In addition to its fame as a spa, Harrogate became in the later nineteenth century an important regional shopping centre. It catered not just for the visitors but also for its expanding residential population of commuters to the industrial cities of Leeds and Bradford and retirees and others living on private incomes. By the close of the century then, most of the central area was given over to retail, from the prestigious shops of James or Parliament Streets to those like Oxford and Cambridge or Beulah Streets with a mix of establishments. Commercial Street was one of them.
It started life, however, as Strawberry Dale Road, following the line of a former footpath from Chapel (now Oxford) Street towards Strawberry Dale itself. It first appears under that name in a trade directory of 1887. A residential street at first, its proximity to the developing town centre led to the conversion of houses to shops and, reflecting this change, it was renamed Commercial Street in the Autumn of 1902.
In the subsequent 120 years Commercial Street has been home to far more businesses than I can possibly mention in a piece such as this, but I hope at least to convey something of the great diversity of enterprises that have traded there.
1st Image: Nidderdale Dairy Company (Robinson's Directory, 1902)
2nd Image: Jug from the Nidderdale Dairy Company (Sue Kramer)
In the early years of its history, many business proprietors lived on their premises, although even then the references in the censuses to properties uninhabited but in occupation shows the existence of lock-up shops. If we look, for example, at the census of 1901, at number 20 we find butcher Thomas Kendrew, aged twenty-nine, who was born at Sutton near Thirsk, his wife Jane from Malton and their four-year-old son Bertie. They shared their home with two young butcher’s apprentices: Stanley Collett aged sixteen from Knottingley and Sam Street, twenty, born in the north-east suburb of Walthamstow, London. Other street residents at this time were at number 6, Richard Nelson and his wife Mary Elizabeth, both described as dairy managers. This was the shop of the Nidderdale Dairy Company. An advertisement for the business in Robinson’s Directory for 1902 gives its address as still Strawberrydale (sic) Road. All those interested in dairies were invited to watch production at their Birstwith branch, close to the railway station with its easy access on the Pateley Bridge branch line down to Harrogate. Note the awards, the latest being 1st Prize for soft cheeses and 2nd Prize for cream cheeses at the London Dairy Show.
1st Image: Lawson's (courtesy Mrs Clapham)
2nd Image: Hebblethwaite (Robinson's Directory, 1902)
Another early business from the Strawberrydale Road days was Lawson’s Star Fent Shop. According to an article in the Harrogate Herald for 8 November 1958 the business had been founded half-a-century earlier when Mr and Mrs J. W. Lawson started the family drapery business in what had formerly been a private house. We find them in the 1911 census: James, then aged twenty-nine, with his wife, two children and a general servant. The history of the business tells how James went out on his bicycle to seek out customers in the hotels and in the country. They soon turned the household kitchen into an extension to the shop and in 1924 bought Mrs Shutt’s adjoining millinery business and a few years later further expanded into number 12. Mrs Lawson had carried on during her husband’s war service, assisted by eldest daughter Amy and a ‘loyal staff’. In the early 1920s, their eldest son, James, joined the business, followed by the younger daughter Kathleen, Amy having established her own business in Birmingham. Kathleen ran the women and children’s departments and he that for men and boys. The women’s department displayed an eye-catching sign: ‘Lawsons for Corsets’. One further noteworthy feature of the modern business was its overhead cash system, taking money from the departments to the cash desk in caskets. Children delighted to be lifted up to pull the chain which activated it. Lawsons closed in 1965. Another business finally from the early days was Hebblethwaite family grocer, tea dealer and provision merchant as seen in another advertisement from Robinson’s Directory. Malta Terrace was the name given to a section of the street here.
The Lawson family business was not alone in its longevity. Another piece in the Harrogate Herald of 15 August 1956 surveyed the whole street. Examples included at number 1, George Morrell and Son, corn and forage merchants, established in Beckwithshaw in 1800, moving to the present premises in 1890. Dog and bird food was a speciality. At number 3 was R. W. Middleton and Son, plumbers. RW had taken over from R. Croft, for whom he had worked since 1907, in 1923. He advertised with the slogan: ‘Sink in the kitchen or swim in the bath you can do no better than see …’ At number 7, later 11, was Solk’s grocery stores, established then for around twenty-five years. At number 10 was F. C. Bosomworth and Sons, ‘men and boy’s wear of distinction’, begun in 1934. Number 28 had been the site of a bakery for more than half a century, with Woods now there for thirty years. At number 38 was R. Stone and Son, a ‘High Class Ladies’ and Gents’ Tailors’ where all work was done on the premises under personal supervision and ‘own materials made up’. The business had been founded in 1910 by the late R. Stone in Cold Bath Road, was later in Oxford and Parliament Streets before moving to Commercial Street in 1942.
Commercial Street looking towards Cheltenham Parade, late 1960s/early 70s
If we move forward another decade, a photograph from around this time shows the Remnant House on the left at number 26, still trading today. The Harrogate Corporation Guide for 1966 carried advertisements for several Commercial Street businesses. The Guide itself is a fascinating picture of a Harrogate which still functioned as a spa, but which also claimed itself as a shopping, then residential but also educational, conference, trade fair, exhibition, administration and research Centre.
1st Image: Artists Materials (Harrogate Corporation Guide, 1966)
2nd Image: Koh-I-Noor (Harrogate Corporation Guide, 1966)
In addition to one for the Remnant House, another ad was for Artists Materials at number 15 with its ‘Big Reputation’ and a permanent exhibition of local artists’ work. And at number 17, in a sign of changing English culinary tastes was the Koh-I-Noor Restaurant, serving ‘real Pakistani and Indian dishes’ but also ‘English and Continental Dishes’. They also had premises at Boar Lane in Leeds. It was later renamed the Star of India.
Books for All (photo by Frank Jennings, 2021)
Another half-a-century later, Commercial Street remains a vibrant shopping street. Some are comparatively new, like Tarbett’s Fishmongers, established in Leeds in 2013 but opening in Harrogate in 2020, the only wet fishmonger now trading in the town. But others continue the street’s examples of longevity. The Cheeseboard at number 1 was established in 1981 and stocks over 200 British, Continental and local cheeses. At 23, the Crown Jewellers has traded for over twenty years. Next door, Books for All was opened in 1998 by Jenny, moving from a shop in Hyde Park, Leeds, succeeding Richard Axe at the Commercial Street premises. If the writer of this piece might commend a personal favourite, this is it: its shelves packed in classic second-hand bookshop fashion with History, Biography, fiction, and many other subjects, one of Harrogate’s attractions. But then a street such as this is, with over twenty-five independent businesses, is something for the town to celebrate and promote.
Sue Kramer of the Crown Jewellers for her enthusiasm and support for my research; also for information Jenny of Books for All and Mrs Clapham (née Lawson).
Paul Jennings October 2021