A Family at War

William had much to be proud of, he had a wonderful family, a magnificent house, vast land holdings, a fortune in shares and as a Justice of the Peace was a respected and influential member of the community. Yet the seeds of the future family troubles were sown when his daughter, Emily, married William Armitage on 7 August 1860.78 The Armitages of Farnley Hall were wealthy and respectable, though not quite of the same standing as Nicholsons. The courtship says a great deal about the social norms of the time. She recalled :

We came from Manchester to Leeds in the train and stopped at Wortley station to have our tickets taken. There for the first time I saw my husband, he was reading a newspaper and waiting for a train to take him to Leeds.

Two days later when I got to Farnley I found that he was the one they called Mr Willie. I had been brought up in such simplicity that I felt rather shy of talking to the young Mr. Olivants and was not quite at my ease with him. As Mr Willie was old and with a bald head, I preferred being with him. We had such a happy fortnight.

She visited Farnley several times and the couple became close, however, their parents failed to agree on how much money they would require to live on and so the matter was dropped. For five years they regularly met at social gatherings but were not allowed to speak to each other. This changed dramatically when Emily became godmother at a Harrogate christening. Her father said ' If you see Mr Willie you are quite at liberty to speak to him'. This meeting led to her wedding. She leaves a delightful description of the event:

I was brought up to London for my trousseau and we went from one grand shop to another buying such a quantity of clothes. I had a very pretty white silk gown and a plain tulle veil with a wreath of orange-blossom round my head, and I had six bridesmaids.

The service was nicely performed; no hymns were sung in those days, so it was very quiet. There was another arch of roses near the church and the school children strewed my path with flowers. The bridegroom looked very ill.

The wedding breakfast was very grand, a special cook had been three days preparing it, and every dish had a little white flag on it. After this meal I very soon went to get dressed to go on my journey. I had a drab dress on, and a white shawl, and a blue bonnet trimmed with sky blue ribbon. I daresay it would look very old-fashioned now, but it looked very pretty then. We went to Chester that evening, and the next day to the Menai Straits.80

William Armitage became more than just a son in law, he became a confidante and trusted friend of William Nicholson Nicholson, to the extent that he was made one of his executors.

William Nicholson Nicholson

William Nicholson Nicholson was a decent man who tried to treat his children fairly. He appointed his wife, his friend William Fison, his cousin John Whitaker and son- in-law William Armitage executors of his will. This was a long and complex fourteen page document in which he clearly outlined his wishes. He died on the 19th September 1868 aged sixty four. His funeral was an elaborate affair and he too was placed in the family vault at St. John's. A funeral monument was erected in the church to match those of his two uncles.


His will was proved in London two months later. Martha was to receive £4000 for her immediate use. His farm bailiff, butler, housekeeper and head gardener were each given nineteen guineas and his coachman, George Smith, was to receive the sum of thirty pounds. Other indoor and outdoor servants received sums varying from five to ten pounds. This part was carried out with ease; however, unlike his uncles, William had numerous offspring, all of whom wished for a share of their father's wealth. The complex nature of his financial affairs, ranging from property to stocks and shares, meant that the sensible way forward was to sell everything and then divide the money between Martha, his children and a myriad of grandchildren.

His will states ' I give and bequeath all my manor or lordship of Roundhay, my Mansion House in Roundhay Park and all those freehold estates situate in Roundhay, Shadwell, Barwick-in-Elmet, Thorner, Whitkirk and Leeds and any real estate of whatever nature or kind…to the executors…and [they] shall absolutely dispose of all the aforesaid real estate when and so soon as it shall seem practicable so to do.'81 It was this final phrase that allowed certain of the executors to embark on what must be regarded as fraudulent activity. John Whitaker decided not to get embroiled in the family dispute and withdrew as an executor, leaving Martha isolated and vulnerable.

She argued that William Armitage, William Fison, her son, Walter Nicholson and son-in-law, Andrew Lawrence Busk, were deliberately delaying the sale of her husband's assets, while at the same time benefiting from the rents and profits. She inferred that they failed to keep accounts and regularly divided the spoils between them, thereby depriving the rest of the family of their inheritance. Despite Martha's protestations the four refused to organise the sale of assets and so, on 30th July 1869, ten months after her husband's death, she instructed Messrs Ewans and Foster of 2, Gray's Inn Square, London, to suit in the Court of Chancery.82 The atmosphere can only be imagined. For her to sue her son, two sons in law and a family friend must have been both hurtful and embarrassing. Nevertheless, the Court found in her favour, allowing the affairs of William's estate to be administered by independent agents and accountants.

Hepper and Sons were immediately instructed to arrange the sale of the property. Jonathan Eddison, Land Agent and Surveyor, measured each room of the Mansion and prepared the necessary descriptions, while J.F.Masser and Son, Lithographers of Boar Lane, provided the illustrations.83 Every villa, farm, field, barn and outbuilding were methodically listed in preparation for one of the most impressive sale catalogues ever produced in Leeds. This was to be a spectacular sale, one which would sever the Nicholson links with Roundhay forever.

Funeral monument William & Martha Nicholson Nicholson
Funeral monument to William and Martha Nicholson Nicholson both of whom are buried in the family vault beneath the church.

A Magnificent Landscape Unsullied by Smoke

The 1871 Sale Particulars extol the virtues of the district, describing it as ' the most charming suburb of Leeds, presenting a magnificent landscape unsullied by the smoke of the town, broken by hill and dale, adorned by rich Plantations and fine Parks, and studded with Gentlemen's Seats and Homesteads, which, meeting the eye at every turn, afford an amount of enjoyment seldom associated with so close a proximity to Leeds'.84 Yet who had enough money to purchase such a property? Hepper intimated that it might be of interest 'not only to gentlemen seeking residences but also to capitalists who may be desirous of profiting by its development'.85 One man had a radically different view.

The Mayor of Leeds, John Barran, believed that Roundhay would make an ideal park for the town, declaring '…Here we have an estate which would make an ideal playground for the people of this town. Future generations will remember us with gratitude as they stroll along the pleasant walks and enjoy the ease and shade of the trees.'86 He lived at Chapel Allerton Hall, the former Nicholson property, miles away from the proposed park - a point not lost on the 'aristocracy of Roundhay', which comprised a number of wealthy merchants, manufacturers and professionals, including James Kitson, Francis Lupton, Henry Hudson, William Coopers Jagger, George Buckton, Henry Marshall Sykes and Henry Andrews.87 The scheme enraged all of them. They totally abhorred the idea of hordes of working class people passing their gates and peering over their walls on the way to the park. This powerful group of men speedily organised themselves into an opposition group and fought hard - all the way to Parliament. But events were moving quickly, for the sale was to take place in October.

Barran faced other difficulties. Roundhay was a 'handsome rural village' over three miles to the north of the town. It lay outside the bounds of Leeds and current legislation limited the council to expending a mere £50,000 on a single item. It would require a special act of Parliament to permit its acquisition. There was no time to obtain one. Yet Barran persisted, and with the help of colleagues on the council, decided to purchase the land on behalf of the people of Leeds and obtain permission later. This was a risky strategy. However, civic pride may well have influenced Barran's decision. The previous year Bradford Corporation had obtained Lister Park. Leeds had Woodhouse Moor which the local paper derided as 'a standing disgrace, being little better than a foul quagmire, decorated by all the diseased cattle in the town.' 88Surely Leeds could do better than this?

John Barran & Chapel Allerton Hall

On 4th October 1871 John Barran made his way to Great Northern Station Hotel to bid for Lot 19 ' ….consisting of a Noble Mansion, Carriage House, Stables, Entrance Lodges, Cottages, Homestead, Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Plantation and extensive Ornamental Waters' and adjoining Lot 20.89 Barran had even re-mortgaged his home in order to raise enough money to bid! It was well known that a Manchester building speculator was very interested in the estate and so the atmosphere in the room was particularly tense. The bidding was swift and he eventually obtained both lots for £139,000.

Barran and his associates now owned the land. They immediately offered Lots 19 and 20 to the Town Council at cost, plus interest. The council accepted, providing that the necessary act could be obtained. The Roundhay élite now had the opportunity to scupper Barran's plans and they began a campaign of vociferous opposition to the Leeds Improvement Bill. This was viewed as a clear fight between the citizens of Leeds and the landowners of Roundhay.


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78. WYAS, Leeds, St.John's Parish Register: Marriages 1837-1902, p.93/2/2.
79. Yorkshire Evening Post, 20 Sept. 1972.
80. Ibid.
81. Will of William Nicholson Nicholson, Probate: PR 21 Nov. 1868.
82. Public Record Office: Chancery Proceedings - Pleadings 1861-75/ C16/591/N46 also C33/1157.
83. WYAS DB/M523 Plan 1871 and AM Sale Particulars ( Series 1) 6624.
84. Hepper Plans 28 Sept.1870 at Leeds Local and Family History Library LF 333.333 H411.
85. Ibid.
86. Yorkshire Evening Post Special Supplement, 19 Sept.1972.
87. Janet Douglas, Chris Hammond and Ken Powell, Leeds: Three Suburban Walks - No.6, (Leeds, n.d.) p.27.
88. Leeds Mercury, 30 Sept. 1871.
89. Leeds Intelligencer, 5 Oct. 1871.