The Nicholson Family

Thomas had no children and so left the bulk of his fortune, including his Roundhay property, to his half-brother Stephen. The two had been business partners for over fifteen years and it seemed fitting that he should inherit. One of the key features of any private estate was a place of worship. It had long been rumoured that Thomas intended to build a church at Roundhay, and the rector of Barwick, in whose parish Roundhay lay, had responded by promising to assign £200 per annum for a minister.63

Roundhay church

It was left to Stephen to carry out Thomas's wishes. On 8th April 1824 the Leeds Intelligencer announced that a new Anglican church would be erected at Roundhay at the sole expense of Stephen Nicholson. His private bill had just gone through Parliament and, as was customary, the patronage of the church was vested in him and his heirs forever. Once again, Thomas Taylor was appointed architect and on Wednesday 22nd September 1824 the first stone was laid by the Rev. William Hiley Bathurst, rector of Barwick-in-Elmet. A lavish dinner of roast beef and plum pudding was provided for the workmen and their families.64 A newspaper reporter estimated this to be three to four hundred people! The consecration took place in January 1826, though it was to be another three months before the church finally opened its doors for services.65

Roundhay 1849

Stephen's generosity did not end there. In 1833 he arranged for the construction of a row of robust almshouses near the church. These were for use by old servants of the Nicholson family or '…persons residing in the townships of Roundhay, Shadwell, Chapel Allerton or Potternewton but with preference for the first class'. There was a new Day School but ' no child to be admitted whose parents would prevent its attendance at Roundhay Church and the Sunday School '.66 This was an 'enclosed world' and there is no record of the Nicholsons becoming involved in any of the charitable activities in the nearby town of Leeds.

In December 1801 Stephen had married Sarah Rhodes, the daughter of a wealthy Leeds merchant. It is unclear when they moved from London. It is known that he was tenant at Braim (Cobble) Hall, Roundhay, in November 1824 and throughout this period was actively involved in the construction of two other residences, Springwood and Ladywood Farm. He built a stylish mansion on the site of a former farm and called this property Roundhay Lodge. He engaged Taylor to complete a mansion called North Hill and by 1826 he had made this his home. He had to wait a further seven years for the death of his sister-in-law before he could move into 'The Mansion' itself.

Stephen and Sarah enjoyed living in 'The Great House' pampered by nine house servants who catered for their every whim. However, as in Thomas's case, the union was not blessed with children and, as a result, the nagging question of who should inherit their fortune needed to be addressed. The matter was resolved when, on 13th October 1827, Stephen's nephew, William Nicholson Philips, changed his surname to Nicholson by Royal Licence, and at the age of twenty three became sole heir to the estate.67 Eleven days earlier he had married Martha Rhodes, third and youngest daughter of Abram Rhodes of Wold Newton Hall, and a close relative of Stephen's wife.

Nicholson family tree

William had already obtained a masters degree from Cambridge University when he went to live with his wife, Martha, in Heavitree, near Exeter. As Stephen and Sarah became old, William brought his family to live at Park Cottage, a sizable house at Roundhay. Unlike his uncles, William had no difficulty in producing heirs and his wife, Martha, bore him over a dozen children!68

Once established at Roundhay the two families enjoyed a close relationship. In 1906 William's daughter, Emily, wrote her memoirs in which she vividly remembered visiting her aged relatives at 'The Great House' :

They had no children and we were rather in awe of them for they were grand and stiff. Two of us went every day in the middle of the day to dine with our uncle and aunt at the Large House and sometimes used to play a game of chess with our aunt.69

Their happiness was to be short lived.

A Tragic Event

During the first few months of 1840 Stephen became increasingly concerned about the number of burglaries in the district. As a result, he asked staff to keep an armed guard on his premises and those of his nephew, William Nicholson Nicholson. On 18th May, at around one o'clock in the morning, Stephen's gamekeeper, Charles Thompson, took shelter from the rain in the entrance porch to William's house. Unfortunately he nodded off to sleep and his gun hit the door. The family dog barked and woke William's wife, Martha. She heard noises and, assuming it was a house breaker, quickly roused her husband. A burglar had attempted to break in the week before and so William took no chances. He went to get assistance from his groom before undertaking any investigation. They both approached the door with great caution.70

The following turn of events were to haunt William for the rest of his life. His groom recalled the tragic accident with great clarity:

We went towards the front door and I saw a man …whom I did not know, knelt down as if attempting to prize the door open and prize it loose. My master, who was behind, called out ' Holloa, what do you want there?' The man did not speak, and master immediately fired at him, and he rushed forward, and the man levelled his gun at me. My master fired the second barrel in my defence, when the deceased attempted to shoot me.71

As he lay dying, the poor gamekeeper made a sworn statement in which he exonerated William Nicholson Nicholson of all blame. He claimed that he hadn't recognised the two men and that it had been his intention to shoot them both, as he assumed that they were the housebreakers. Charles was well armed. One barrel of his gun was loaded with No.4 shot and the other with six pistol bullets. He also had a loaded revolver with him.

The family surgeon, Mr Cass, was immediately summoned and remained with the wounded gamekeeper for over four hours. He could do little as the injuries were so severe. Some cordials were given and a poultice applied to the wound. He tried bleeding him and even applied leeches, but by five o'clock he was dead.

The coroner returned a verdict of death by misadventure. The Rev. Armitage Rhodes remarked

'I, think, gentlemen, that this inquiry will serve to show to all of us the necessity of the most extreme caution in the use of firearms.'72

When Charles Thompson realised he was dying he expressed concern for his wife and children. William stressed that he should not 'distress his mind, as they should never want.' The deceased man left a wife and four children - the eldest being twelve - the youngest four. He is buried in St. John's churchyard beneath an inscribed stone which reads:

In Memory of Charles George Thompson
Game Keeper of Roundhay Park
Who Died May19th 1840
Aged 49 years

Brief time death's cruel summons gave
Between his duty and the grave
He roams no more the woodland round
Nor hears the Guns deep starting sound
He calmly takes this last cold sleep

Charles Thompsons grave

Charles Thompson's gravestone which can be found near the graveyard wall, just below the south east corner of the church.


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63. Beckwith p.65.
64. Leeds Intelligencer, 23 Sept.1824.
65. Leeds Intelligencer, 19 June 1826.
66. W.H.Scott, St.John's Roundhay, Centenary 1826-1926 (Leeds, 1927); Jack Dickinson and Gilbert D.Webster, A History of St. John's Church, Roundhay (Leeds, 1967).
67. Public Record Office: Warrant Book HO 38/26.
68. James Rusby, Pedigrees and Arms of Leeds Families, Manuscript -Leeds Local and Family History Library.
69. Yorkshire Evening Post, 19 Sept.1972.
70. Leeds Intelligencer, 23 May 1840.
71. Leeds Mercury, 23 May 1840.
72. Ibid.