Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens: A Brief History

This week, Kyle Thomason, a heritage volunteer at the Central Library, writes about the long lost Zoological Gardens in Headingley.

The Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens were unknown to me until a few months ago. However, when I was younger I regularly saw what I thought was a mini Castle, over grown with no information or signage, on Cardigan Road, and often wondered what it was for. When I found out that it was a ‘Bear Pit’ it conjured up many different ideas, mainly of what such an odd structure was doing sitting in the middle of what is now student housing, guest houses, flats and hotels. After some metaphorical digging, here is what I came up with.


The idea of a Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Leeds came at the Music Hall on 5 October 1836, at a show by the Leeds Floral Society. A letter was read out by the speaker, Rev. J. A Rhodes, from a Mr. [Edwin] Eddison urging that:

the establishment of a Botanical Garden, and also a Zoological Garden in the neighbourhood of Leeds [was much needed]

However, doubts at such an enterprise circled from the start. The Chairman of the Leeds Horticultural Society stated that

While Leeds clung to its smoke, instead of burning it, the attempt to establish a Botanical Garden, (except at too great a distance) would necessarily fail…but if the moneys were forthcoming, it would all be very well to set about such a work without loss of time.

Another writer, a G. A, writing to the Editor of the Leeds Intelligencer wrote:

That all taste for public horticultural recreations [in Leeds] has of late years become almost extinct, but…a little spark presents itself, therefore I hope Leeds will come forward with energy and its wealth and fan it into a flame…that Leeds may gain stand unrivalled in a cause of all others the most interesting [as in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Birmingham].

Though there was obvious doubt about the projects long term viability, there remained some hope as to its success. On the 22 May 1837, it was decided by public meeting that the funds for the scheme were to be raised via shares, and a proposed capital of no more than £20,000 and no less than £10,000 raised. The scheme would commence once £7,500 had been raised. A few sites were considered but it was felt that of the “south side of Headingley on the sloping ground behind the house formerly occupied by the late Mr. Bainbridge, that for its locality [to the city centre] and its natural advantage” would be best.

On 16 September 1837, an advertisement was placed in the local paper for the Provincial Committee to receive designs with cost estimates. Seventeen designs were sent in and, by the end of the year, the committee for the enterprise had chosen a winning design, that of William Billington, Civil Engineer and Architect, assisted in groundwork by Edward Davids, Botanist and Landscape Gardener (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Plan of the Zoological and Botanical Gardens by W. Billington & E. Davids, 1838. (c) Leeds Libraries

The site was to have an orangery, green houses, a conservatory for palms and another for fruits, a large fountain, exotic plants and birds, a department for zoological specimens, a lake with island and rustic bridge, rosary and another lake for water fowl, with a fountain, an entrance lodge from Burley, and fenced zoological specimen areas.

By February 1838, Mr Charles Kennedy, gardener to the Duke of Bedford, was appointed superintendent, or Keeper, of the Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens. So far, the project was moving along well. Funds were forthcoming and appointments made. However, at a general meeting of the society that month, the discussion turned to the opening of the gardens on the Sabbath. Sunday was only day the working classes had free – but it was suggested that this day should be for Church, not recreation.  One of the founders and Vice-President of the society, the Rev. J. A. Rhodes, wholly opposed the idea stating “he would not hold any share in the institution nor take any part in its management, if that principle were not recognised by the majority of shareholders”.  Another, Dr. Williamson, said that the “evils to be apprehended far exceeded any amount of good that could arise from keeping the gardens open.” A vote was taken to close the gardens on Sundays, but not without opposition: it stood 369 to 202. This decision would go on to affect the project significantly in future.

The gardens struck another setback when, in June of 1838, a fire was set inside one of the buildings in the gardens, destroying all the tools, the building, and work-shop. Then, a year later, in August, at a meeting of the committee, the annual report stated that, due to lack of funds, as much as had been planned had not yet come to fruition.

The Leeds Times, dated 10 August 1839, gives us a good insight into what was completed – especially because so little remains visible today.

The whole of the ground is enclosed by a wall of Meanwood grit stone on the South East and West sides, ten feet high; of Woodhouse stone and brick on the North side and of Meanwood grit stone and brick at the principal entrance. The North and North-West sides, which are fifteen feet high, are lined with brick on those sides having a South and South-Easterly aspect…suitable for fruit trees. There are two ponds, once containing a surface of nearly one acre, and the other about half an acre. The walks are nearly all formed…

The buildings erected and completed are the Burley entrance lodge at the South west corner occupied by the foreman. The cottage of porter’s lodge, committee room and shed, at the North-West corner, adjoining the principal entrance and the propagating house…but examining the state of the funds it was thought best at once to stop further expense.

The costs for the laying of the ground were four times the amount estimated, due to the need of excessive draining around the whole ground and all of the planting. It cost £2000. In today’s money that’s about £120, 000. This piece gives a more tangible and interesting aspect to the gardens than remains today and helps show the extent and cost of such a venture at the time.

In consequence of the expenses made it was suggested at the beginning of February 1840 that the site be let or sold and possibly turned into a Church of England graveyard, as there was need for one in the area.  Though the groundwork for the site cost more than estimated it was suggested in the Leeds Times that

We rather think that there would have been plenty of money raised but for the resolution come to by the proprietors to close these gardens on Sundays – a resolution which induced the withdrawal of a large number of capitalists, who were anxious to afford the working classes an opportunity for recreation…

It was decided by the committee not to sell or let the gardens, but to finish laying the gravel paths and open the gardens as soon as possible – and hope the funds gained would be enough to sustain it in future.

The Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens were opened on Wednesday 8 July 1840. Admission was Sixpence (£1.50 today) for adults; children and their servants threepence (0.76p today).

The following description was made of the gardens when they opened:

The Botanical and Zoological Gardens are situated in the bosom of a valley, which valley is enclosed by gently swelling eminences around; yet they are so far secluded that no “coigne of vantage” can be had at any point in the immediate vicinity to enable the furtive spectator to prate of their whereabouts. Thus, it comes to pass that when the visitor, approaching the gardens from the village of Headingley, only a stone’s throw distant, passes the gate, he is astonished with the scene that bursts upon his at once, and imagines himself at the moment in a scene of positive enchantment.

On the 7 October 1840, the gardens were to have their first real attraction: Mr Rossum the Aeronaut ascending in his balloon, followed by a grand display of fireworks the following week. However, there were no gas pipes within the vicinity of Headingley at the time so the balloon was to be filled at the Cardigan Arms Inn, Kirkstall and floated more than half a mile to the gardens! The balloon took so long to inflate that the event was cancelled and postponed for a later date.

The Gardens held many galas, balloonings, firework shows and events from The New Zealand War Chief, Senora Rossini and Storming of the Chinese Forts, among many over the coming years with varying success. The money and expenses were a constant issue and remarked upon regularly in the local press.

The gardens were eventually opened on Sundays, but only after morning and evening services, and the tickets for Sundays could only be purchased during the week to make sure “no great desecration of the Sabbath occurred”. This was a great success for the working-classes but for the gardens it was too late. Not even the attractions of monkeys, a raccoon, alligator, guinea pigs, an owl, a peacock, two parrots, and a “very well-bred, decently behaved brown bear” could save the gardens.

The gardens remained open for another 8 years but funding could not be found to continue the venture after 1848. The gardens were sold by public auction on the [1]8th Dec 1848 and acquired by John Smith, a banker of Leeds at a cost of £6, 010 (in today’s money that would be approximately £481,918); after which they were then sold to a H[enry] C[owper] Marshall and leased by Mr. Thomas Clapham, who charged a small fee for entrance to the gardens until 1858.

By 1869, after changing ownership many times, the land was divided into building plots and sold off. However, even today, large areas of the land once owned by the Zoological and Botanical Gardens remains undeveloped in comparison to the surrounding areas (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Aerial image of the old Zoological and Botanical Gardens area highlighted in green.

The surviving parts of the gardens today are scarce. The main wall at the entrance to the gardens survives in part (Fig. 3), as does the most famous remnant of the gardens: the Old Bear Pit (Fig. 4) on Cardigan Road. Both  are listed under the Planning Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act of 1990.

Fig. 3. Image of the retaining wall by the old entrance to the gardens. (Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Headingley.  cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Rick Carn – geograph.org.uk/p/2732178)
Fig. 4. Image of the Bear Pit on Burley Road. (May 2017, from Google Maps)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. MoiraG says:

    Ever since I moved to Hyde Park, then soon after Headingley, in 1974 I knew about the bear pit. It’s interesting to hear more detail about the Botanical Gardens’ history. A sorry tale that reminds me of the story of London’s Dome!
    Thank you.

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