Bill McKinnon, local historian and activist, looks back over the life of the Woodhouse Moor Owl – a sculpture so mysterious, we can’t even find a photograph of it!
“The Owl … will mount his pedestal today as an emblem of Leeds,” wrote John Lee in the Leeds Times on Saturday 14 April 1883. “The figure of the bird has been skilfully carved in stone by Mr Fielding, sculptor, Infirmary-street, Leeds, who has done the work gratuitously. It is a pure ‘labour of love,’ the voluntary principle being carried out in all the details of the rockery.”
The beautification of Woodhouse Moor in the early 1880s was largely due to John Lee’s efforts. He had moved from Bradford to Leeds around 1880 and, writing as “The Owl” in the Liberal Leeds Times, encouraged people with resources to make donations for the Moor’s enhancement. He called this “voluntarism.” One of those who volunteered their services was the aforementioned sculptor, Joseph Fielding, based, according to Kelly’s Directory of 1888, at 1 Infirmary Street, Leeds city centre.
The stone from which the owl was sculpted came from nearby Potternewton. Lee explains: “Mr Fielding’s public spirit in carving ‘The Owl’ on the moor, free of any cost, was seconded by Mr Joseph Pickard, jun, of Scothall Quarries, Potternewton, who in the most liberal spirit, gave the beautifully clear block of stone out of which Mr Fielding carved the bird … The quality of the stone from Scothall Quarries is so fine and the colour so good that some people have actually asked if the Woodhouse Moor owl was painted!” (Leeds Times, 28 April 1883).
The statue was located in a rockery formed from 31 tons of iron slag brought from the Aireside Ironworks in Hunslet. In front of the rockery, Lee tells us (writing on 14 April 1883) there was a drinking fountain, seen below, with the rockery and the sculpture of the lion and the serpent (in its original location) in the background.
The suggestion that there should be a rockery was contained in a letter sent by “Animo and Fido” published in the Leeds Mercury on 13 March 1883. The idea was taken up by John Lee and the letter was quoted by him in his Leeds Times article of 17 March 1883. The rockery was “laced with ivy of various colours and shapes. These will be trained to cling prettily round the stones, and will find food and lodgement in the interstices, and in time – though the period will not be very far distant – the pedestal will be clothed in a perennial mass of ivy, ‘clinging where no life is seen.’” (Leeds Times, 21 April 1883).
In 1883, Lee records that the sculpture was vandalised, but not damaged:
It may be said – because some miscreant cast down the owl on Woodhouse Moor from its pedestal on Monday morning – that the ‘common people’ cannot be trusted. It will take something more than this to cause us to lose faith in the good sense and honour of the citizens of Leeds. That contemptible act – be it by one person or more – is an insult to the town of Leeds. The figure – symbolical of the town – was carved gratis; the stone was given; it cost not one penny to the ratepayers; the workmanship and form of the bird were admitted to be good; it stood in a suitable position; was generally admired; and yet between four and six on Monday morning, some fellow or fellows – probably instigated to the act or excited by drink – wrenched the bird from its fastenings and cast it to the ground. Providentially the figure alighted on the soft grass, little the worse for its rapid descent (Leeds Times, 5 May 1883).
By 1935, the story of the sculpture’s origin had been forgotten, as an article by ‘Northerner’ in the Yorkshire Post in July 1935 reveals:
It has struck me that the statues in Leeds parks should make an interesting study for some local archaeologist. On Woodhouse Moor alone there are several curious specimens. There is the Owl, a solemn and more than life-sized effigy of the Leeds emblem, which presides over a small and shadowy lawn, and even more exciting is the Lion. This beast, hidden among the trees near the “Cannons,” is engaged in a savage struggle with a serpent, and legend has it that it commemorates the Indian mutiny. The head of the serpent has been removed for safety’s sake by some patriot, but the lion still glares with undiminished ferocity.
Responding on 15 December 1979 to a reader’s question about the stone lion, Yorkshire Evening Post journalist Derek Naylor wrote: “Several readers have written to me confirming that the statue of the lion and the snake has been situated in Woodhouse Park now for at least 50 years. Mr H.H. Heath of Farnborough Street, Leeds 4, says it was moved from near where the Victoria statue is today about 25 years ago and about the same time a large stone owl which stood next to the lion was removed reportedly the victim of a students’ rag.”
In an email he sent me in August 2015, former Woodhouse resident Sid Blane confirmed that the stone owl was still in place until the 1950s: “The area around the council greenhouses where the lion and snake, plus the large owl, kept company with Queen Vic. This was our playground. There was a good many more bushes in the fifties and we had several dens in and around. We also were chased by the park keeper on many occasions.”
Do you have any memories or photographs of the Woodhouse Moor Owl? If so, we’d love to hear from you!