Harrogate - A Brief History
16th and 17th Centuries
Harrogate owes its fame to the unusual concentration of springs which come to the surface – its celebrated waters. Over eighty have been identified, falling into two main types: chalybeate or iron, and sulphur, waters. They were publicised from the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the first to be identified the Tewit Well, by William Slingsby in 1571. Contemporary medical treatises praised their efficacy on everything from skin complaints, to cancers, infertility and mental health problems, as we would call them.
In its early years the town developed as two more or less distinct settlements: High and Low Harrogate, separated by fields until well into the nineteenth century. At first visitors stayed in local farms or cottages but from the close of the seventeenth century permanent hotels like the Queen and Granby at High Harrogate or the Crown and White Hart at Low Harrogate were built to accommodate them.
They came not only to drink or bathe in the waters for their health but also to enjoy the pleasures of good food and drink, dancing, music and socialising which the hotels offered. In addition, a permanent theatre was opened at High Harrogate in 1788 and in 1806 at Low Harrogate assembly, or promenade rooms were built where subscribers could enjoy musical recitals, dances and lectures, play cards, read books and journals and enjoy too the surrounding gardens.
The Mercer Gallery (former Assembly Rooms)
Shortly before, in 1770 and 1778, the town’s famous Stray had been created by act of parliament to protect the sources of the waters on which the town’s livelihood depended. In a great arc of two hundred acres of grassland it stretched from High to Low Harrogate, with the vital provision that it should remain forever open and unenclosed.
The Stray (or 200 acre)
In 1841, following a dispute over use of the waters protected by the Stray, which were accessible to all, by a private developer, a new local government body of Improvement Commissioners was created. One of its first acts was to cover the famous Old Sulphur Well, named for the pungent quality of its water, with a beautiful Royal Pump Room.
The long period of economic growth which followed the ending of the Civil War and the eventual Restoration of Charles II in 1660 created the wealth which enabled more and more people to come to Harrogate for their health and leisure. The town was ideally placed geographically, close to the Great North Road (the modern A1), near to York and sitting astride the main road from that city across the Pennines. Importantly too, it was close to the industrialising West Riding of Yorkshire whose wealthier residents had easy access to the town by road and from 1848 by rail.
The waters were exploited commercially, by the proprietor of the Crown Hotel, for example, in the Crown or Montpellier Baths built in 1834, opposite the hotel. In the following year were opened the Royal Promenade and Cheltenham Spa Rooms on the Ripon Road, with, in addition to its pump room, a ballroom, library, lounges and surrounding gardens. The local authority added to its Royal Pump Room the New Victoria Baths in 1871 in what later became the Crescent Gardens.
The baths contained individual bath rooms for men and women, two immersion pools, an imposing entrance hall and ticket office. These developments culminated in the building of the Royal Baths, which opened in 1897, by the new Borough Council which had been created in 1884. This offered state of the art treatments in a magnificent setting.
To accommodate the ever-growing number of visitors, existing hotels were enlarged and new ones built, notably the Majestic in 1901 and the Grand two years later.
The Grand overlooked the Valley Gardens, which had been laid out from the 1880s as pleasure gardens, including a bandstand for concerts. Visitors could also find entertainment in the Grand Opera House and the Kursaal (later renamed the Royal Hall) which opened in 1903, designed by the celebrated theatre architect Frank Matcham with a magnificent main hall.
By this time, Harrogate was attracting tens of thousands of visitors annually for the ‘season’ but the town had also developed in three other important ways. First was as a residential town for commuters to the great industrial cities of Leeds and Bradford and as a pleasant home for the retired. For these groups were built elegant terraces and detached houses overlooking the Stray or leafy estates like West Park between Leeds and Otley Roads.
Late Victorian & Edwardian housing, near the Stray
Second was as a regional shopping centre. In this way, the formerly open area between High and Low Harrogate was laid out with streets like Parliament and James which housed fashionable shops like the jeweller's A. Fattorini or the department store of Marshall and Snelgrove. Third, it offered a suitable home to several private schools, notably Harrogate Ladies College on Duchy Road and Ashville College on the edge of the town at Pannal Ash.
By the Edwardian period then the town had reached what is often seen as its heyday. It had an international reputation as a spa, to which people came from all over the country, as well as from Europe and North America. It was noted as a favourite resort of royalty and the aristocracy, although the well-to-do middle classes were in fact the mainstay of its success. The First World War inevitably interrupted this but during the inter-war years the town continued to prosper with several new developments, including an extension to the Royal Baths and a covered colonnade and Sun Pavilion in the Valley Gardens.
Sun Pavilion, Valley Gardens
Although these were the Depression years, many people in England were comparatively unaffected and rising real incomes meant that there were those who had money to spend on their leisure. The town also continued to develop as a residential place, with much new housing on its edges, some of it of doubtful aesthetic value. Reflecting this expansion, the boundary of the Borough was extended in 1938.
Although fewer Harrogate men were killed than in the First World War, to which the town’s imposing Cenotaph attests, in many ways the Second World War was to have a much greater impact on the town. Several hotels were requisitioned by the government for war service, including the Air Ministry. It was this which attracted the attention of enemy aircraft and in September 1940 the Majestic was targeted, fortunately to little effect.
In contrast to the First, the years following the Second World War then witnessed big changes for Harrogate. Whilst the new National Health Service did send patients to Harrogate for treatment, making up the bulk of those still taking the waters, this proved to be short lived. By the close of the 1960s the Royal Baths had closed save for the Turkish Baths and Harrogate had ceased to be a spa.
But during these years the town was now developed as an exhibition and conference centre, culminating with the modernistic Conference Centre of 1982. Retail and residential development also continued. An example of the former was the Victoria Shopping Centre, which was opened in 1992, whilst the latter was evident in the continued expansion of housing on its outskirts. The town also benefited during the post-war years from the development of light industry and the promotion of culture through its International Festival of Arts and Science and the creation of the Pump Room Museum.
The twenty-first century has seen Harrogate continue to prosper as a residential hub as more homes, as before often however of little aesthetic merit, were built on the adjacent countryside, making their own contribution to the ever-growing traffic congestion. It continued to be an attractive place to visit and in which to shop but pressures on both the hospitality and retail sectors were inevitably greatly worsened by the response to the coronavirus pandemic from March 2020.
James Street (social distancing)
The Borough Council, which since local government reorganisation in 1974 had seen most of its powers transferred to the new North Yorkshire County Council, sought to address the town’s economic development partly by promoting so called Big Events. This policy culminated in the UCI World Cycling Championship in September 2019. The questionable nature of this strategy was highlighted by the adverse impact of the event on many residents, local businesses and above all the town’s greatest asset - the Stray, a large section of which was reduced to a muddy mess under the impact of the heavy infrastructure put in place for the event.
UCI World Cycle Championships
On 1 April 2023 Harrogate Borough Council, which was created in 1884, was abolished and its powers and duties transferred to North Yorkshire County Council. In fact many more of its powers had already gone to the County back in 1974 and others, like water, electricity and some health services, also lost. The town then had no local government body. The council had already moved from its central offices in Crescent Gardens in 2017 to a new site at Knapping Mount, some distance from the town centre. Whatever the merits of the move, it was in its way symbolic of a disconnect between council and townspeople, such that few seemed to notice its passing.
But despite real difficulties, which have to be acknowledged, Harrogate remains today a beautiful, historic town, an attractive place both in which to live and work and to visit.
The Former Council Offices in Crescent Gardens, in turn formerly the Victoria Baths