got its name as the house built amongst the crooked acres or fields, which, looking at the OS map for 1851, do seem very un-square.

“The house was built around 1878-1879 by John Octavius Butler, of the Kirkstall Forge family; acquired in 1883 by William Henry Kitson, our William Henry, who lived there with his spinster daughter May and the usual coterie of servants, always thought essential for that sort of class, for some 45 years until his death in 1928. It then served the city council and National Health Service as a residential annexe to Meanwood Park Hospital.

“Meanwood Park Hospital was rented in 1919 by the Leeds Corporation to provide a ‘mental deficiency colony’ for the mentally handicapped, which was formally opened on June 3, 1920, although the first patient Mr Frank Tottie was admitted on August 25, 1919. Frank, aged just 10 lived in the hospital for over 60 years until his death on November 17, 1979.

“On August 17, 1981, two residents, a man aged 68 and a woman aged 56, who had spent respectively 60 and 48 years in hospital, were married in St Stephen’s Church, Kirkstall. They were discharged on June 22, 1982 to a housing association flat in West Park Drive, Leeds and on June 11, 1983, a lady aged 59 was discharged to a council flat in Spen Lane, Leeds after 41 years in hospital.”

He went on: “William Henry Kitson was born in March 6, 1839. To most people, to whom it means anything at all, the name Kitson in Leeds brings to mind, not William Henry but James Kitson, later Sir James Kitson, Baronet and later still, in 1907 a peer, Lord Airdale of Gledhow and perhaps, too, they think of Lord Airedale’s father, also a James (James the elder).

“William Henry was a worthy, philanthropic and maybe, I rather think, a lonely, man; and worthy men and philanthropic men perhaps deserve an hour in the sunshine and if it is important his contribution to the roaring, industrial development of Leeds in the late 19th Century was not insignificant.

“William Henry lived with his family in Blucher Street in Hunslet in Leeds. Both branches of the family moved to Hunslet. Sir James, the younger, had childhood memories of the Larches in Hunslet and in 1841, William with his wife and young William Henry were in Blucher Street, Hunslet. Both the Airedale foundry and the Monkbridge Iron Works were established in Hunslet. Of course, later, as they achieved success in the railway construction business, they all moved up the residential ladder, the elder James to Elmet Hall in Roundhay in 1871; the younger James to Gledhow Hall in 1885; and our William Henry to Crooked Acres in 1883.

“The business and engineering achievement of William Henry deserve some admiration; his grandfather Thomas, a publican in the Leylands, his father, William, starting as a plumber and glazier, before getting to work on the railways and he himself ended up with at least one patent for improvements in railway wheels.

“In the third quarter of 1877, William Henry married Amelia Clayton, the daughter of Murray Clayton and Sara (nee Hollings) of Methley, Castleford. William Henry was now about 38. Amelia about 26, born about 1851.

“In 1881 they were living in Beech Grove in Oulton-cum-Woodlesford, between Leeds and Castleford. William Henry was described as a civil engineer. And they have with them a housemaid and a cook.

“On August 8, 1882, still at Beech Grove, their daughter, their first and only child, May, was born. And she was, it seems, to remain at home with her father until he died in 1928. They acquired Crooked Acres on October 2, 1883. Life, as with all such households, was of course punctuated by the hiring and firing of servants, as numerous adverts testify.”

Crooked Acres had been part of the Cardigans’ Kirkstall estate but it was the ending of the era of the great landowners, the great landed estates, at least in Kirkstall. The history of Crooked Acres is a microcosm of a significant element in the changing history of our country and of Kirkstall itself.

Mr Harwood added: “It seems that the dwelling at Crooked Acres, a very large house set in over an acre of grounds, was built by John Octavius Butler, of the Butlers of Kirkstall Forge. From him it passed to another Butler, Ambrose Edmund and then to William Beswick Myers of Kirkstall, like William Henry Kitson, an engineer; until it was purchased from him in 1883 by our William Henry.

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