Rowntree Park – Park Keepers

Park Keepers

Park Keepers in Rowntree Park are firm characters in many people’s 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 near the 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.”
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.

Young Writers competition 2016

What would a park bench say if it could talk?, by Heather Pitchford (age 8)

In my life many people have come and sat on me,

Unfortunately I can’t talk,

But if I could I would say:

“Go on, go on,”

I would say to a nervous lover about to propose,

“Just ask her, ask her!”

“Don’t worry, I’m here,”

I would say to someone with nowhere to go,

“Just rest on me, I don’t mind.”

“Please don’t spill that drink on me,”

I would say to a business man on his lunch break,

“That looks like a nice sandwich.”

“Keep calm; you won’t forget your lines,”

I would say to someone about to go on stage at the Theatre Royal,

“Just go out there and perform.”

“It’s a nice spot you chose here,”

I would say to a family sightseeing,

“I would recommend Clifford’s Tower next.”

Or you could just stay a little longer!

Words from a bench February 2016

With a theme of ‘Midwinter’, we offer this range of new writing.

Aurora Borealis, by Ásdís Ingólfsdóttir

The blue lights from the ambulance light up the dark winter night as it rushes through the empty streets. The young couple inside look terrified. What they have been so excited about and awaiting for the last nine months, is happening now. The ambulance stops at the maternity ward and the young woman is brought on a gurney into the hospital. The young man runs aside the gurney like a dog trainer showing his labrador to the judges. The young woman moans as they enter the elevator and her pain is reflected in the face of the young man.

The room they are brought to is not big, but an effort has been made to make it look cosy, so that parents-to-be will relax and the birth will take place in a safe and nice atmosphere. The young woman is in no condition to realize those facts as she is already in labour and her pain is enormous. The young man does not know what to do; he is beside himself with worry and the helplessness is making him moan too while his fiancee moans in her birthpangs.

Outside, the dark night is lit up by snow that has fallen during the day-but now the sky is getting clearer and the frost sets in. Nobody inside the little room notices any of that and, when the doctor comes in, the mother-to-be looks at him with hope in her eyes. The young man asks if it will take long. The doctor does not stay for long and just says that all is normal. It does not calm them.

The midwife comes as the contractions get very close. She brings with her a soothing atmosphere and suddenly they are all in a bulb of labour;  the mother pushes, the father encourages her and the sweat seeps down their faces and necks unnoticed. Then the cry. A new born is put into the arms of the exhausted mother. The father cries and the midwife is busy with chores. She takes the newborn gently from the mother as the doctors arrive and afterwards brings the baby to the father.

As the green and purple northern lights display their dance across the dark winter sky, the father looks amazed at his daughter and brings the new born baby to the window at the maternity ward. He susses the baby and whispers, ‘Look. Look, the northern lights Aurora. Aurora, that will be your name, my northern light, my golden northern light.’

Aurora Borealis, whispers the tired mother as she looks out the window and smiles softly.

Winter Webs, by Sara Murphy

The walk to school in summer takes five minutes, but in the depths of midwinter, with just the right conditions, it could take an age. I knew it was cold when I woke up, the clue was seeing my breath in the bedroom. I jumped out of bed and scraped a porthole through the cat ice on the window, just big enough to peep through. We were expecting a frost, but was it the right kind?

Hoar frost was Jane’s favourite. A white feathery frost that turned the garden into a magical winter wonderland. Trees draped in white feather boas that shimmered, grass that bowed with the weight of glittering crystals that changed into silver witch footsteps when walked upon.  But I wasn’t looking for beauty.  A thick ground frost was what I was after, and there it was, with just the right amount of fog. Mam would call it ‘a mucky old day’, but to me it was perfect for my quest, collecting spider webs.

I poked Jane awake, and tried to get dressed quickly, which was no mean feat when having to wrestle chunky legs into thick tights, and fumble with cold fingers buttons on my home-knitted jumper that seemed too big for the holes. Due to my having a big head, Mam had to adapt each knitting pattern to accommodate a row of buttons across the shoulder.

Thinking I could get out early before breakfast, I got dressed as quickly as I could.  Stepping out onto the landing I heard tuneless whistling from the kitchen, meaning that Dad had got downstairs first. I’d taken too long to get ready what with the buttons and the tights.

Dad first down in winter meant a porridge morning. No chance of a quick get away. Dad was stirring the pan, and said that we had perfect timing, asking us to get out bowls, spoons, and cups. The big tea pot was on the table already. Being Scottish Dad liked his porridge thick with chewy lumps, which he sprinkled with salt before eating.

“That’ll stick to your ribs then”

We didn’t want rib-sticking porridge, and covered ours with brown sugar, and cream from the top of the milk to cool it down. The milk was delivered in all weathers, in glass bottles with foil tops. Sometimes, if it was really cold, the milk froze and expanded in the bottles, pushing the tops off.  Other times when cold but not freezing, the blue tits beat us to the cream and had their breakfast before us. They would peck through the foil, stand on the edge of the bottle, and pinch it. Not that we minded, they needed a drink. Dad said that in winter everyone thought about putting food out for the birds, but never anything to drink, which was just as important.

We drank a hot cup of tea before being bundled into coats, scarves, wellies and mittens. Hopping from one foot to the other with impatience and desperation to be out. We lived just a short distance from school, didn’t even have to cross a road. This meant that all the kids to the right of us would have to walk down the same stretch of road. I wanted to be the first this morning. I wanted the pick of the webs. Luckily, everyone on our street had huge privet hedges. They were evergreen, and provided colour in the winter, and nesting for birds in the spring. Mam said that you could tell a lot about a person by the state of their privet.

Finally me and Jane were ready to go, but also needed our Joey. This is because he had a pen knife, a Swiss Army Knife which boys his age always carried, not Stanley knives, only Dads were allowed those. In order to collect webs, we needed a loop made from a sprig, cut from the privet hedge. Joey was taking ages, because he waited for Mam to finish washing up before he’d come out. Not that he was helping, just wanted the rubber gloves to put on under his mittens. That way he could be warm and stay dry when polishing the ice slides. Everyone knew that the best ones were hand polished to get rid of any ice shavings coming from clumsy shoes.

At last we had a twig from the hedge. All we had to do now was strip the leaves off and make a loop. Joey was off, looking for his mates so that they could make a slide from our gate right up to the school. Me and Jane dawdled in comparison, first looking in our own hedge, and there they were. Bejewelled webs. The trick was getting your loop behind the web, so that when you pulled it torwards you, the web clung to the loop. We must have been the first ones out, as we had our pick of the really big ones. Me and our Jane could stand side by side and gather. We had to be a bit quicker with next door’s hedge, because they didn’t like kids, and, even though I don’t think either of them would want to go web collecting, they still wouldn’t want us to have theirs. Every so often our Joey would skid past us, followed by his mate, before zipping back to widen the slide. By the time we got to school, there would be a glass slide, half the width of the pavement. Mam, and other Mams said that it was OK for the lads to make a long slide, as long as it wasn’t on the gate side of the path, causing old folk to slip. Most people just left it, so we got home from school super quick as soon as the bell went. Although, there was usually a break in it where next door had been out and sprinkled it with salt.

Last week, Johnny Redhead had a loop with webs so thick, you could push your finger in it right up to the first knuckle, without it making a hole. That’s what I wanted. His teacher let him stand it in one of the empty milk bottles in the crate that was delivered to school every day. But, because the milk had started to freeze, the crate was brought in and put next to the radiator in the classroom. We drank our milk just before break, and by then, the webs had dried out, and Johnny was upset when he pushed his finger straight through it.

I wanted a stretchy web to show Mam, because she didn’t believe me when I said how far you could push your finger in it, plus Johnny Redhead was my best mate and I wanted to make him another one. Jane was a bit slower than me because she was afraid of spiders. Well, so was I but there never seemed to be any about when it was cold. They just disappeared. Birds nesting in the hedges gobbled them up in spring, and we pinched their homes in the winter. Spiders got a raw deal really.

We managed to get to school on time, both with a fantastic web loop. I said I would give mine to Johnny, and we could take Jane’s home to show Mam. Disaster. Just as we were due to go in, Jane was playing at being a dragon, breathing out vapour words pretending it was smoke. She was laughing so much, she let go of one of the loop ends, and the sprig tried to reform into its original shape leaving a slimy twig rather than a web loop. I’d just given mine to a delighted Johnny.

However, by the time the bell rung at the end of the day, the playground was covered in a blanket of snow. Johnny said that I could have the web back; he didn’t have time to come to my house, because he wanted to rush home to ask his Mam if he could play out. Most kids wanted to go to the Fifth Avenue Playing Field when it snowed, because we could snowball as much as we wanted without getting told off. I whizzed home thanks to the slide, and thrust the stretchy web in Mam’s face. She squealed, and told me to take it away, refusing to push her finger into it. This wasn’t the reaction I’d been hoping for. My disappointment was short-lived, on spotting a new pair of rubber gloves in the sink.

Mam said I could go back out, as long as I’d have a hot drink first. Hot chocolate, no problem. I was allowed to go to the playing fields as long as our Joey brought me back home before dark. We slid all the way there, knowing that we would be snowballing the other kids long after they stopped throwing them at us, due to their hands being wet and frozen, but ours dry. Because, no matter how good a friend I had, there was no way I’d let them into the secret of the rubber gloves. Not even Johnny Redhead.

Seeming to stand still, by Jane Poulton

still water

summer’s blue mirror

in which we swam as if it was eternity

and we were all that ever mattered

is ice

hard as bone

frost re-maps fell moor and harrowed field

to binary black and white or ghosts of themselves

rime blooms on the windward side of things

bole branch fallen seed anything evergreen or still

it burns to the touch and cleaving to it

cleaves bare earth

winds keen like jilted mistresses

roam roaring in leafless canopies

stalk in ginnels

harry tides and travellers

tease who and where they please

whisper vengeance through small hours


conjoined companions light and dark

their infinite journey bound by axis and degree

seem to pause as if uncertain of their course

and this strange lingering proves

more dazzling than their customary path

the world is unfamiliar to itself

sunbeams halt to cut through stone

we cease our tilting spin

and in a moment shorter than a blink

night becomes day

day becomes night

Tree dreams, by Martin Brown

Skirting the wood’s edge

I tread the same old path.

I enter the quiet darkness: the

Air inside is colder, damper.

My head is heavy with thoughts of her.

Recent snow smears the trees feet.

Above, the canopy is bright with last year’s growth.

Hopes remembered, new shoots still to come.

The pines are tall, straight;

Their trunks are sturdy and true.

I feel their strength. Despite the cold

I sense their wish for warm summer rain,

A fat summer moon to silver them with grace.

Laying palm to pine, I ask:

What do you dream of my friend?

To be the tallest, the strongest, the greenest?

Or have you some other end in mind?

Perhaps you’d welcome a saw, see it

As a beginning, not an end.

Freed from the earth, be reduced and shaped

By the hand of man.

A mast or deck plank, a captain’s table

Certainly seaborne, thrashing through the waves

Of southern seas, wild with excitement,

To have a future, not just a past.

This thought lifts me.

I search inside for my heart’s smile,

But still the tears come.

A sudden flavour stings my nose;

A salty sea breeze mixed with pine and winter spice.

Is there a saw that could free me for a new start?

I long to lose this earth’s grip, be free and silent in the deep;

Be another creature, swimming, not drowning.