A History of Roundhay Park

By Chemayne Langham

Roundhay Park often acts as an escape from the busy city centre. We all appreciate the 700 acres of rolling parkland filled with lakes and streams, yet when sat in one of the open fields it’s hard to imagine that the park’s history began with William the Conqueror.

You can find a map of the park and its exact location here.

Who owns Roundhay Park?

Roundhay Park and vast lands in West Yorkshire were presented to Ilbert De Lacy by William the Conqueror as reward for his loyalty and performance throughout the Norman Conquest. The Norman Knight is thought to have fought at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and also aided William’s large-scale campaign to overthrow the rebellious Anglo-Danish Lords in the North of England, more commonly known as the ‘Harrowing of the North’ (1069-1070). Villages and crops were destroyed and animals were killed leaving a vast number of people to die of starvation. Nevertheless De Lacy was awarded for his efforts and the park was used as a hunting ground in the 13th Century for his family.

The De Lacy Family Coat of Arms

Through marriage and succession Roundhay Park was then inherited by John of Gaunt, who was the third of five surviving sons of King Edward III. The park then passed to his son, King Henry IV, who was the first King of England since the Norman invasion whose mother tongue was English rather than French.

Portrait of King Henry IV

Roundhay Park passed through the hands of many Kings, until King Henry VIII gave the park to Thomas Darcy, an English baron, after he had distinguished himself under the reign of King Henry VII. Darcy was initially favoured by the King, as shown by his elevation to Knight of the Garter in 1509.

Despite his privileged position Darcy campaigned against the King and helped lead the Yorkshire rebellion named the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ in 1536. After the King declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England he disbanded all Catholic establishments in England, Wales and Ireland, known as the ‘Dissolution of Monasteries’ (1536-1541). Darcy helped lead many people to march in protest against this, yet the rebellion ultimately failed and Darcy was executed on Tower Hill, London in 1537.

The route of the Pilgrimage of Grace is now a Yorkshire Heritage Walk, the details of which can be found here

After Thomas Darcy the history of the park’s ownership becomes unclear, but in 1803 the park passed from a Charles Stourton to Thomas Nicholson, who constructed the vast amount of features that are still around today. His nephew, William Nicholson Nicholson, put the park up for sale and Leeds City Council purchased the park in 1871. It was re-opened in front of 100,000 people by Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, as a park for the people of Leeds a year later.

Prince Arthur re-opening Roundhay Park, 1872

The Arena

Thomas Nicholson initially intended to turn this part of the park into a third lake, however he died before doing so. In 1894 it was converted into a sports arena and a cycle track, thanks to the growing popularity of the park.

The Arena is overlooked by the mound known as Hill 60, a name given to honour the WWI Soldiers who had battled around Hill 60 in Ypres, Belgium.

Over the years it has also famously hosted many events and shows including Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to name but a few.

Promotional Poster for Michael Jackson’s concert at Roundhay Park, 1992

Roundhay Castle

The Roundhay ‘castle’ was built by George Nettleton in 1811 and initially had a wooden roof. It was built to give the impression of a castle gate, which was deemed fashionable at the time for all prestigious lands. It was used as a summer house, to host dinner parties and also as a sewing room for the Nicholson children.

The castle folly found at the top of Waterloo Lake

Soldier’s Field

Soldier’s Field was given its name due to its role in WWI. It was the gathering place for troops and was also used as a parade ground for the local battalions.

The field can also boast about its aviation history. From 1909 to 1919 an aviation pioneer named Robert Blackburn conducted test flights on the open fields, leading to a small airport being established, with flights to London and Amsterdam.

In more recent history Soldier’s Field has hosted the annual Roundhay Park Bonfire and Firework Display where 70,000 people turn up to watch the biggest bonfire in Leeds.

Roundhay’s bonfire event is one of the biggest in the UK

Upper Lake and Waterloo Lake

Upper Lake, the smaller of the two lakes, boasts a waterfall, an island and fountains but is only 3-4 feet deep. Upper Lake runs into Waterloo Lake, so-called for the Napoleonic veterans that helped transform an unused quarry into the 60 feet deep lake we see today. Nicholson provided much needed work and income for the veterans over the 2 years it took to create. He was impressed by their work and therefore honoured them by naming it after the Battle of Waterloo.

Today stands The Lakeside Café where you can overlook Waterloo Lake whilst you dine.

The café is said to be a must for any visitor to the park and the menu and can be found here

The Mansion

In 1811, Nicholson began work on building the mansion which took 15 years to complete. Built in the Greek Revival style, it had seventeen bedrooms and a drive of three quarters of a mile long. It also had three stables that would accommodate seventeen horses. It is now a Grade II listed building and underwent a huge refurbishment in 2009.

Nicholson’s Mansion

The Gardens

Arguably the most beautiful feature of the park is its gardens.

The Alhambra Garden is based on the 13th century garden at Alhambra, Spain and likewise the Monet Garden is based on gardens designed by ‘Monet’ along the banks of the River Seine in France.

Canal Gardens name dates back to 1833 and originates from the lake which resembles part of a canal with flower gardens alongside. Another part is a walled garden built around 1816 which was formally the vegetable garden for the Mansion. The gardens are also the entrance to Tropical World which is the UK’s most popular garden tourist attraction.

To take a virtual tour of these gardens click here

Children’s Day

From the 1920s to the 1960s Roundhay Park hosted Leeds annual Children’s Day. It was so popular that spectators who came to watch the day’s events regularly amounted to around 60,000. Hundreds of children took part in various activities such as athletics, plays, dancing, creating floats and competitions including its very own Children’s Day Queen.

Schools from around Leeds would select the Queen and the very first Queen, Elsie Oldfield, was crowned in 1922 with her crown still being displayed today in Leeds Civic Hall. Before Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne, in 1949 she visited Roundhay Park during the event and was presented with a bouquet of flowers from the ‘Queen of the Day’, Joan Anne Thompson.

You can even watch ‘Queen Susan’ celebrate her coronation in the 1957 Children’s Day here.

Thousands of spectators watch a display of Maypole Dancing

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