Sport in Rowntree Park

We don’t have much information about sport in Rowntree Park in our archives, so would love to hear more from people with stories, information and/or images to share.

Joseph Rowntree originally wanted outdoor activities in Rowntree Park to improve health by exercise but sport that could be watched in seats. It was originally planned to have Hockey at north and cricket at the south. Football was deemed unsuitable. These original plans did change and tennis courts and bowling greens were added to the park.

In 1957 the Tennis Club was formed and in the 1970s the brick pavilion was built. The pavilion is still there today (near the Terry Avenue side of the park/skatepark) but isn’t used as the council declared it unsafe for use but can be used for storage. It suffers when the park floods. This is where the courts were located and some are still there today (the ones near the caf added more recently). Popular tennis tournaments like the Terry’s All Gold cup took place at the park. The tennis courts management transferred from the council to York Tennis Club in 2015, originally for a trial year, and this was extended and is still in place.

The park also had two bowling greens that were popular over the years. However, once again flooding and council budget cuts have meant that the bowling greens could no longer be maintained due to costs of repairs and maintenance. They were last relaid in 2010. Also with no longer a place for bowlers to get changed with the pavilion out of use, it limited the use of the greens for bowling.

In 2019 York Bike Belles and Friends of Rowntree park added a labyrinth to one of the disused bowling greens. Sadly it has suffered flood damage in early 2020 but has bounced back well over the summer and may be restored.

Rowntree Park Gardens

Rowntree Park over the years

If you look at Rowntree Park from above, you will see the symmetry. The gardens were inspired by Scarborough gardens where Joseph Rowntree spent time. In the early days of the park, a lot of time and investment was put into the upkeep. In addition to the resident park keeper, in the early days there were 12 gardeners who focused on looking after the gardens. There were areas such as rose pergola and lupin gardens. George Russell from Southbank in York, became famous for the new types of lupins he developed. Rowntree Park displayed Russell’s lupins. During WW2 vegetables were grown in the park such as potatoes, cabbages and carrots as part of the ‘dig for victory’ project.

Over the years the gardens have changed a lot. The gardening team reduced and certain features have been removed/replaced. In the 1950s, the sun shelter and the wading pool had been removed as had hedges to the rose garden. Original features like sundial and stone lady overlooking goldfish pool are lost. The original Statue of Mercury was presented by JB Morrell in 1939, but disappeared in 1953. A heritage lottery grant in 2000 helped restore and improve Rowntree Park. Features like a new pergola walkway were added and a new status of Mercury. Also, the sculptures in the park were added (horse, helmet and totem pole). The grant means we try to maintain as many historic features/look of the park as we can – including symmetry!

Our current volunteer gardening team have been trying to find plans from the past and aim to restore certain plants/themes in the park. For example, we hope to get more lupins in the long borders.

There are now no permanent council staff based in Rowntree Park. In 2017 the last Park Keeper was made redundant due to council budget cuts. This was a massive loss to the park and community. The Friends of Rowntree Park have taken on responsibility for gardening in specific areas of the park – the Long Borders, and the two railed gardens (the sensory garden to the left and the Friends picnic garden to the right). In 2019 The Friends of Rowntree Park helped add the Labyrinth on an old bowling green and also plant around the lychgate. A travelling team of council workers come from time to time to do basic maintenance such as grass and huge cutting, tree felling and so on.

Sadly the council no longer plant in the park. Therefore, the Friends of Rowntree Park raise money to pay for plants and add colour to the park! Although not as pristine as the park once was, it can still look very beautiful in the summer when the longer borders burst into bloom!

Rowntree Park – Park Keepers

Park Keepers

Park Keepers in Rowntree Park are firm characters in many peoples memories. Especially the infamous “Parkie Bell”, the first park keeper. The information here is from a mix from our archives, the book ‘Walk in the park’ by Christine and John Dowell, and also snippets passed on by the general public and The Press.

James Bell was Rowntree Park’s first Park Keeper from 1921-45. The Park Keeper lived in the lodge (above the cafe) with his family. Edith and Jim and their daughters Eileen, Yvonne and Jean, and their son Jimmy. ‘Parkie Bell’ wore a navy blue uniform, with brass buttons and a peaked cap. The park-keeper spent some of the day in the ticket kiosk just inside the main gate where bowling greens and tennis courts.

“Parkie Bell’ was a character. He would blow his whistle when anyone misbehaved. He rang a bell when everyone expected to leave the park. His wife, Edith, was often helping youngsters get dry after falling in the pond, mending buttons, or patching up cuts for local children. His daughter Jean remembered that the first time park flooded in 1931, her father had to row a boat around the park to the aviary to feed the birds

“You couldn’t bat an eyelid in there; I was told off for catching tiddlers in the lake! He also opened and closed the gates promptly, so you had to do as you were told.”
(Betty Metcalfe)

“In the park, when he blew his whistle everybody stood still. He had total, complete control of the park.”
(John Gawthorpe)

“He was very strict. I remember once, I didn’t realise what I was doing, pulling leaves off a bush. And he came and said, ‘did you do that?’ He said: ‘Out you go!’
(Betty Metcalfe)

Our records show the following park keepers and years – please correct if you know more info/different names:


James Bell – 1921-45
Jim Anderson late 1950s-1968
Alan Speed
Eric Woodmansay 1984-1992
David Brown (worked in the park initially then Park Keeper 1973-2017)

Rowntree Park Lychgate and gates


Rowntree Park Gates

The park has a range of entrances. The main entrances are from Terry Avenue and Richardson Street. There are also gates from Lovell Street and Cameron Grove as well as the car park entrance from Terry Avenue. The Butcher Terrace gates were a later addition to the park following the park’s extension.

The Iron gates that bare the name ‘Rowntree Park are from 1921 and were restored in the early 2000s. The Terry’s Avenue entrance was also made during the first year of the park but was originally wooden. The current gate was installed in 1955 presented by Rowntree & co Ltd as a tribute to the employees who’d lost their lives in the Second World War (1939-45). These gates are thought to be circa1715. They are said to be by Jean Tijou – a French Huguenot ironworker who produced a lot of work in England including Hampton Court Palace. Our gates are thought to originate from Buckinghamshire. There are plans to repaint these gates in 2020. Last repainted and repaired in around 2003 by Don Barker (see below). The gates and the two gate piers are Grade II listed.

The park was extended in 1988 when Nestle (who now owned Rowntree) transferred the area to the council. The council already had ownership of the park since Rowntree gave them the dees in 1921. The football field area between Cameron Grove and Butcher Terrace was added to the park. The Butcher Terrace/Millennium gates were commissioned by York City Council and designed by Don Barker, artist and Blacksmith at Elvington. The design was chosen after a competition held by the Friends of Rowntree Park. The gates are made of stainless steel and inspired by the Millennium Bridge. Don Barker’s idea for the Butcher Terrace/Millennium gates was a curtain that drew back and opened, welcoming people into the park. The gates were funded by the council and lottery heritage fund.

The Lychgate Rowntree Park

The lychgate is the small red archway at the other end of the bridge from the cafe. The dovecot is housed here. The lychgate is an arts and craft style construction – a pegged oak frame, red/orange brick and tiled roof. The style is reminiscent of Rowntree’s model village in New Earswick built for his workers. It is likely the lychgate was designed by either Frederick Rowntree or W J Swain, the architect of York Cocoa works who helped design the park.

The lychgate was designed as a war memorial and hasn’t changed since the park was created in 1921. There is a memorial plaque for the workers of York cocoa works who died in WW1. A second plaque was added after WW2 at the same time the Terry Avenue Gates were gifted to the park as a memorial for the workers who lost lives between 1939-45. The lychgate is Grade II listed.

It has been said that the doves that reside in the dovecot are descendants of the original doves brought to the park in 1921. The doves have never been replaced. Numbers do vary and some work was done the other year to reduce the size of the holes and stop crows accessing eggs. However, there are always doves in the park which is fitting for its status as a memorial park.

The plaques were lovingly restored by Rook Heritage in October 2019 with thanks to York Civic Trust.

Boats in Rowntree Park


The Serpentine lakes have been a popular attraction since the Park opened. Paddling was allowed in part of the lake for a period of time from when the park opened up until around the 1970s. Children would also often sail small boats on the lake and from the 1940s York model Boat Club would hold regattas and displays at the park, this continued into the 2000s.

By the 1950s paddle boats were very popular in the park. At one time, some of the little boats were named after the Seven Dwarfs. You can imagine being called in;
“Come back Dopey!”.

Sadly the 1980s saw the end of the paddle boats as many were beyond repair. There are also no staff based in the park and the ponds aren’t regularly cleaned like they used to be.

(Images from archives plus R Holland and RFLee)

Aviaries and Animals

Aviaries in Rowntree Park

In 1929 aviaries were constructed at Richardson Street entrance of the park. There were a range of animals including pheasants, parrots, macaws, tropical birds, finches. However, a park that floods and live animals in cages didn’t prove a good mix. In the floods of the 1930s the flood water came 18 inches from the top of aviaries and the birds were trapped. Many died.

Small finches and rabbits were replaced after the flood of 1947. In the 1950s silver pheasants were bought and a golden pheasant and Muscovy ducks. However, the aviaries were later removed.

Animals in Rowntree Park

There were rabbits & guinea pigs kept in the park around th 1960s:
“The park-keeper would let me & my brother in to pet them early mornings when our dad took us there” (Sally Briggs).

There were also less formal ‘animals’ such as the tadpoles and sticklebacks which children used to catch in the lake and put in jam jars.

Rowntree Park Swimming Pool

The Swimming Baths

In July 1924 an open-air swimming pool opened in Rowntree Park. It was located at the North end of the park toward the Terry’s avenue gates (sort of between the carpark and the gates). The water was unheated and the pool was free to use until 1944.

There was outdoor changing either side of the pool males to the left and females to the right. The cubicles didn’t lock. Sunbathing balconies overlooked the pool, so spectators saw the park and river! There were galas and shows and a water chute added in 1928 and a springboard in 1949.

In the 1940s the heating and filtration were added but the heating was never very good! In the 1930s there was a swimming instructor, Lillian Little, who was remembered by many. During WW2 in 1941 the baths were temporarily closed and used to store drinking water in case of air raids. They reopened in the summer. However, the Army had the baths one day a week for practice. On the 9th May 1946 a Victory gala to celebrate the end of the war.

1949 there were talks of modernising the pool and adding a roof but this didn’t happen. 1979 the park flooded 9.62 feet and baths were closed. 250 000 gallons of water pumped out of the pool and it took 4 days to clean tiles. There was another flood in 1982. The demolition of the pool was approved in 1985.

“It would cost about fourpence to enter, and you were only supposed to swim for half an hour – but no one stuck to that! When you were in there you were in there all afternoon. You would take in a bar of chocolate to eat at tea time and that was it. There were changing boxes in all the way around the side and if the baths were getting very full you used to take your clothes and put them on the balcony; no one stole anything in those days.”
John Gawthorpe

“I remember the guy with the sweet trolley set up outside and you had to throw money down to him first before he would throw your sweets up to you on the balcony. Then you would get a cup of oxo from the vending machine to warm yourself up. Always in there in the summer months, Happy days”
Ted Grenall

“I used to work in the offices at Terry’s off Bishopthorpe Road and in our lunch breaks in the summer we used to take our sandwiches and go down to the swimming baths, have a swim and then dry off and go and sit upon the balcony and eat our lunch. It was a fair stroll down the riverside from Terry’s so it could sometimes be a bit of a scramble to get back but we used to have an hour and a half for lunch in those days. The baths were lovely in summer but could be quite chilly the rest of the year. The changing cubicles had concrete floors and wooden doors and there would be coat hangers inside for your clothes. The water was always clean. It was lovely and bluer than the sea”.
Betty Metcalfe

“There was a terrace up a flight of steps which surrounded the pool. On a sunny day, you could sunbathe in some discomfort as this surface was also concrete. The water was unheated and we can remember hovering at the edge of the pool knowing that the first few seconds would be a challenge. At the deep end were springboards. The steps up to the high one were wooden and could become slippery but we can’t recall protests about this – though people did sometimes hurt themselves.”
J
une and Rose

(Images and memories from our archive and R Holland)

Historical Timeline

Rowntree Park opened on July 16th 1921. The park was a gift from the Rowntree Family and was to be a memorial to the members of his Cocoa works staff that fell and suffered in WW1 (more than 200 men). Joseph Rowntree wanted the park to “afford many rest and recreation from the turmoil and stress of life, and bring health and happiness to a large number of young lives”.

At the opening event, the deeds were handed to the Mayor of York. The brass band played ‘lead kindly light’ by Rupert Gough. The park has changed a lot over the years. Features have gone, others have been added, but it has always been a special place to many.

A famous myth is that Joseph Rowntree bought the land to prevent the Terry family from expanding the Terry chocolate factory. There is no evidence to support this. The site would never have been suitable for constructing a large factory due to regular flooding. The land was part of Nun Ings and it belonged to the Church Commissioners. In 1919, the Commissioners sold 25 acres of Nun Ings to Rowntree’s. There is no mention in the detailed Minute recording the sale that there were any rival bids for the land.

The architectural work was carried out in consultation with architect Frederick Rowntree but was mainly under the direction of Mr Swain, the Cocoa Work’s architect. The plans included a flood prevention system. For the first two years, the work was funded, supervised and maintained by the Rowntree Village Trust. The building of the park created work for those who had none. In 1919 another 17 acres were bought, the land near the Richardson Street entrance was added in 1920/21, and Clementhorpe allotments bought in 1926/7 to extend the park.

The Park was divided into formal and informal areas, to reflect the Rowntrees’ belief in creating facilities that were available to all. Rowntree wanted facilities to encourage a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages. It has a shallow serpentine lake that was no more than 2 meters deep and a lychgate with a dovecot. The park keepers lodge overlooks the area.

Informal activities such as playground, wading pool, tennis courts were at the edges of the park. In the original plans, there would be a hockey field at the north and cricket ground at the south. There were five distinct divisions – areas for small children (wading pool), older children (playground), hockey for girls and cricket for boys, bowling greens and later tennis courts for the more ‘mature person’. All areas defined by footpaths and benches to watch and sit.