A Park for Nothing

John Barran had been actively involved in the Boar Lane Improvement Scheme of 1868, which successfully widened the road from a mere twenty one feet to sixty six, and produced the impressive street with which we are familiar today.90 The old properties were obtained using compulsory purchase orders, the buildings were speedily demolished, the road widened and then the building plots abutting the new road were auctioned off. The money obtained from the sale of these plots paid for the road widening scheme and so the people of Leeds benefited from a much improved road network at no cost.

Barran intended to apply a similar system at Roundhay. The idea was simple: 150 acres was to be retained as a public park, the farmland was to be let, while the remainder was to be sold for building land on which to erect high class villas. The money from the sale of the surplus land would pay for the public space and the people of Leeds gain a park for nothing! Barran envisaged the magnates of Leeds competing eagerly for sites.

James Kitson & Elmet Hall

James Kitson, the famous locomotive engineer, bitterly opposed such a plan. Six years earlier he had purchased Roundhay Lodge from the Nicholsons. After demolishing the old mansion he had spent a fortune building a fashionable villa with extensive landscaped grounds and superb views across the town. He could not stomach the idea of his work people being allowed access to his perimeter fence. He spoke for many when he deplored the loss of seclusion and privacy and argued that Roundhay was far too distant from the homes of the operative classes. Kitson also feared that the opening of the park would lead to 'unseemly behaviour', while increased traffic would put a strain on local roads which the council had no duty to maintain.91 The 'Roundhay aristocracy' also argued that the authority had no right to enter into such a large building speculation, and presented a petition to Parliament against the purchase.

An amusing poster lampooning the Roundhay landowners was pasted throughout the streets of the town. It suggested that Victoria Square, the area in front of the Town Hall, was being cleared for the guillotine:



It was difficult for the council to communicate the beauties of the park to people so far distant in London. Eventually they commissioned Atkinson Grimshaw, the now famous local artist, to produce three paintings to provide the parliamentary commissioners with some idea of the park's appearance. Surprisingly night scenes were painted, however, Grimshaw excelled himself and this group of paintings proved to be among his finest.93

Popular support was mustered and huge rallies were held in the Coloured Cloth Hall Yard. People marched through the streets waving banners and singing popular songs accompanied by local bands. Over 50,000 walked to the park on Whit Monday with twice that number making the long journey the following day. At 3 o'clock on 8th June 1872 the band of the 4th West Yorkshire led the 'Great People's Demonstration' through the streets, showing that the ratepayers of Leeds were definitely behind the scheme. The press reported this outpouring of public support in great detail.94 The event was timed to perfection. It coincided with the difficult moment when the Leeds Improvement Bill reached the Select Committee. If passed, it would allow the council power to spend £150,000 on a recreation ground outside the bounds of the borough.

Barran need not have worried. By the time the Bill came before the Select Committee, it was clear that the 'Roundhay Aristocracy' had lost. Mr. Denison Q.C., the council's barrister, quickly summarised the arguments for the purchase and emphasised that this was a unique opportunity for the 260,000 citizens of Leeds. He stressed that these people should have the right to enjoy the benefits of such a park, miles away from the smoke ladened skies of the town. He added:

Populations of this kind (should) have some place where fresh air could be obtained, where the people could see green trees and green fields, and if they could enjoy a sight of water so much the better…because in Leeds trees absolutely refuse to grow. They had their pores choked with smoke from morning to night that they could not breathe; and while there was doubtless a certain amount of inconvenience in having a park at this distance, he ought to tell the committee that near Leeds there was no other place which could be made into a park. The River Aire ran through the town, and on the west the manufactories accompanied the river. He could remember great alterations in the aspect of the district, and in order to give the idea of the effect of smoke from the factories he might observe that in the surrounding countryside even the sheep were black (To which a noble lord added…And some blue!)

The sheep might be divided into those two classes - black and blue - for young lambs were not allowed to be white for a few days. Of course as these manufactories extended up the river it became more and more impossible to provide anything like a park in that direction. East of Leeds the country soon ran into a coal field, and was flat country as well. To the south of Leeds the country was of much the same character. There remained therefore, only the north of Leeds, and practically only this part, because other land on the more immediate north was occupied by residences in such a way as to render it extremely unlikely that it would come onto the market.95

Such eloquent words helped win the day and the opposition could do little but acknowledge defeat. The Leeds Improvement Act received Royal Assent and Roundhay Park instantly became one of the largest municipal parks in the country - infinitely better than Bradford's!

Roundhay Park

This wonderful view of Waterloo Lake and the Lower Waterfall in 1872 shows that the park quickly became a place of resort for the well dressed middle classes.


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90. Brian Barber, Municipal Government in Leeds, 1835-1914, in Municipal Reform and the Industrial City ed., Derek Fraser (Leicester, 1982) pp.83-5.
91. Douglas, Hammond and Powell p.27.
92. Derek Linstrum, West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture (1978) p.121.
93. Alexander Robertson, Atkinson Grimshaw (Oxford, 1988) pp.35-6.
94. Leeds Mercury Weekly Supplement, 8 June 1872.
95. Leeds Mercury Weekly Supplement, 20 June 1872.