A Brief Tour of Roundhay St. John Church

This week’s article is by researcher Irfan Shah, who illuminates the hidden history of a local Church, one that deserves much wider recognition…

15th September 2019. Image of Roundhay St. John’s Church, designed by Thomas Taylor and financed by the Nicholsons of Roundhay Mansion. It was completed in 1825, and consecrated in January 1826. (c) Graham Schofield, http://www.leodis.net

One of the jewels in the Central Library’s crown is the wonderful and unique Boyne’s Grangerised History of Leeds (a ‘grangerised’ book is one that has been added to and illustrated ‘by later insertion of material, especially prints cut from other works’). It was put together by Leeds antiquarian, William Boyne (1815-1893) and was built on two earlier studies of the town: Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis (1715) – the first written history of Leeds – and Thomas Dunham Whitaker’s Loidis and Elmete (1816).

Amongst the Grangerised history’s many and varied features are coats of arms, maps, local newspapers, letters, histories of local worthies, genealogies, drawings and watercolours of local subjects. There is also a painting by Leeds artist W. R. Robinson, of Roundhay St. John Church. This church, which first opened its doors in 1826, can still be seen today, nestled on the edge of woodland between Waterloo Lake and the edge of the busy Wetherby Road. However, the church has long since fallen out of use and into a state of disrepair tempered only by the valiant efforts of the Friends of Roundhay St. John, a charitable organisation made up of volunteers whose members tend to the graves as and when they are allowed access, and who celebrate and champion the church whenever they can.

Rural scene, showing rolling meadows and a church in the distance
South View of Roundhay – W.R. Robinson. Taken from Volume 6 of William Boyne’s History of Leeds (c) Leeds Libraries

I first came across the church in 2012 when I was researching the story of Louis Le Prince, the film pioneer about whom I’ve written here before. Le Prince shot what many people now consider to be the world’s first films, and one surviving fragment, known as the Roundhay Garden Scene, included Le Prince’s mother and father-in-law, Sarah and Joseph Whitley, who are buried in the grounds of the church. In fact, Le Prince himself, designed the tiled monument at the head of their grave which includes the Whitley family motto ‘Fit Via Vi’ (Labour will find a way through).

This, obviously, was a great point of interest for me, and through the story of Le Prince, I became aware of the Roundhay St John’s Church and slowly, also came to understand that Le Prince’s story was only one of many fascinating histories connected to the place. In fact, amongst the graves, and within the church itself, are so many objects of interest – memorials, gravestones, a decaying, once beautiful, church organ, tiled mosaics, and grand tombs, that it stands now as a vast repository of stories, most of which have been forgotten, just as the physical building itself has fallen into disrepair. The church now has surely become one of the forgotten treasures of Leeds. This post, therefore, is an attempt to re-introduce the city to the church; to encourage people to seek out Robinson’s picture in the Central Library and to find out about the church itself; to engage with the volunteers tending to it and to explore anew the stories that emanate from it. As a small first step, here is a brief introduction to just some of those who are buried there:

Twelve Lord Mayors of Leeds

Among the many and varied graves are those of twelve former Lord Mayors of Leeds – so many, it inspired this verse from a poem recited at the Centenary of the Church.

And when Leeds wants a new Lord Mayor

It finds him out at Roundhay where,

They’ve always one or two to spare –

A real ‘Mayor’s Nest’ is Roundhay!

There would and perhaps should have been a thirteenth Leeds Mayor here – Margaret (Peggy) White C. B. E. who was Lord Mayor of Leeds from 1995-96. She and her husband were members of the congregation and her husband was buried in the north yard in 1988. Margaret’s wish had been to be buried alongside her husband, however, when she died in 2013, aged eighty-six, the state of the grounds was such that it was impossible to add her grave.

Ancestors of the Duchess of Cambridge

It’s also a little-known fact that at least eighteen ancestors of the Duchess of Cambridge are buried here, most of whom are from the illustrious Lupton family, (several of the Luptons are former Lord Mayors themselves.)

The Fallen of Two World Wars

The fallen of two world wars are also commemorated at the church. There are three memorials there as well as the beautiful Opus Sectile – tiled panels with images of saints and bearing the names of the dead. And amongst the graves outside can be found more of the fallen – including members of the aforementioned Lupton family.

A Leeds Pal

The 15th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army, more commonly known as the Leeds Pals, was a volunteer battalion made up of non-soldiers who were trained at Colsterdale in the Yorkshire Dales before being deployed first in Egypt and then in France. The story of the Leeds Pals is particularly tragic – almost the entire battalion was decimated within minutes during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, or, as Private A. V. Pearson would describe it:

“We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.”

One member of the ill-fated battalion is now at rest in the grounds of Roundhay St. John. Thomas Arthur Ellicott Willey, 2nd Lieutenant, was one of the officers who led their men in the first wave to go ‘over the top’ at the Somme. Another Leeds Pal, Private W Arthur Hollings, writing home, described the Lieutenant’s bravery:

“He has always shown calm, grit and courage in the firing line, and we had every confidence in him, but he never appeared so noble and courageous as he did at 7:30am last Saturday. At the order every man swarmed out to the front line trench and lay down for nine minutes. At the end of that time young Willey jumped up and, waving his revolver, shouted ‘Come on 13, give them hell’…It depended on the steadiness of the first wave how the other waves followed, but Leeds showed the way. Well he was a Leeds lad and we’re proud of him….”

Lieutenant Tom Willey was killed on the 16th July 1916. He was nineteen years old.

Mario Curzon (Marian Korczynski)

Amongst the fallen of the Second World War is the Polish airman, Mario Curzon (Marian Korczynski). Curzon escaped from Poland following the Nazi invasion, and travelled across Europe and North Africa, like many other Polish fighters, looking for an allied army in which to enlist. He was captured and sent to Argentina but escaped and made his way back to Europe, reaching the UK and joining the 300 and 301 Squadrons where he flew sorties as a tail-gunner in bombers. He was the only survivor when the Wellington bomber in which he was flying crashed at Dunmoor Hill in Northumbria in 1943. He was later awarded the Polish Cross of Valour.

The De Relwyskow Family

Roundhay’s connections with servicemen brings us to the extraordinary story of the De Relwyskow family for whom two marble monuments still stand.

George Frederick William De Relwyskow won a gold medal for wrestling in the lightweight class at the London Olympic Games in 1908. George didn’t stop there however, and also competed in the middleweight division against much heavier opponents and won a silver medal on the same day! He enlisted in the army in 1914 as an unarmed combat instructor where he developed and taught his own techniques. In 1925, his ‘The Art of Wrestling’ was published, becoming a bible for the sport. Copies of the book can still be found for sale.

When World War II broke out, George again enlisted and served as instructor with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He died at his home at Oakwood Lane in 1942.

George’s son, George Jr, also became a wrestler in a successful but short-lived career during the 1930’s, before an injury brought it to an end. George Jr then moved into wrestling promotion and formed a partnership with Arthur Green that put them both at the heart of a sport that became a mainstay of British popular culture – at its peak, televised wrestling attracted up to eighteen million viewers. George Jr had established himself as renowned wrestling promoter, however, he had lived another, secret life kept hidden even from his wife, Elsie, who only found out about it when she went through his papers after his death in 1980.

Like his father, George had signed up as a physical training instructor at the start of the Second World War, however, he was then recruited by the Special Air Service (SAS) and assigned to a section known by the name ‘Room 98’ who, it was believed, trained agents for assignments in occupied Europe. One of these agents is believed to be Odette Samson, the famous spy who was awarded the George Cross.

George Jr became a pioneering expert in plastic explosives and was, at some point, parachuted into Libya on a mission. It was during this time that he sustained the injury that would end his wrestling career when the jeep in which he was travelling across enemy lines was blown up by a landmine. George de Relwyskow survived the war and enjoyed a career as one of Britain’s most successful and best-regarded wrestling promoters.

And the De Relwyskow contribution to wrestling didn’t end there. George Jr’s brother, Douglas, was also a promoter and his son, Douglas Jr was a referee. Douglas Jr, however, changed his name in order to be judged on his own merits and became known the world over as TV wrestling’s favourite referee, Barry Douglas.

The Roundhay Garden Scene. A Clue?

Returning now to the story of Louis Le Prince, the church holds what might be a clue to the identity of one of the figures in the iconic motion picture sequence, Roundhay Garden Scene. There are four figures in the scene: Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, Le Prince’s mother and father-in-law, Sarah and Joseph Whitley and a fourth figure known variously as Annie/Harriet Hartley. Beyond the name (and even that is confused) her identity is all but unknown. It has been suggested that she may have been a servant or a friend of the family. The clues I have managed to collate are minimal – in the footage she appears young (late teens to, possibly, late twenties); she is dressed well and fashionably. A letter she wrote to Le Prince’s wife, Lizzie, addresses her as ‘My dear Mrs. Le Prince’ the formality of which might suggest that she’s an acquaintance rather than a relative. The letter talks of her having accompanied Sarah Whitley to chapel in the morning which perhaps suggests a friend of the family who lives locally.

Just beside the church are two chest tombs. One is in memory of Richard Hartley, a farmer, his wife, Elizabeth and their daughter, Eliza. The other is in memory of another farmer, John Hartley and his wife, Mary. These are significant looking tombs, standing conspicuously, in the south graveyard close to the church itself. Richard would have been one of the first people buried in the grounds as he died in 1832. At least three generations of the Hartley family had been farmers, owning large swathes of land in Roundhay. The later generations of Hartleys may well have been acquainted with the Whitleys. Roundhay was sparsely populated in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and communities often found cohesion in places like a church congregation. If so, it is tempting to wonder whether Annie/Harriet Hartley belonged to this wealthy landowning, farming family and whether this is an avenue for research into the identity of the fourth person in Louis Le Prince’s iconic sequence.

Conclusion

There are more names – and therefore will be more stories – associated with the church at Roundhay. But even the few mentioned here in this post have the power move and intrigue. It would be a worthwhile endeavour therefore, to research the others, too. How easy that would be will depend on the conditions and accessibility of the church and over the last few years, that has been a matter of some concern. As former Mayor, Margaret ‘Peggy’ White wrote to the Yorkshire Post in 2012:

“the portion behind the church is full of overgrown bushes and collapsed gravestones and the grave yard above the church where my husband is buried now resembles a hayfield. I am not the only Roundhay resident with relatives buried there – some only recently. It is now difficult to find our relatives’ graves.”

Perhaps for the church to be saved it first must be cherished by the city of Leeds. Sharing just some of its stories is an attempt at making this happen. And as regards the passing down of stories….

An interesting coda links Boyne’s Grangerised History of Leeds to my own research into Louis Le Prince (albeit indirectly). After Boyne’s death, The History passed to his friend John Stansfield until his death and was then sold at action by Sotheby’s. The item was much coveted but the winning bidder was a Mr. Reginald Wilson who was acting on behalf of his father, Mr. Richard Wilson of Lloyds Bank. However, there appears to have been a huge sense of disappointment that the book had not gone to Leeds Central Library, so much so that Wilson “with the public spirit which actuated him”, handed over the book to the library at the figure at which he bought it.’

It just so happens that Richard Wilson had been one of Le Prince’s close friends. In fact, after Le Prince disappeared in 1890 (he was never heard from again after boarding the Dijon to Paris train on September 16th) it was Wilson who was tasked with entering Le Prince’s abandoned workshop and salvaging what he could from it. He managed to save Le Prince’s two cameras, both of which are now on display at the Bradford Science and Media Museum. He also saved several contact sheets showing frames from three motion picture sequences taken in Leeds, one of which, was from the Roundhay Garden Scene. It seems that, just as it was Wilson who passed on the irreplaceable first cameras and films to the world, so he passed on the unique History of Leeds

One Comment Add yours

  1. Richard J Askwith says:

    14 April 2022 was my 74th birthday. I sang in the choir at St. John’s as a little boy and latterly as a sort of baritone. What memories this article brings back! Now in permanent retirement in France ( near Cognac) but always there shall be a marvellous place in my life for those early years of singing – Mr. Hartley, Mr. Webster, Mr Blakey and the organists / choirmasters. Thank you so much for an article that I happened upon by sheer chance. Richard J Askwith; I smiled with very fond memories of a childhood and adolescence spent in church music. RJ Askwith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.