Deforestation and the end of the hunting park

By the15th century the park formed part of the royal estates. On 5th March 1486 King Henry VII granted a seven year lease to William Nettleton of certain lands in Roundhay, Shadwell, Leeds and Thorner. Under the agreement William had to 'keep all the premises in repair at his own cost, taking timber and thackstone from the park of Roundhay and the woods of Seacroft , at Shadwell and at le Stone Delph there.'33 Nettleton clearly abused his power and systematically stripped the park of large quantities of mature timber. This process continued until 1503 when Sir John Neville, the new keeper of the park, complained to the King. Sir Thomas Wortley was sent to investigate and was horrified to find that vast amounts of timber had indeed been felled and removed from the park, including at least twenty six oak trees, which had not been ' … marked for the King's use with the King's axe'. Sir Thomas stressed that this was just a simple estimate as '… no man knows the whole number of the waste and destruction for the ground where they grew is overgrown with bushes.' 34 Furthermore Nettleton was accused of taking wood to prop up his windmill.

He vehemently denied the charges, claiming that he had only removed his just entitlement. Wortley's investigations, however, revealed that hundreds of waggon loads of timber had been removed from the park and that key families of the district were implicated in the trade. Ironically, twenty three years later a commission found Sir John Neville guilty of 'wastage of timber' in Roundhay Park! 35

The reduction of tree cover constantly diminished the habitat so vital for the survival of the deer. The last indication of there being any left in the park is a grant of free warren made on 6th June 1599 by which John Darcy, knight, was allowed to kill '…all Fallow Deer, Wild Beasts, Stags and Conies'.36 Yet the process of deforestation continued apace and future lessees of the park were to be equally ruthless.

When Charles I came to the throne in 1625 part of his inheritance was Roundhay. Desperately short of money, he borrowed heavily from the Corporation of London.37 In 1628, in order to settle his debts and raise more money, he gave many estates, including Roundhay to the Corporation. Naturally they sent surveyors to establish the value of this property. They noted that Hall Wood ' hath now no wood in it but a few shrubs and old trees' and that the land was now being used for pasture. Stephen Tempest leased a large part of the estate, much of which had recently been denuded of trees. When they visited Wood Hall Carr, an area of some fifty eight acres, the surveyors were alarmed to discover that '… the wood hath been lately much spoiled and wasted by ye present tenant Mr Stephen Tempest'. They clearly had a sense of humour, noting '… we found so many good trees down and stacked up by the roots and some barked though yet standing we could not but imagine there had been a tempest in them.' They tried to gather evidence against Tempest, but he was clearly a brutish individual and the surveyors noted that many of the copyholders were 'fearful to speak the truth.' 38

The removal of trees was directly accompanied by an increase in agricultural activity within the bounds of the park. New farms were established with the cleared land being used for arable and pastoral farming. Fields were enclosed and given specific names. The change in the game available for the hunter is well illustrated by contrasting the grant to John Darcy , which included fallow deer and stags, to that of a later owner of the park, Lord Stourton, who in 1779 was allowed '…to kill all such hares, partridges, pheasants and other game.'39 The deer had gone forever and the hunting rights were no longer regarded as the park's most important asset. In 1797 the 1,300 acre estate, virtually denuded of tree cover, peppered with less than a dozen farmhouses and subdivided into relatively unproductive fields, was placed on the market by Charles Philip, the 17th Baron of Stourton .40 No single purchaser was forthcoming, however, on 4th August 1803, the estate was eventually purchased by two Leeds born Quakers, Samuel Elam and Thomas Nicholson, for the princely sum of £58,000.41

An Estate Divided

Once the property had been purchased, Elam and Nicholson employed Jonathan Taylor, a Leeds surveyor, to draw a detailed plan of the estate.42 This delineated the extent of each partner's land - Samuel Elam taking the southern half, Thomas Nicholson, the northern. Roundhay was an isolated place and could only be reached along centuries old cart tracks. In 1802 there had been talk of a turnpike from Leeds and this may have influenced their decision to buy.

Samuel Elam, was born in 1773.43 His father died when he was three years old and he spent much of his early childhood at the Friends Boarding School, Gildersome. On attaining his majority he inherited the bulk of his father's fortune. He clearly had a flair for business and swiftly became engaged in a wide range of activities, including the export of locally produced cloth to America.44 By 1803 he was a partner in the banking firm of Thompson, Elam and Holtby, with branches in Leeds and Bridlington.45 Elam clearly viewed the purchase of his Roundhay estate as yet another speculative venture and instantly sold off parcels of land to his first cousin, Robert Elam.46

Some of Samuel's other investments were unsound and the five year delay in developing the turnpike from Leeds must have deterred potential buyers. By 1810 he was in dire financial straits having clearly over-stretched himself. Once again he employed Jonathan Taylor to produce a detailed plan of his estate and in October of that year advertised over four hundred acres for sale.47 On the same day as the advertisement appeared in the local press, his partners, Thompson and Holtby, announced that they would continue in business without him. Eight weeks later Elam was bankrupt and all claimants were asked to submit statements so that the estate might be 'put into a train of liquidation.'48 Samuel died on 28th March 1811 at the early age of 37, almost certainly as a result of the stresses and strains brought on by his financial difficulties..

His land was subdivided and various parcels were purchased by Thomas Nicholson and Robert Elam. Samuel's friend and executor, John Goodman, also bought some of the land, but he did not have an easy task as nearly five years passed before Lot 1 was eventually sold to Benjamin Goodman of Hunslet Lane.49 The completion of the new road to Leeds in 1810 certainly helped to end Roundhay's isolation and former empty plots at long last became filled with elegant stone mansions, complete with lodges, stables and extensive grounds. Just over a decade later it was described as being '…chiefly in the possession of families of opulence connected with the town of Leeds'. 50 It had become one of the favoured havens of the middle class, away from the smoke, noise and noxious trades of Leeds but most importantly of all, far away from the 'lower orders'. Samuel Elam had seen the potential for such residential development at Roundhay, unfortunately he had mis-timed the purchase.

Unlike Elam, Thomas Nicholson intended from the start to develop his half of the park as a country estate. He was born at Chapel Allerton in1765. His father, William, was an Anglican clothier of relatively modest means, while his mother, Hannah, was of Quaker stock. It is unclear how Thomas became so fabulously wealthy. In 1786 he was living in the parish of St.Helen's, Bishopgate, in London and in the same year married Elizabeth Jackson, daughter of a London leather factor. He settled in London and from 1788 to 1806 is listed as an' Insurance Broker' He was soon living at Artillery Place, Finsbury Square, one of the most fashionable locations in the capital, and in 1806 went into partnership with his half brother, Stephen.51 About 1813 he founded the bank of Nicholson, Jansen and Co. and continued to prosper, despite the difficult trading conditions created by the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the obvious business advantages of being located in the capital, he never lost sight of his roots and on 22 August 1799, at the age of thirty four, purchased the Chapel Allerton Hall Estate.52 He viewed this as an investment and quickly re-let the Hall and its associated properties, only retaining one of the smaller houses for his own use. Four years later he acquired the Roundhay property and thus became one of the largest landowners in the north of Leeds.

The Beautification of Landscape

Thomas aspired to the lifestyle of a landed country gentleman. By 1803 the attractions of London had worn thin and he decided to return to Roundhay to be near his family. His half of the estate comprised a number of farms, a patchwork of enclosed fields, three streams and a beautiful tree-lined gorge. With professional assistance, he began the slow process of utilising the existing natural features to create a country estate with landscaped grounds, complete with lakes, ponds and follies. The crowning glory was to be an elegant mansion house.

Careful comparison of the 1803 plan and the Ordnance Survey map of 1850 reveals that workmen had to remove numerous hedgerows, walls and pockets of woodland, before work could start on the construction of the new pleasure grounds. Every aspect was carefully planned so that large open areas of grassland, interspersed with pockets of specially planted woodland, would create wonderful vistas across the park. Winding paths passed in and out of these copses providing magnificent viewpoints and ' controlled scenes of wilderness'.

Township of Roundhay 1850
Roundhay Park from J. Thorp's Map of the town of Leeds 1819-21

This is the first known plan that shows the landscape after Thomas Nicholson's alterations. The Mansion House, Canal Gardens, Top Pond, Castle, and Waterloo Lake are all clearly discernable

In the fields to the east of the mansion, clay was used to make an impervious lining for the Top Pond or Upper Lake. Located opposite the main entrance to the house it was constantly fed by a stream of crystal clear water, flowing into the estate through Great Pasture and Eleven Acres. At the eastern end of the lake were dramatic waterfalls and several pools, which were crossed by a single arched rustic bridge. The Top Pond would have been the main lake, but for the fortunate acquisition of a tongue of former Elam land in August 1815, which gave Nicholson ownership of the only part of Great Heads Beck not in his possession.53 This enabled him to construct the most spectacular feature of the park - Waterloo Lake.

Waterloo Lake
John Wilson Carmichael's atmospheric view of Waterloo Lake painted in 1838.


The valley bottom was deepened and widened by workmen before work could start on the construction of the main dam. Trade Directories repeatedly state that this was undertaken by unemployed soldiers who had just returned from the Napoleonic Wars. They claim that it took two years to construct and cost around £15,000.54

Named after the famous British victory at Waterloo, it covered thirty three acres, with an average depth of around sixty feet. Originally called the Waterloo Fish Pond, it had at its southern end a spectacular sixty foot waterfall, created by the sheer wall of the dam. Beneath, the waters ran through a copse, the view being enhanced by the ripple of small falls between the shallow pools. It was stunning!

The beauties of the Nicholson estate, including the Canal Gardens, Hermitage, Castle and spectacular waterfall were skilfully recorded by the artist working for 'The Graphic' in 1872.

No fashionable park would have been complete without its follies - 'The Hermitage', like the sham 'Old Castle', provided places of retreat and contemplation. The Hermitage was a summerhouse located near the Upper Lake. Built externally of rough hewn boulders and lined with small hazel sticks arranged in fanciful designs, it had windows on each side of the doorway, filled with plain glass and edged with a stained glass border. Beneath was an arch which served as a boat shelter.

At the head of Waterloo Lake was the Old Castle. Built in 1821 by George Nettleton, master builder, it served as another summerhouse. The last footman of the Nicholsons, Charles Mills, recalled that:

Pheasants were bred in Castle Field and Keeper's Garth and luncheon was served in the Old Castle when shooting parties were out. In those days there was a wooden roof on the Old Castle and it had an upper room in which the Nicholson girls did their sewing. They would have tea served there, and from the windows they had as lovely a view as can be imagined.55

To the west of The Mansion the tiny stream running through Rush Close was used to feed a large, rectangular, stone-lined pond. This became the central feature of the self contained 'Canal Garden' complete with rustic bridges and arbour. It was enclosed with brick walls and edged with bedding. The separation of the flower garden from the house was all in vogue, and in line with the thinking of Joshua Major of Leeds (c1787 -1866) who, in his popular book 'The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening' argued that:

The flower garden…ought never to be visible from the windows… as the appearance of numerous beds and walks, by interrupting the repose and extent of the lawn, has a tendency to destroy its boldness and importance…and the practice of huddling all the most interesting objects possible into one scene is a decided mistake.56

There were hothouses and assorted glasshouses in the walled kitchen garden, which lay immediately north of the Canal Garden. This whole area was approached from the great house, along a newly constructed carriage way. But what of The Mansion itself?


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33. Kirby p.276.
34. Morkill pp.23-4. (pp.233-234)
35. Kirby p.278.
36. Ibid p.33-34.
37. Burt and Grady, p.34.
38. WYAS Acc. 1874 p.58.
39. Morkill p.33. (p.233)
40. Colman p.264.
41. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Archive MD279: Armitage Manuscripts
42. WYAS DB/M242.
43. Norma C. Neill, The Elam Family: Quaker Merchants of England and America (Doncaster, 1995) pp.75-7.
44. Ibid pp.96-7.
45. R.G.Wilson, Gentlemen Merchants: The Merchant Community in Leeds 1700-1830 (Manchester, 1971) p. 205.
46. Joan Newiss, The Mysteries of Roundhay Park, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Local History Study Section Bulletin No.39 (Leeds, 1998) pp.11-15.
47. Leeds Family and Local History Library ML1810.
48. Norma C. Neill, The Elam Family: Quaker Merchants of England and America (Doncaster, 1995) pp.97-98.
49. Joan Newiss, Goodman House, Roundhay: A Detective Story, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Local History Study Section Bulletin No. 36 (Leeds, 1995) pp.25-29.
50. R.G.Wilson, Gentlemen Merchants: The Merchant Community in Leeds 1700-1830 (Manchester, 1971) p. 205; Edward Baines, History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County of York (Leeds, 1822) p.584.
51. Neville Hurworth, Thomas Nicholson of Roundhay Park, unpublished article.
52. Doreen Newlyn, This Goodly House - Its People and Its Times (Leeds, 1998) pp. 98-99.
53. West Riding Register of Deeds GD 642.727.
54. Kelly's Directory of Leeds and its Neighbourhood (Leeds, 1899) p.25.
55. Yorkshire Post, 27 Feb. 1941.
56. Land Use Consultants, Roundhay Park: A Landscape Restoration Management Plan (Leeds, 1999) p.5.