As part of Roundhay Park’s 150th anniversary celebrations, we’re taking a look back at history of The Mansion, first as a family home and then as one of the finest city venues in the country
The history of The Mansion, Roundhay Park
Commissioned in 1811 by the then owner of Roundhay Park, Thomas Nicholson, The Mansion was built in the Greek revival style at great cost’ as ‘the accommodation of a family of distinction’.* Situated in an elevated position in the centre of the estate, with far reaching views, it is a fine example of the good taste of the Regency period. There was a library, dining room and drawing room, a study and morning room on the ground floor, with 17 bedrooms and (a luxury) 2 water closets on the first floor. The basement contained a laundry as well as extensive wine cellars.
Thomas and his family moved in in 1819 but Thomas died in 1821. The estate was inherited by Thomas’ half-brother Stephen, and then passed to Stephen’s nephew William Nicholson Nicholson. William died in 1868 leaving his estate to be divided between his wife, children and grandchildren. The estate was so large and complex that the only practical solution was to sell. This finally came to pass in 1871.
Purchase of Roundhay Park
When the sales particulars were drawn up for the sale of Roundhay Park, it might be supposed that only a rich gentleman in search of a country estate would be interested. But one man had other ideas: John Barran, then Mayor of Leeds, thought Roundhay would be perfect as a public park: ‘…Here we have an estate which would make an ideal playground for the people of this town. Future generations will remember us with gratitude as they stroll along the pleasant walks and enjoy the ease and shade of the trees.’*
However, since Roundhay lay outside the city boundaries, and the council was limited to purchases of £50,000, an act of parliament would be needed to allow the council to buy Roundhay. There was no time for this to happen before the sale, so Barran took the risky step of mortgaging his own house and buying the park at auction. He then offered the park for sale, at cost, to Leeds Council once the necessary act of parliament had been achieved. Despite opposition from local landowners, who rather disliked the idea of the working classes travelling past their properties on the way to the park, the act was obtained and Leeds Council took ownership in 1871.
A splendid official opening of Roundhay Park took place on 19th September 1872, with Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught declaring the park open.
Roundhay Park’s distance from Leeds made it too difficult and costly for most people to visit, and the park rapidly became known as Barran’s Folly. It wasn’t until a tram service began in 1891 that ordinary people could easily visit.
The Mansion Hotel
The Mansion House was empty from 1872 to 1881, and the first tenant went bust within a year. In 1884 William Henry Craven took over The Mansion and started to serve refreshments to visitors to the park. His son Craven Gilpin was given the licence of The Mansion in 1896 as a twenty-first birthday present, and started the firm William Henry Gilpin & Son.
Until around 1920, when cars became more widespread, Craven Gilpin would drive a horse and carriage into Leeds to collect customers and then drive them back to The Mansion. Craven built a successful business at The Mansion, adding catering for Masonic meals and events as well as developing outside catering from around 1908. According to his grandson, Craven Gilpin was thanked in person by King George V for a function he attended when visiting his daughter the Princess Royal on a tour of Yorkshire.
Craven Gilpin died in 1951 and his funeral was an enormous affair, with hundreds of wreaths laid down the route of his funeral through the park. The Mansion was going through a tough period business-wise and was taken on by Craven’s youngest child Audrey Whittington. She was clearly a formidable and energetic woman. She brought in a seven day licence; before that Sundays were only for tea, cakes and minerals. With the help of Managers Ronnie and Fran Ellinor The Mansion was soon back on the up.
An extensive programme of refurbishment began; it took from 1951 to 1964 to fully redecorate The Mansion. Unfortunately, disaster struck on Boxing Day 1964.
The Mansion on fire
A fire was started by faulty electrical wiring in the Craven Bar in the early hours of 26th December; the Victorian fireplace acted as an air vent and the flames quickly spread. A courting couple spotted the flames and roused the resident managers. Thanks to their efforts to close all the windows and switch off the gas before the fire brigade arrived The Mansion avoided complete destruction, but the devastation was extensive. It took a further 18 months to renovate The Mansion again.
The Craven bar was reborn- as the Phoenix bar.
The 1960s and beyond
Jeremy Whittington describes The Mansion in the 1960s:
“The Mansion was the busiest catering establishment in Leeds during the 1960 and 1970s. Mother had the best food bought. The Headwaiter was in a tailcoat. The decorated staircase had the best flocked wallpaper and the carpets were the best that money could buy. Only the best was good enough. Mother and the Management only wanted the best food for the customers. Mother ran The Mansion for 36 years and she was good. Mother knew every trick that people forgot to do. Whenever we had lunch in the restaurant, we were served last and Mother was watching. She was good at telling the Headwaiter that the mustard was not fresh and the cruets needed filling. ”
The Mansion continued to be very busy in to the 1990s, when up to 4 wedding parties would take place each Saturday. However towards the end of the century extensive repair works were needed to the building and the Gilpin family relinquished their tenancy in 2003, after over 100 years.
The Mansion was closed in 2003 and its future remained uncertain. Plans were put together to turn the building into offices for council staff, but an outcry from local residents forced a rethink. In 2008 Leeds City Council awarded a new tenancy to Dine to retain The Mansion as an events venue.
Following extensive restoration and refurbishment, The Mansion restaurant-café reopened in 2009, followed by the principle function spaces. The re-opened Mansion hosted its first wedding reception on September 5th 2009.
The Mansion sits proudly looking down over Roundhay Park as it celebrates 150 years since that grand opening. It continues to host weddings and events, corporate meetings and family parties. We’ve even seen some wedding couples return to celebrate their Golden wedding anniversaries!
Here’s to 150 more years!
Drawn from Dine Archives, with thanks to Jeremy Whittington
All photos from leodis.net unless otherwise stated