AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF ROUNDHAY PARK
The White Elephant
It was now that the real drawback to its acquisition became plain and thatwas its distance from the centre and the people who owned it. Roundhay was remote in 1872, reached only by the old turnpike road completed in 1810. Its distance from Leeds discouraged many from making the journey on foot, while cabs and 'buses were prohibitively expensive for 'ordinary folk'. Poor transport links combined with a six day working week, meant that it was impossible for most working class people to visit the park. It became an exclusive haven for the middle class.
Low attendance figures and disappointing land sales supported the view held all along by Barran's opponents, that the park was too far from Leeds and that the Corporation should not have concerned itself with speculative building projects. The proposed railway scheme foundered and there was a complete failure to provide adequate means of public transport. Barran faced increasing criticism and nick-names for the park such as 'Barran's Folly' and 'The White Elephant' reflected the change in the public's perception of him. This process was hastened by the publication of humorous pamphlets, one of the most effective being ' The Big White Elephant' published in 1879. It accurately reflected the ratepayers frustrations.
The White Elephant is published with the desire to calling the ratepayers attention to the reckless waste of their money, which in spite of hard times……is wrung from them by paying interest on 500acres of surplus land not required for the park….The whole estate is grossly mismanaged…..The bait was magnificent. The Park was bought - A prince sent like a flash of lightning to open it…we went half wild with delight - 'A Prince and a Park for nothing! Gorgeous illusion! Splendid dream! But the awakening after seven years' sleep, dead loss of sixty thousand pounds, and an annual loss of four thousand pounds which was to have paid for the park - a barren result indeed.105In 1882 another scurrilous publication ' Leeds Made Uglier' by Eli Pitchin appeared, complete with cartoons and a damning text. It highlighted other aspects of the Council's mismanagement:
There was no water, very few seats, no sheltering places, no sanitary accommodation for ladies - nothing but a few stinking wood sheds swarming with insect life, where the most disgusting practices were in vogue, until at length the Local Government Board instituted an inquiry, and are now compelling the Corporation to erect decent retiring places for ladies.106
The humorous advertisements lampooned the Council for its failure to solve the key problems.
LOST EIGHTY THOUSAND POUNDS and upwards, at Roundhay Park by the Ratepayers of Leeds. Anyone finding the same please restore it to the Corporate Property Committee.
WANTED TO KNOW why the two and a quarter million square yards of Surplus Land, north of the Park, are not offered for sale. Any person having land, horticultural or otherwise, to dispose of , please offer direct to the White Elephant Committee, Town Hall, Leeds
Wanted a number of persons to join in getting up a BALLOON ROUTE to Roundhay Park, as by no other method can the public be so well accommodated. Sure to pay.
Special criticism continued to be aimed at John Barran himself, with Eli claiming ' It was a gem of a Park when purchased by Mr. Barran ten years ago; but since then the 'concentrated intelligence' has been improving it uglier day by day'.107 Such comments were extremely hurtful. Barran tried to fend off further criticism by addressing one of the public's many complaints - the lack of drinking water.
He commissioned the architect Thomas Ambler to design an elegant drinking fountain for the park. Ambler excelled himself and produced a fine rotunda with eight classical columns. Inside the dome was the inscription ' Presented to Leeds Corporation by John Barran, M.P. 3rd April 1882'.108 Twenty taps connected directly to the town's water supply from Eccup, provided continuous free refreshment for the thirsty visitor, while the waste was caught beneath in expensive red granite basins. Today it remains one of the most beautiful features of the park, a lasting memorial to a 'man of vision'.
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105. Charles Goodall, The Big White Elephant (Leeds, 1879).
106. Eli Pitchin, Leeds Made Uglier (Leeds, 1882).
107. Ibid p.22.
108. Yorkshire Post, 4 April 1882.