Headingley Bear Pit: The curious structure which is a surviving relic of the Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens

Many passers-by look at this stone structure on one of the main roads through the Headingley area of Leeds and assume that it is the remnants of a folly in the grounds of one of the northern suburb’s grand Victorian houses.

It looks like an attempt at creating a miniature version of a fortress with crenellated turrets and Norman arches.

In fact, it is a surviving relic of the Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1838.

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Headingley was chosen as the location because it was a leafy residential area well away from the pollution of factories and mills elsewhere in Leeds.

Headingley Bear PitHeadingley Bear Pit
Headingley Bear Pit

Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs behind the scheme it was a commercial disaster, not least because of a muddle its shareholders got themselves into over the question of Sunday opening.

After the very suggestion was denounced from the pulpits of several Leeds places of worship, some of the Zoo’s wealthy backers threatened to withdraw their investments.

Others argued that Sunday opening was necessary because the Sabbath was the only day on which workers could visit, and threatened to pull their money out if Sunday opening didn’t go ahead.

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In the end a compromise was reached. The Zoo would open on the sabbath so long as the hours did not clash with church services.

Furthermore, the tickets had to be purchased at least one day before to ensure there was no Sunday trading.

In 1848, after ten years of trading under these conditions the business went bust and the land was sold.

The last remaining part of the development, the Bear Pit, was restored in the 1960s by Leeds Civic Trust.

Standing on busy Cardigan Road, it contains an open circular pen where bears were exhibited. Visitors climbed spiral staircases inside the two turrets and looked down into the pit.

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