Colonel Norths cheque to buy Kirkstall Abbey

The Society has in its archives a fascinating collection of documents relating to the auction of Kirkstall Abbey in 1888 and the subsequent purchase and gift of the Abbey to the Borough of Leeds by Colonel John Thomas North, the millionaire entrepreneur. The collection was given by Colonel Edmund Wilson, the prime mover in the formation of the Thoresby Society in 1889 and its first President, who was personally and deeply involved in the dramatic events of the time. Among the legal documents, notes and newscuttings in the collection is Colonel North’s cheque to the Mayor and Town Clerk of Leeds for £10,000, the purchase price of the Abbey.

The Abbey and its grounds had been in private hands since dissolution in 1539. The owners since 1671 were the Earls of Cardigan, but the Abbey was always included in the lease of land to the owners of the nearby Kirkstall Forge, as part of their farmland. The ancient buildings were used as cow byres and barns, the grounds as gardens and orchards, the gatehouse (Abbey House) as a farmhouse. As the years passed, the ruins, picturesquely overgrown with ivy and trees, inspired many artists and poets, and attracted the interest of antiquarians - Ralph Thoresby for one unearthed bricks and tiles there as well as enjoying picnics with friends. But anxiety about the deteriorating condition of the Abbey grew, particularly when part of the tower collapsed in 1779. To prevent further damage the public path through the church was blocked, parts of the ruins were locked, and for a time a caretaker was employed.

Around the start of the nineteenth century the effects of encroaching industrialisation began to be felt. Following the opening of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and the construction of new turnpike routes over Kirkstall Bridge to Halifax and Bradford, mills sprang up close by, bringing with them smoke and pollution – the Abbey’s seclusion and peace were lost forever. In 1827 the new turnpike road from Kirkstall to Ilkley was allowed to cut right through the Abbey grounds, next to its walls, with little opposition. The stonework of the Abbey blackened, and its new accessibility made it yet more vulnerable – by the 1850s it was being used for fetes and galas, attracting thousands of visitors. By now there was a feeling that people in Leeds had to take action to protect and preserve this piece of their history: it was evident that the owner (since 1837 the notorious seventh Earl of Cardigan) took no interest in its preservation or care. A committee was formed to raise money for a caretaker and for Ed Wilsonessential repairs. As lessees of the Abbey, the directors of the Forge, now living in Abbey House – George Skirrow Beecroft (MP) and later John Octavius Butler – also did what they could to safeguard the ruins, at their own expense. Various schemes were considered, even the possibility of restoring the church for religious use – a survey by Gilbert Scott was commissioned in 1873, but the cost proved prohibitive. In 1883, when John Octavius Butler of Abbey House died, Edmund Wilson, a Leeds solicitor, Liberal town councillor, and keen antiquarian, began negotiations with the Cardigan estate for Leeds to acquire control of the Abbey ruins, either by lease or by purchase. He later declared that he had been close to an agreement over a purchase price (£5,000), but other interested parties intervened and the negotiations came to nothing, a cause of bitter recriminations later on.

In December 1888 the agents for the Cardigan Estate put the Abbey up for auction, as part of the four-day sale of Cardigan property in Yorkshire necessitated by the massive debts left by Lord Cardigan after his death in 1868. The fulsome Particulars of Sale of the Abbey made much of its historic importance. Dark rumours circulated that commercial developers were bent on turning it into a pleasure park. The Council authorised the Town Clerk to bid up to £6,000 to buy the Abbey for Leeds, though there were dissenting voices over the ‘extortionate’ cost. On the day of the auction of the Abbey there was a packed house, and a sensation was caused when the auctioneer announced that the previous condition of sale preventing building on the site was being dropped, freeing the land for development. The bidding quickly ran up to £6,000. The Town Clerk made a final bid of £6,100, but the auctioneer then revealed that the reserve was £10,000 and the lot was withdrawn, to cries of ‘shame’ and hisses all round. Abbey House similarly failed to meet its reserve (£3500).

It seemed all too possible now that the Abbey would pass into private hands. Overnight Edmund Wilson decided to intervene: he left a message for the Cardigan agent and the next day received a telegram from him with the unwelcome news that an offer of £13,500 (for the Abbey and Abbey House) had been received and if Leeds wanted the property immediate action was required – the rival bidder was expected to pay the deposit in cash that very evening. Wilson wired his friend Sir James Kitson for support, then went to sign the contract for purchase himself, and paid the deposit (£1,350) from his own money. This was both brave and risky – while he hoped to gather a syndicate of subscribers to collect the full purchase money and then negotiate a sale to the Council, he might have been left personally liable.

Colonel NorthA chance word saved the day. Less than a week later, two Leeds delegates from the Mechanics’ Institute went to London to meet the famous Colonel North and enlist his support for the Institute’s new school. Colonel North, born in Leeds, had made a vast fortune in Chile and Peru from exploiting guano (he was known as ‘the Nitrate King’) and dealing in water and railways, and had already shown great generosity towards his native town. A flamboyant figure, he welcomed them at the Hotel Metropole, invited them to breakfast, and promised his support. The conversation then turned to Leeds and the recent auction of the Abbey. Colonel North’s instant response was to offer to buy the Abbey himself and give it to the Borough. A telegram to this effect was sent immediately to Edmund Wilson and to the Mayor, who enthusiastically telegraphed back accepting, and wired all the newspapers with the news of what one paper called ‘this magnificent Christmas present’ for Leeds.

At the next Council meeting the Mayor proposed that Colonel North should be given the Freedom of the Borough (the first to receive this honour) in recognition of his outstanding generosity. As he was due to return to Chile in February, the date for the ceremony was quickly fixed for 25 January 1889. A handsome silver casket was made to hold the ‘burgess ticket’ and leather-bound illuminated booklets were prepared to commemorate the event (the Society has one, illustrated below). When Colonel North arrived in Leeds he received a hero’s welcome, and the Town Hall was packed for the ceremony. He spoke of his childhood memories of the Abbey (Sunday School visits, and later games of ‘kiss-in-the-ring’!) and announced that he intended to buy additional land to add to the grounds (cheers); of course, he added, he did not yet own the Abbey, but he had prepared for this occasion – and with a flourish he handed the Mayor his cheque for £10,000 (more rousing cheers).

The cheque was paid into the Council’s bank account and the money later paid into the Court of Chancery which administered the Cardigan estate. The purchase of the Abbey and its grounds (including the promised additional land and Abbey House) was finally completed on 28 November 1890, and on 1 December 1890 Col. North signed the Deed of Gift of the Abbey and 15 acres of land (without Abbey House) to the Borough of Leeds ‘to be for ever freely used as a Public Park by all peaceable inhabitants of the Borough’. Edmund Wilson, as solicitor and the original purchaser, remained closely involved in all the lengthy procedures of the purchase and gift, and later deposited his papers – including the cheque itself – in the archives of the newly-formed Thoresby Society.


Sources: Thoresby Society MS I.1 (documents); SC27 (cheque); 22D3 (booklet); Box 3.L2 (Col. North’s portrait); Presidential Album (E. Wilson’s portrait) ©EJBradford Thoresby Soc.

All illustrations are from the Thoresby Society’s collection.