earliest record so far found for this branch of the Burnell Family
shows that in 1632, two brothers, William and John Burnell were living
in Roundhay near Leeds. It is not clear who was the older as no record
has been found for their birth, and both had their first child (and in
the case of John his only child) in 1632. It is likely that both were
small scale tenant farmers like their descendants.
Roundhay Park was created at the end of the 11th century as a deer hunting park for the Norman aristocracy and was part of the estates granted to Ilbert de Lacy by William the Conqueror. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, but there is a reference in 1153 to Henry de Lacy granting "those...lands...next to the Roundhay" to the monks of Kirkstall Abbey. Roundhay Manor included certain land in Shadwell, Thorner and Seacroft as well as the Deer Park.
There were many hunting parks in England in Norman times. Each was an area of semi-wooded land enclosed by a ditch, bank, hedge or fence. The name 'Roundhay' refers to the circular 'hay' or enclosure. A small part of the 6 mile long perimeter bank and ditch still survives and even today the ditch is 20 foot wide by 10 foot deep. The bank was topped by a wooden palisade of oak.
The boundary of the Deer Park is still visible on the 1850 Ordnance Survey map, covering an area considerably larger than the current public park. There were several entrances, the main one being in the north east near the medieval hunting lodge. The darker green area on the map shows the boundaries of the modern park. See map.
By the 15th century Roundhay had become part of the royal estates and in 1486 Henry VII granted a 7 year lease to William Nettleton of certain lands in Roundhay, Shadwell, Leeds and Thorner. Nettleton abused his position and felled many of the trees. By 1503 the Park had begun to decline - the lodge was in ruins and there were only 34 deer left.
When Charles I inherited the estate in 1625 he sold Roundhay and other estates to settle his debts. By this point most of the trees had been cleared and new arable and pastoral farms established. Fields were enclosed and given specific names.
It may have been around this time that William and John Burnell became established as tenant farmers on land in Roundhay Park, or their family may have moved in earlier as the Park was progressively cleared. Certainly they were living there by 1632 and continued to live there for a couple of generations, surviving the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's rule.
William and his wife Elizabeth had three daughters, and a son who died in infancy. Elizabeth was obviously a fiery character since on 7th October 1652 she was indicted at Wakefield Quarter Sessions of assault and affray against a certain Margaret Holmes. William died in 1668 and Elizabeth in 1673.
However, it is from the other brother, John, that our line of Burnells is descended. John's wife was probably called Agnes, but the christening record for their only child, John, on 1st July 1632 gives only the father's name as was normal at the time. John Burnell senior died in 1655 and Agnes in 1664.
Most of Roundhay fell within the parish of Barwick in Elmet, and it was in the parish church here that these Burnells married, christened their children and were buried. John Burnell junior was still living in Roundhay in 1661, in which year he served as churchwarden. It was a long journey to the parish church since Roundhay formed a semi-detached part of the parish in the west, and Barwick in Elmet was right in the east of the parish.
The historic parish boundaries had much more to do with the original ownership of the land than with any rational arrangement. There is a detached part of Thorner parish within Barwick and Elmet parish, and an extremely small area (no more than a small field) which lay within Thorner but actually belonged to Barwick in Elmet. Other similar examples can be seen on the map. Note: this map is from 1850 but the parish boundaries shown are the historical ones from before this date.
John Burnell junior married Elizabeth West, also living in Roundhay Park, in 1664 and they had a total of 7 children, of whom one (Mary) died in infancy. John's oldest son, Robert, did not stay in Roundhay. Sometime before 1717, he bought, or more likely rented, land within Shadwell township which although part of Thorner parish was actually much closer to Roundhay than Barwick in Elmet. The owner of the land was probably the same as the owner of his father's land.
We do not know what happened to John's other children and there are few records of Robert's life. We know that in 1717 he served a year as churchwarden at St Peters, the parish church and in 1720 he married Jane Wiggin from Harewood in Harewood Parish Church. The fact his name was recorded as 'Bornill' may indicate the Yorkshire pronunciation of the name. This was a late marriage (Robert was 44 and Jane 23) We do not know the date of his father's death, but it may be that Robert only had the means to marry once his father had died. His mother, Elizabeth died in 1722 in Thorner Parish, so she had probably gone to live with her son in Shadwell after her husband died.
The later history of Roundhay Park is interesting, although by this stage the link with the Burnell family had ended. The trees continued to be cleared and by 1780 hunting was no longer the main source of income. In 1797 the estate was put on the market by the then owner, Charles Philip, the 17th Baron of Stourton. No single purchaser appeared and the land was eventually sold to two Quakers originally from Leeds, Samuel Elam and Thomas Nicholson. Both were involved in banking and other business ventures, Elam in Leeds and Nicholson in London.
Samuel Elam, who owned the southern portion, failed in various business ventures and eventually became bankrupt. He died in 1811 at the early age of 37, almost certainly as a result of the stresses and strains brought on by his financial difficulties. Some of his land in Roundhay was bought by Thomas Nicholson, adding to his existing holding. Nicholson was only 38 when he purchased Roundhay and wanted to return from London to be nearer his family and to live the life of a country gentleman.
His part of the estate included several farms, three streams and a tree-lined gorge. He landscaped the grounds, creating lakes, ponds and follies and built a mansion. The Waterloo Lake and much of the landscape is thus entirely manmade. Most of the construction was undertaken by unemployed soldiers who had returned from the Napoleonic Wars, an arrangement which no doubt appealed to both Nicholson's business and Quakerly instincts.
Thomas Nicholson died in 1821 at the early age of 56. He was buried at Camp Lane Court, the Quaker burial ground in Leeds. He left the estate to his half-brother, Stephen Nicholson, who paid for the building of Roundhay Church in 1826, thus ending the long trek to All Saints Church in Barwick in Elmet for the inhabitants of Roundhay.
The Nicholson family put the estate up for sale in 1869 following the death of William Nicholson, Stephen's nephew. It was purchased by John Barran, the then Mayor of Leeds, who wanted to establish a public park for the town to compare with Lister Park which Bradford had purchased the previous year. There was much opposition from the residents of Roundhay which had become a prosperous middle class area with substantial houses but eventually the necessary Act of Parliament was passed to allow the Council to take over the Park. It was officially opened on 19th September 1872 by Queen Victoria's third son, Prince Arthur.
Initially the distance of Roundhay from the centre of Leeds and the cost of travel by wagon or omnibus meant that the Park was mainly used by the middle classes, and the townspeople for whom the park had been purchased stayed away. This was solved, after an initial false start, by the opening in 1891 of an electric tramway from Sheepscar to Roundhay. This was the first electric tramway operating on the overhead wire system in Europe. The line was later extended to run from Kirkstall to Roundhay.
There is much more detail on the later history of Roundhay Park in An Illustrated History of Roundhay Park by Steven Burt and in the tourist guide Goodall's Illustrated Royal Handbook to Roundhay Park published in 1872 to mark the opening of the public park. The latter is of interest for its advertisements alone.