Hunslet man buys Kirkstall Abbey

At the end of this month of March will be the Easter holidays with the two-week school break following. Those readers who may not have booked to go away may be wondering where they may visit at little or no cost especially if they have children to look after. A visit to Kirkstall Abbey may fit the bill.

Kirkstall Abbey, founded in 1152, is arguably the finest best preserved Cistercian monastic ruin in the UK. The Earl of Cardigan owned virtually all of Burley, Headingley and Kirkstall which included the Abbey ruins.

The Earl was the soldier who led the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaclava against a Russian Army during the Crimean War in 1854. Later the Earl was killed in a riding accident when he was 70 and his young spendthrift widow bankrupted the estate and all the lands which were owned in Leeds had to be sold to pay for the debts in 1889.

Hitherto, the Abbey ruins, even though in a very dilapidated state, together with the surrounding parkland had been open to the general public but a developer from Manchester made a bid to buy it and build on it and provide a private amusement park.

A concerned Leeds resident, solicitor and later Leeds Town councillor Edmund Wilson, tried to raise the money to buy the Abbey for a public park but fell short of the £13,600 needed to beat the Manchester bid. Wilson paid a deposit of £1,300 hoping to raise the money from the general public which was risky because he could have been personally liable for all of it. Then Colonel John North, millionaire adventurer, made an appearance.

North was born into poverty in Bywater Street in Hunslet which was in an appalling industrial environment. When he was 14 years old his father, a coal merchant, died and his mother moved with her children to run a public house in Grape Street Hunslet. Both streets were eventually cleared with slum clearance.

At that time North began to serve as an engineering apprentice at John Fowler & Co. He did well there and Fowlers sent him to Chile to further their trade in steam engines. It was while he was in Chile that he started his own business importing guano from which nitrates were extracted as an important land fertilizer. He became known as the “Nitrates King” and he became extremely rich. He also formed a militia army and appointed himself the head of it and attached “Colonel” to his name.

His business dealings were thought to be controversial to say the least, but he never forgot his origins in south Leeds and financially supported Leeds General Infirmary and The Yorkshire College (now the University of Leeds). Two representatives of the Leeds Mechanics Institute went to meet North where he lived in London to ask for his financial support for the Institute. While they were with him they mentioned the sale of Kirkstall Abbey.

North immediately pledged to buy the Abbey and additional land around it as he remembered playing in the ruins as a child while on Sunday School trips from Hunslet. His Deed of Gift to Leeds said,

“To be forever freely used as a public park by all peaceable inhabitants of the Borough”.

The Corporation made him the first Freeman of Leeds.

Today Kirkstall Abbey is a very well-used public park with visitors from all over the world. There is free entry into the railed-off majestic ruins of the Abbey for Leeds council-tax payers. Proof of residence must be produced such as a Leeds Card, Driving Licence, Library ticket any bill or invoice with home address etc. There is free entry for all into the Park, the Visitor Centre and use of the newly refurbished children’s playground adjacent to the carpark.

The Abbey’s Gatehouse was bought by the Leeds Corporation in 1927 from the Butler family who, together with the Beecroft family, owned Kirkstall Forge since the monastery’s dissolution. Today it is an exquisite local folk museum with some of the best recreated Victorian streets of shops and houses anywhere in the UK. There is a small admittance fee to the Museum.

Spring is a great time to visit Kirkstall Abbey as the Park grounds are extensively carpeted with crocus and then, later on, daffodils. The café and entry to the Abbey ruins are open every day except Mondays apart from Bank Holiday Mondays when they are both open.

Buses Nos. 33, 34 and A1 from Leeds Bus Station take visitors to the Park entrance. The carpark is situated at the end of Vesper Lane just before it joins Abbey Walk with its pedestrian crossing to the Museum.


This post was written by Hon Alderwoman Elizabeth Nash


While you’re here, can we ask a favour?

South Leeds Life is published by a not-for-profit social enterprise. We keep our costs as low as possible but we’ve been hit by increases in the print costs for our monthly newspaper which have doubled in the last two years.

Could you help support local community news by making a one off donation, or even better taking out a supporters subscription?

Donate here, or sign up for a subscription at

Thank you for your support

One Reply to “Hunslet man buys Kirkstall Abbey”

  1. I enjoyed reading this very interesting article, I’ve often visited Kirkstall Abbey and the museum, and also the Classical Fantasia concerts which are really enjoyable

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *