AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF ROUNDHAY PARK
The People's Park
At long last the masses could reach the park and its increasing popularity encouraged the Council to invest in a range of new amenities. In 1894 a vast sports arena was constructed, providing work for a large number of unemployed. Cycle racing was at its zenith and a grass cycling track was built around the periphery providing modern facilities for enthusiasts.118 The arena was regularly used to host charity cricket matches and nearly twenty years later it was even offered as a venue for the F.A.Cup Final!
Magnificent entrance gates, pathways and formal flower beds were constructed in the area between the Mansion and the Canal Gardens. These wonderful gardens became a source of civic pride, a place of resort for thousands who lived in the smoke-filled streets of back-to-back houses in the city and who flocked there in their thousands every Saturday afternoon and Sunday. In January 1904, a reporter from The Gardeners' Chronicle wrote ecstatically about the floral displays at Roundhay, praising the originality and ability of the superintendent:
The old formal stereotyped methods of flower bedding have been entirely superseded by a more artistic and natural one of massing together suitable flowering plants, but interspersing them with some well-known plants of the sub - tropical kind.119
The lake was another draw. Leeds and District Anglers leased the rights from the Council and many tried their skill at fishing for pike, perch and roach. Others preferred the more sedate pleasure of 'a trip around the lake'.
A steam boat called 'The Maid of Athens' sailed the waters of the lake for many years before a brand new steamer, ' The Mary Gordon' was launched in 1899, named after the Lady Mayoress of the time. In 1902 Council workers completed a new boathouse on the western edge of Waterloo Lake, with storage for one hundred and fifty boats. To the eastern side was a dry dock for ' The Mary Gordon'.121
In 1911 the Council demolished the old conservatory in the former Kitchen Garden and constructed the Coronation House as an elegant display conservatory. The following year Roundhay became the venue for the Leeds Horticultural Society's annual show. This quickly became a regular feature of the park's calendar of events and twenty years later crowds of over fifteen thousand people made their annual pilgrimage to view the contents of the elegant marquees upon Soldiers Field.120
In 1907 the unemployed were once again busy, this time constructing a bathing pool just below the main dam of Waterloo Lake.122 This proved to be another popular attraction.
However, by 1932 it was in an appalling state and one person felt compelled to berate the Council for the state of the facilities:
The water is never clean, and it is impossible to see the rough bottom of the bath. Dead flies float about at the shallow end of the pool. The surrounding path is covered with sand - bathers carry it into the pool with them. As there is no footpath it is easy to see why the water becomes so dirty. It is an eyesore and a disgrace.123
It was virtually rebuilt in 1937 and between 80,000 to 120,000 people used the baths each year throughout the late Fifties and early Sixties.
The park was a resounding success and became the main outdoor venue for a wide range of spectacular extravaganzas. These were often organised to raise money for worthy causes like hospitals or children's charities. The Military Tattoo became a regular attraction. In 1906 some six hundred soldiers of the Leeds Rifles took part. The regiment was divided into four squads who waited at different locations around the park for the proceedings to begin. At nine o'clock hundreds of coloured rockets were launched into the night sky as a signal for the troops to make their way to the arena, accompanied by military bands playing stirring music. After the drills came a military tournament by the Yorkshire Hussars.124 Unfortunately on 25th June 1910 the Leeds Lifeboat Gala was marred when, in the opening movements of the Military Tattoo, a bombshell, intended to signal the arrival of the troops, prematurely exploded in the mortar, killing two and seriously injuring a further six people. The military regularly used the park and from the end of the nineteenth century troops marched from Chapeltown Barracks to train in the area now known as Soldiers' Field.125
The spoils of war were even displayed in marquees at a special Aircraft Exhibition staged on the 18th and 19th June 1919.126 These specially staged displays had people flocking to the park and the Military Tattoo of 10th July 1926 drew a crowd of over 130,000 people!127
A close competitor for visitor numbers was Children's Day which, throughout the Thirties and Forties, regularly attracted over 100,000 people to watch what today might seem a rather tame programme of events. Children's Day started back in 1920 as a modest outing for school children and grew to become one of the most influential social events of its time. Three teachers, Vernon Harrison, Archie Gordon and Arthur Thornton were concerned that many pupils never left the confines of their immediate surroundings. They came up with the idea of an annual outing to Roundhay Park, with organised games, fancy dress competition and picnic. The Yorkshire Evening Post helped to publicise the event and organise 'The Bonnie Baby Competition'. Judges were astonished at the thousands of entries they received - the finalists being transported to Roundhay Park in an expensive limousine as part of the Children's Day procession.128
In 1923 artists from The Empire, Hippodrome and City Varieties gave open-air performances to the delighted crowds. Swimming and water games were held on Waterloo Lake and well known sports personalities made guest appearances. Children's Day quickly established itself as an annual event. A highlight of the day was the crowning of the 'Queen of the May', who arrived in the arena by car, accompanied by her attendants. Schools began to do more, preparing mass physical education and dancing displays. At a time of austerity this simple but effective form of entertainment brought pleasure to thousands. In 1949 the event was staged twice, a 'special edition' being staged for Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. By the early Sixties many felt the event appeared dated and the dreadful weather of 1963 hastened its demise.129 Shortly afterwards bad weather was again blamed for the end of the wonderful Bank Holiday Galas which the Council had been running since1947.130 Nevertheless, staff continued to think of new and exciting ways of using the park.
In 1977 the first free municipal bonfire proved to be a success attracting vast numbers to view the magnificent firework displays in complete safety.131
Perhaps the most controversial use of Roundhay Park was for pop concerts. These centred on the sports arena but huge areas had to be fenced off to keep out those without tickets. Despite understandable opposition from local residents the Council allowed several concerts to take place, arguing that the income could then be spent on improving facilities at Roundhay. In 1982 a crowd of over 80,000 people watched The Rolling Stones and helped raise over £63,000 for the city. Bruce Springsteen(1985), Genesis (1987/92), Madonna (1987), Michael Jackson (1988/92), Simple Minds (1989) and U2 (1997) are just some of the world class performers who have appeared at Roundhay.132
In 1983 one of the most spectacular additions was made to the attractions at Roundhay . The popular Coronation House had already been rebuilt once, in 1939, but by the late Seventies it was in a poor condition. Imaginative plans were formulated to expand and modernise the structure This became known as 'Tropical World' and contained a wide variety of rare and unusual plants, with the pools forming a sanctuary for some endangered species of fish. Butterflies, insects, birds and small mammals became another exciting feature of this area. By 1990 it was number seven in the list of British wildlife attractions and three years later was once again extended due to the generosity of a local benefactor. In 1998 it was voted 'Top Garden Venue of the Year' and had become the nation's second biggest tourist attraction, a testimony to the skill and devotion of the dedicated staff who labour hard to make it such a beautiful place to visit.133
The new Millennium began with a generous grant of over six million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help restore and conserve the park.
Roundhay Park is constantly changing, yet the grounds of this former deer enclosure, so cleverly transformed by Thomas Nicholson, continue to give pleasure to millions of people who visit each year.
When John Barran was fighting to obtain the park he argued
'Future generations will remember us with gratitude as they stroll along the pleasant walks and enjoy the ease and shade of the trees.'134
How true that statement has proved to be.
118. Arthur Elton, Leeds Cyclists and Cycle Makers, 1880-1901, Thoresby Soc.
Second Series Vol. 5 (Leeds, 1995) pp.110-140.
119. The Gardeners Chronicle, Jan. 1904 pp.68-9.
120. W.S.Maney, Roundhay and Chapel Allerton Residential Handbooks (Leeds 1911-5).
121. Yorkshire Evening Post, 11 Nov.1972.
122. Yorkshire Post, 20 July 1907.
123. Quoted in Yorkshire Evening Post Special Supplement, 19 Sept. 1972.
124. Yorkshire Evening News, 6 July 1906.
125. Yorkshire Post, 26 June 1910.
126. Yorkshire Post, 11 July 1926.
127. Yorkshire Post, 18,19 and 20 July 1919.
128. Susan Green, Leeds Children's Day (Leeds, 1995).
129. Roundhay Park Centenary 1872-1972: Souvenir Brochure (Leeds, 1972) p.6.
130. Ibid pp.3-5.
131. Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 Nov. 1977.
132. For details regarding these concerts see Leeds Local and Family History Library Newspaper Cuttings Index.
133. North Leeds Weekly Post, 30 Oct.1998.
134. Leeds Mercury, 14 Oct. 1871.