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The History of Harrogate

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Harrogate was once just two small country villages, High Harrogate and Low Harrogate, that lay close to the historic town of Knaresborough. But when a mineral spring was discovered in 1571 by William Slingsby, Harrogate’s fortunes started to turn. A book published by Edmund Deane in 1626, The English Spa Fountain, told of the medicinal properties of the iron and sulphur rich water and Harrogate’s fame as a spa town was assured. There is now a dome at the Stray, the site of Tewitt Well, where Slingsby first discovered the spring waters. Several other wells and springs were discovered including the sulphur spring Stinking Spaw. This is situated within the Royal Pump Room , now a museum. The Stray is a pleasant open space covering around 200 acres, created by an Act of Parliament in 1770. This was at the time of the Enclosures Act, where common land was handed to rich landowners and farmers.

The discovery of the waters, and the rise in numbers of the largely gentile and wealthy tourists attracted to ‘take the waters’, ensured that soon Harrogate outgrew its once much grander neighbour at Knaresborough . Claims that the waters at Harrogate had healing properties helped to accelerate the town’s growth as a spa resort.

During the 17th century inns began to open in the town to cope with the steady influx of visitors drawn to the waters. In the 18th century the development of the town continued and Harrogate’s Georgian theatre was built in 1788. Wedderburn house was completed two years earlier and they formed just part of the Georgian expansion of the town. The chapel of St John, built in 1749, was replaced by Christ Church , which was consecrated in 1831.

During the 19th century Harrogate grew rapidly, the population increased from 4,000 in 1831 to around 25,000 by the dawn of the 20th century. Harrogate enjoyed various civic improvements, typical of the Victorian era, including the erection of the Bath Hospital in 1826. It is now known as the Royal Bath Hospital. The Royal Pump Room was completed in 1842, a new centrepiece for the fashionable Yorkshire spa
town. A major boost to the modernisation of the town and its amenities came in 1841 with the passing of the Improvement Act. A body of men known as the Improvement Commissioners were elected and given powers to provide better amenities for the people of and visitors to the town. Harrogate formed a water company in 1846 to pipe fresh water about the town. Gas lighting followed a year later, in 1847 and by
1848 the railway came to Harrogate, greatly improving its accessibility both for tourists and trade. In 1884 the town was incorporated, the town’s corporation allowed it to appoint a mayor. Electricity came to Harrogate in 1897, ten years after the opening of the first public library in the town.

During the reign of Queen Victoria , the town had continued to rely chiefly on the tourist trade created by the spas. The discovery of another well, the Magnesia Well, in 1895 aided the town’s status as a spa resort, as did the opening of the Royal Baths in 1897. The turn of the century saw a change in fashion and the days of the spa resort were numbered. Along with many similar spa towns, Harrogate’s shine began to dim. ‘Taking the waters’ began to lose it’s fashionable appeal as a holiday pastime, and the coming of the age of mass-consumer package holidays was the final nail in the coffin of many English towns that relied on tourism.

Despite the downturn in its fortunes as a spa resort, Harrogate continued to expand in the 20th century. The population rose from 26,000 in 1901 to 50,000 in 1951, rising to just under 72,000 at the last census. Residential housing projects, building both private and the local authority stock, saw the establishment of many housing estates around the town. Much of this new population actually had their place of work outside Harrogate. Modern roads and transport links have made Harrogate a viable commuter town for people working in Harrogate’s larger neighbours; Leeds , Bradford and Halifax .

Harrogate reinvented itself in the late 20th century in response to the near-terminal decline of spa tourism. Instead of withering on the vine, Harrogate has become one of the most important exhibition and conference centres in Europe. It has several exhibition and conference facilities, including the Harrogate International Centre . Hotels and guest houses that might have once lodged people wanting to take the
waters, are now servicing the busy exhibition and conference traffic. This turn-around in the town’s focus has been one element that has helped Harrogate to continue to flourish. Another is its position as a place for those wishing to escape the worst aspects of urban life in places like Leeds, but who need to stay within easy commuting distance of Yorkshire’s commercial hub.

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