Leeds Royal Park was set up by Thomas Clapham in 1885, as a pleasure garden, with dancing, amusements, restaurant, picture gallery, spectacular events and sports such as running, cycling, cricket, roller skating, clay pigeon shooting and a gymnasium. There was no royal connection with the park.
The Leeds Times of May 1st 1869, advertised Whitsun festivities at the Park, which included "Velocipede races, prizes will be given for competition, open to all. Grand ballon ascent each day by Mr Jackson, the most courageous Aeronaut living." Further amusements were bands, singers, wire walkers, comics, conjurors and a firework display. There were two velocipede races one on Whit Monday (May 17th 1869) and the other on Whit Tuesday. The races were over three miles - 8 times around the park plus 263 yards (making each lap 627 yards). The entry fee for the race was five shillings and the prizes were: First £3, Second £2 and Third £1.
The attraction of bicycle racing to the public was partly the novelty of seeing the new means of locomotion, which only appeared in Britain that year, but mostly it was the fun of watching people fall off. The Leeds Times of May 15th 1869 summed up the attraction "Any velocipede will be admitted, and we will expect to see some fun in the breaking down way arising from inexperience in managing the new locomotive."
On May 29th 1869, two further velocipede races were advertised, this time twice around the track, with no entry fee and prizes of ten shillings each for the first two wheeler and three wheeler. Another velocipede race was advertised for August 14th 1869 with prizes of a coat and vest and a pair of trousers. More velocipede races were advertised to take place on August 27th and 28th 1869 and the advertisement stated "The course is now fenced around with strong iron posts and rails."
There were several more velocipede races advertised from 1871 to 1873 at Easter, Whitsun and the Woodhouse Feast in September. At Whit 1872, velocipede races were advertised as being open to ladies and gentlemen. Velocipede races were a minor attraction put on to increase the number of visitors to the Park and at one extravaganza event in 1873 there were 10,000 visitors.
Throughout the whole time that Thomas Clapham ran the Park, he had struggled to obtain drinks licences for events. His solution was to sell drinks anyway, get summoned and pay the fine. Clapham seemed to have over-stretched himself with the Royal Park, which was unprofitable and he had to sell the Park in 1874. After this, the new owners called it Leeds Horticultural Gardens and athletics meetings with bicycle races were held there.
The first bicycle race at the newly formed Horticultural Gardens was the Leeds Athletic Club sports, which were held on July 3rd 1875 and included a two miles bicycle scratch race. The race was won by James Copland of Surrey BC in 8 min 22 sec, who received a silver cup, valued at ten guineas. The Bradford Observer of September 29th 1875 recorded an interesting bicycle event "Yesterday afternoon, in the presence of a modest number of spectators, the renowned David Stanton* of London, accomplished the difficult feat of riding eighteen miles on a bicycle under an hour at the Leeds Horticultural Gardens." The track was described as 669 yards per lap. This was a remarkable performance for the time and may not be accurate. The previous day, Stanton raced a pony over 15 miles for £100, at the Gardens.
After this busy start, bicycle racing at the Gardens quietened down. May Day athletic sports were held from 1878 with two bicycle races and this became an annual event. The Leeds Athletic Club sports was also held annually.
In July 1879, the tightrope walker Blondin, the hero of Niagara' performed at the Gardens. A fete was put on in conjunction with the Woodhouse Feast on September 23rd 1879, and bicycle races over 1, 2, 3 and 5 miles were included. These races were also held annually. From 1880 and for the following five years, there seems to have been summer athletics meetings each month, with bicycle races. In April 1883, the Gardens announced "New bicycle track now ready and in good condition." Reports of a cinder track at the Gardens have appeared in newspapers. The attendance at the athletic sports festival of 1883 was poor, which cast doubts on the financial viability of running such meetings.
There was an athletics meeting at the Gardens on May 15th 1883, which included a two miles bicycle handicap event for which there were 25 competitors. The race was run off in heats, the winner being J Walker from Barrow off 270 yards. The first prize was ten guineas in value and there were 4,000 spectators. There was another athletics meeting on September 1st 1883, with a two miles bicycle handicap race.
There were some bicycle races advertised at the Gardens in 1884, but there was criticism of some events being advertised and not taking place. By 1885 there was no further bicycle racing at the Gardens. Unfortunately the business was unprofitable and the site was sold off for housing in 1885. The area where the Horticultural Gardens stood is now called Hyde Park and is a popular residential area of Leeds.
* David Stanton was a famous six day cyclist, he was the first track cyclist to ride for six days at Lillie Bridge in 1875, covering 650 miles. In 1878 Stanton covered 1,000 miles in six days at the Agricultural Hall for a bet of £200.