Royal Park Primary School
Amongst the rows of late Victorian and Edwardian back-to-back terraces of Hyde Park, the Royal Park Primary School building occupies a central space. Many Leeds-based folk will be familiar with the building’s recent history and the well publicised struggle to save it for community use following its closure in 2004. However, its fascinating past along with the history of this area of Leeds, has been somewhat obscured by its reported declination.
Opened as Queens Road School on the 28th September 1892, as a mixed junior and infants school. A ‘strong Victorian building, built to last’, it helped to define the area as industrial and proud, an effect of the Industrial Revolution which saw Leeds develop into a major centre for industry. This growth was consolidated when in the following year, Leeds became a city by Royal Charter. Although the population was little more than one-third of what it is today, people were housed much closer together, and the resulting built-up nature of the city was definitely experienced in Hyde Park. The demand for housing was so great that it could barely be met . The city’s population had doubled in the second half of the 19th Century and showed no signs of slowing down, growing by 4000 per year in the 1890’s; therefore back-to-back houses were favourable as they could be quickly erected and allowed densities as high as 80-90 houses per acre.
It was the post-war years that saw a further population increase which caused the school to grow, as teacher and former pupil at Mr Bill Turner recalled:
I first entered Queen’s Road School in 1950. The school was rapidly expanding to cater for the post-war bulge. An exceptional number of children were conceived during the war, and immediately afterwards. They were now becoming of school age.
By 1949, the school building was too small for the number of pupils and the nearby All Hallows Institute was allocated for use by two classes. Such a population rise meant that by 1954 Queen’s Road School was the largest primary school in the city. The school went on to serve as a centre of the community and lead in developments to school and education services. In the 1960’s Queen’s Road School became pioneers of a holiday scheme for children, who would attend on weekdays for a month during the Summer to enjoy leisure pursuits, craft activities and outings. Headteacher Mrs Stella Hirst (1967-72) also remembered:
We were the first school in North-West Leeds to be changed from the normal Schools’ Meal Service to frozen school meals, which were delivered weekly in refrigerated containers, and then freshly cooked each day in newly installed special ovens – a forerunner to today’s microwave ovens.
- The school adapted to educational requirements when in 1972 Leeds Education Authority which decided to introduce the 3 tier system of Primary, Middle and High Schools, this meaning that Queen’s Road Infants’ School would be no more and instead Royal Park Middle School would take its place. Whilst the Government’s Helestine package saw work begin to transform the old Victorian interior into a modern and lighter place in 1983, the exterior remained iconic and unchanged. In July 1992, it underwent a further reorganisation to become Royal Park Primary School, teaching children from the ages of 5 to 11 instead of 9 to 13.
Although the school celebrated its centenary in 1992, the 1990’s saw increasing change in the environment around the school. The decline of industry in the city with the move to financial and commercial services saw the gradual transformation of the area, no longer being ‘working class’ by label. As industry declined and adapted, their became fewer industrial workers and families living in the area which was traditionally built with the purpose of housing the surplus of workers. Although already a culturally diverse space, Hyde Park faced an increasing imbalance between demographics, particularly via the impact of ‘studentification’. The back-to-back housing once favoured by the working classes became an increasingly attractive area for landlords looking to let to students of the city’s universities.
With student numbers on the increase, families began to leave the area. Today, Hyde Park is the most crowded area in Leeds, with an average population density of 186 people per hectare, when the average in Leeds over all is 12 people per hectare. Over 80% of the population in Hyde Park is aged 16-29, a quarter of the population leaves the area every year to be replaced with newcomers. Surplus classroom places at Royal Park and two other nearby primary schools became a problem for the local authority, and as early as 1992, there had been discussion of its closure – which was met by strong local opposition.
In 1997, more than 100 Hyde Park parents met governors at the school to organise their campaign:
The meeting unanimously passed a resolution opposing closure, which it said would damage not only the education of the School’s pupils, but also the community spirit of Hyde Park. (Yorkshire Evening Post 10/07/97)
Later that year, a petition calling for the school to remain open was signed by more than 2500 people. As tensions increased in the area, it was reported as “a district which has faced more than its fair share of troubles in recent years, including riots, arson and drug dealing” (Yorkshire Evening Post 1/04/98). Although the closure of the school was evaded by local opposition, the school remained under-subscribed, and as a result, was closed in 2004, with the Council’s promise that the building would be preserved for community use.
However, residents were worried by rumours that the site was to be the location of a new supermarket or used as a space to build student flats, a feeling which further invoked local pride for the building and the memories which it held for the community.
The Royal Park Community Consortium (RPCC) formed in 2005 as a response to resident’s increasing concerns about the building and its future. Their vision for the Royal Park School building is for it to be a community hub, ” a building with a history, an exemplar for the future.” They have submitted several bids to Leeds City Council – in 2005, 2007, 2009 and January 2010 – for permission to transform the building into a community centre, and want to foster a sense of local ownership of the project, a catalyst for increased social cohesion.
After years of tireless campaigning, fundraising and help from so many passionate volunteers and residents within the community, the RPCC were able to announce the success of their bid to redevelop the disused school into a Community Hub for the people of Hyde Park in January 2011. They have been given 9 months to raise £750,000 towards the project and although they have been recently granted a provisional cash boost of £823,000 by The Communitybuilders Fund there is still a long way to go in meeting the £3million target required to fund the project.
RPCC business development co-ordinator and campaigner Jake England-Johns told the Guardian Leeds:
The commitment from Communitybuilders to back the project sends a message of hope out to the community in uncertain times. We still have some tough hills to climb and will need the support of Leeds council more than ever if we are going to succeed in our efforts.
Locals can get involved in this exciting community development by attending the RPCC’s meetings which are held every Tuesday at 7pm at the Burley Lodge Centre. For more information on ways to get involved or to become a patron or sponsor of the new community centre, visit http://www.royalparkschool.org/
Although the building no longer serves the same function as it once did, it still stands today as a landmark within Hyde Park. Upon the school’s centenary in 1992, a statement from Rev Stanley R. Baxter, Chair of the Board of Governors said: “A good school will seek to be part of the community which it serves, enriching and supporting it” and Royal Park was a school that “has launched thousands of children on their lives’ journey and holds a special place of affection in their hearts. Despite the great changes that the area has experienced in the past century, with the help of the RPCC, Royal Park School will hopefully provide a central service for a vibrant community once again.
- Chartres, John and Katrina Honeyman eds., Leeds City Business 1893-1993: essays marking the centenary of the incorporation (Leeds: Leeds University Press, 1993)
- A School Centenury: The History of Queen’s Road/Royal Park
- Yorkshire Evening Post archives – Leeds Local and Family History Library