Harrogate History: VE day 1945 – a day of rejoicing after the dark years of war


Malcolm Neesam (1946 – 2022) was a writer, archivist and historian, specialising in Harrogate and North Yorkshire history. He was born in Harrogate and studied at the University of Leeds as a professional archivist and librarian. He subsequently worked in Hereford, Leeds, London and York where, for twenty-five years, he was North Yorkshire County Music and Audiovisual Librarian. In 1996 Harrogate Borough Council awarded Malcolm the Freedom of the Borough for his services as the town’s historian, preserving much of the town’s heritage.

This article was first published October 2, 2020 as part of Malcom’s Harrogate History series for the Stray Ferret.

On Tuesday 8th May 1945, a full-sized likeness of Adolph Hitler gazed across West Park Stray surrounded by a replica of his Mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden.

It had been placed there as the crowning display of a huge bonfire and assembled by the Harrogate Home Guard, who, at dusk, stormed the display, and to frantic cheering from the assembled townspeople, captured the effigies of Hitler and his cronies, before the Mayor lit the bonfire that burned ‘Berchtesgaden’ to the ground.

Beyond this scene of rejoicing, Harrogate was a sea of bunting and the flags of allied nations, which filled not only the town centre, but nearly every suburban street as well. In the main shopping streets at the town’s centre were displayed large portraits of the King and Queen, Prime Minister Churchill and allied leaders, Field Marshall Montgomery and other military luminaries.

Joyous crowds surged through the town centre that day, whose drab and neglected appearance, the result of five years, eight months and five days of wartime austerity, was temporarily brightened by brightly coloured displays, although the need to conserve energy precluded the use of gas or electric power, exceptions being made at the Royal Baths, and Municipal Offices where Mayor G. Spenceley had greeting the crowds gathered in Crescent Gardens.

A street party in 1945

People continued to surge through the centre of the town throughout the day, despite heavy rain showers, although the streets cleared in time for both the Prime Minister’s broadcast, and the King’s speech.

The borough court continued to function on VE Day, the main business being concerned with granting licences for dancing and extensions for liquor and music, all essential aspects of the coming celebrations on the following Sunday, which at the request of the King, would be a day of national thanksgiving and prayer.

A service was planned at St. Peter’s Church attended by the Mayor and full Corporation, followed by a brief ceremony at the War Memorial in remembrance of the fallen.

In the afternoon, a grand parade was to occur on West Park, when participants would include American military personnel, units of the Home Guard and Civil Defence, representatives from the British Legion, St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Scouts and the Guides. Flag bearing youth groups present included the Sea Cadets, Army Cadet Corps, Air Training Corps, Girls Training Corps, Boys Brigade, and the Civil Defence Messengers.

Neighbours and friends celebrating

After a short open air service, the parade marched via West Park and Parliament Street to the Municipal Officers in Crescent Gardens, where the Mayor took the salute from a specially constructed platform.

The Mayor’s rousing speech reminded the townspeople of the ordeal they had undergone, and that until Japan had been overcome, the resolve of the people must be continued. He ended his speech with the sincere thanks of the entire Corporation for what the townspeople had achieved through their great sacrifice.

Memorable though the Peace Parade had been, for some of Harrogate’s residents, their most exuberant celebrations were reserved for the town’s many street parties, which involved whole communities.

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Malcolm Neesam: My Indiana Jones moment

This article is written for The Stray Ferret by celebrated Harrogate historian, Malcolm Neesam. 

It was in 1997 that the Duchy of Lancaster asked my help in tracing some of their most important missing archives relating to Harrogate and the former Royal Forest of Knaresborough. At one time, all of these records were stored at Knaresborough Castle, but during the Civil War, the records were removed and stored in adjacent buildings until they passed into the hands of the Understeward for the Royal Forest, Samuel Powell, when they were filed in the former old School House, next to the Castle, and where for many years the firm of Powell, Eddison, Freeman and Wilks had their offices.

These archives consisted of the records of the Royal Forest of Knaresborough, mostly in the form of rolls of court proceedings recorded on vellum or parchment. They ran from earliest times through to the reign of Charles 1st, and the Civil War, as well as following centuries. In 1925, a change in the law caused the Duchy to remove the pre-Charles 1st archives to London, where they were deposited in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. The post civil war material, however, remained with the Understeward in Knaresborough, where it was kept in the loft above Powell Eddison’s office. Over the decades, the Duchy archives were mixed with the records of the firm, and gradually became hidden under the piles of records that such an eminent firm as Powell Eddison’s inevitably created.

The Duchy material consisted of wills, land and property transfers, income from Duchy holdings, including farms, indentures for various services and agreements, letter books, surveys of land and property, maps, and various correspondence about grants and property. It was a treasure trove of life in the Royal Forest and greater Honour of Knaresborough. As such, it was of paramount interest to the Duchy to have access to it for the running of their modern business, which still involved them with considerable property holdings in the locality. Thus it was that armed with the Duchy’s request, and with the full permission of Powell Eddison, I climbed the ladders that led to a trap door opening into the loft of the former Old School House.

I was immediately faced with clean parcels of the firms own material, but beyond them on a series or wooden racks were many very much older parcels and volumes, the first one of which was a volume of Court records from 1623! Bingo! Next, I picked up a tube containing the hand-drawn proposals for the Great Award of 1778, which laid out the Stray. Then, a huge volume with the 1830 Scriven and Scotton enclosures. This was indeed the Duchy’s missing material, which was subsequently sorted from the material belonging to the firm, and  eventually removed to the Duchy Office in London before being mostly deposited in the new National Archives at Kew, mostly under classes D.30 and D.31.

I have in my life had only one “Indiana Jones” moment, and that occasion when I found the Duchy Archive was that moment, and for me, the find was infinitely more precious that all the golden relics or artefacts in the world, as it was lost knowledge, refound.

Malcolm Neesam.

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Did you know? 

The Stray Ferret has worked with Malcolm Neesam to produce two fantastic history audio tours of Harrogate.  Both last about an hour and are easy to do. The first will take you back to the golden age of Harrogate’s Victorian Spa days, the second will take you through the heart of the shopping district, stopping to learn about historic buildings as you go.  To take a look click here. 

Malcolm has also recently published a second major history of Harrogate. “Wells and Swells” covers the town’s Victorian heyday from 1842-1923. To find out more and how you can order a copy, click here.

Malcolm Neesam: we should create a history time-line for Harrogate

This article is written for The Stray Ferret by celebrated Harrogate historian, Malcolm Neesam.  

The recent installation of a York history timeline into paving in the vicinity of Clifford’s Tower appears to be causing great public interest. These timelines usually consist of a chronologically arranged list of events relating to the locality where the timeline is set, and can be adjusted to fill the amount of space available.

The best timelines consist of a bold line set into a pavement from which short entries are placed at right angles. Both the line and the entries can be made of stone, slate, tile or plastic, on to which the information is engraved. Should a suitable length of pavement not be available, the timeline can be set into a wall or put on line.

With the various proposals for alterations to the areas covered by the “Gateway” and other local projects, now is as good a time as any to consider a Harrogate History timeline for which several locations present themselves. The pavement from the entrance to the Railway Station, across Station Square and down James Street is one attractive possibility. So is the Elgar Walk from Valley Gardens entrance as far as the New Magnesia Well Cafe.

A handsome curved timeline could be inserted to the pavements around the War Memorial, to include Prospect and Cambridge Crescents. But if a dead straight line is preferred, how about Prospect Place from Victoria Avenue to the War Memorial?                            

Typical entries could include: “1571 William Slingsby discovers mineral qualities of the Tewit Well”; or, “2023 Council abolished as Harrogate merges with North Yorkshire”. Thus could the whole of Harrogate’s history be made clearly and easily accessible to the general public, and it is reasonable to assume that sponsorship could be found for such a high-profile undertaking.

In my opinion, a Harrogate History timeline would be a marvellous project. It could provide residents and visitors alike with an interesting and free attraction, the making of which might involve all the local schools. Harrogate has only one local museum, which despite the best efforts of the devoted staff, lacks the Council input to make it the equal of the Mercer Gallery, or indeed the three Ripon Museums, which are run by Trusts. A timeline would help focus attention on Harrogate’s past. Our Council really should give more attention to the town’s heritage.

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Did you know? 

The Stray Ferret has worked with Malcolm Neesam to produce two fantastic history audio tours of Harrogate.  Both last about an hour and are easy to do. The first will take you back to the golden age of Harrogate’s Victorian Spa days, the second will take you through the heart of the shopping district, stopping to learn about historic buildings as you go.  To take a look click here. 

Malcolm has also recently published a second major history of Harrogate. “Wells and Swells” covers the town’s Victorian heyday from 1842-1923. To find out more and how you can order a copy, click here.


Malcolm Neesam History: Historic storms of past centuries

Recent stormy weather has prompted celebrated Harrogate Historian Malcolm Neesam to look through his records at some of the great storms of the past, several of which were described by historian William Grainge:

The winter of 1799 was one of the worst ever recorded in northern Europe. One local victim was a Mr Swires, who, on February 8, set out on horseback to ride to Skipton. A terrific snow storm set in towards evening, and after stopping to dine at an inn on Hopper Lane,  he resumed his journey, despite the entreaties of the landlord. Alas, he never reached his destination, but three weeks later, as the snow melted, he was found standing upright with his arm around a gatepost, evidently trying to reach Redshaw Hall.

There was very odd weather in 1826, when Yorkshire experienced the severest frosts and biggest snow drifts remembered by any one alive.  In the summer the heat was equally uncommon and intense, and thunder storms were of great fury and of frequent occurrence.  Several agricultural workers were killed by enormous hailstones, and on June 28, the thermometer was at 85° on Saturday and Sunday in the shade, and in the sun at 124°.  Such was the drought and sultriness of the weather, that even in the midst of the hay harvest, prayers were offered up in the churches and other places of worship for rain.  The following month saw devastating fires on the moors, with Ilkley Moor losing  500 acres.

In 1839, the most terrific storm of wind known in England during the nineteenth century passed across the country on January 7.  Liverpool was the heaviest sufferer where no less than 116 lives were lost; and many ships were wrecked, swamped or cast ashore, and many buildings reduced to ruins.  Leeds also suffered very heavily, especially its churches, and manufactories; the towers and spires of the former and the tall chimneys of the latter falling before the blast.  In short no town, no village, and scarcely a single homestead which stood in its track, escaped without some marks of its fury.  Haystacks and cornstacks were overturned, torn to pieces and scattered at random all over the country.  Trees which had stood the storms of centuries crashed to the ground, and the trees in artificial plantations on high ground were literally prostrated by thousands.

Harrogate, considering its exposed situation, did not suffer as much as might have been expected; a few of its finest trees were blown down, chimneys toppled over; and slates from the roofs of houses scattered in great profusion.  No lives were lost, but one escape was little less than miraculous – a large stone chimney on the west side of the Swan Hotel was blown down, crashed through the roof making a hole nine feet square; two of the daughters of Mr Jonathan Shutt, the proprietor were sleeping in a bed directly beneath it, one side of the bedstead was completely broken down and the whole of it, and its occupants covered with the rubbish; but the broken spars and timber had fallen in such a manner that the young ladies were protected from the direct impact of the falling mass, escaped comparatively unhurt, one of them only receiving a slight scratch on the cheek. Some large elms which grew in a field south of the Dragon Hotel were blown down, and out of the trunk of one of them were formed the first seats for the use of visitors that were placed on Harrogate Stray.

A severe storm shook the locality on the afternoon of June 3 1858, when the Bramhope Tunnel on the North Eastern Railway gave way at the Leeds end, and the water rushed through in a perfect torrent, and with tremendous noise.  A train proceeding through the tunnel at about six o’clock in the evening was met by the current, and forced to put back; this was effected very slowly, the train being in the tunnel more than an hour.  On its re-arrival at the north end, the accumulation of rubbish had been made so great, that the passengers had to leave the carriages, and walk back to Arthington.  They were subsequently sent round by York, and reached Leeds about midnight.

The author recalls the great gale of 1962, when on Monday 12 February, hundred mile an hour winds lashed Nidderdale, causing a fearful amount of damage. In Harrogate, there were town-wide powercuts, disruption to the railways, and the loss of no less than 800 trees, four lamp columns, and massive destruction at the Harlow Hill nurseries. Many roofs were torn away, and dozens of town centre shops lost their windows. At Knaresborough, the war memorial was partly blown down, and the Town Hall bell tower came crashing through the roof.

Read More: 

Did you know? 

The Stray Ferret and the Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID) have worked with Malcolm Neesam to produce two fantastic history audio tours of Harrogate.  Both last about an hour and are easy to do. The first will take you back to the golden age of Harrogate’s Victorian Spa days, the second will take you through the heart of the shopping district, stopping to learn about historic buildings as you go.  To take a look click here. 

Malcolm Neesam History: the colourful past of what could become Harrogate’s first mosque

Malcolm Neesam


This history is written for The Stray Ferret by celebrated Harrogate historian, Malcolm Neesam.  



The first hospital for the people of Harrogate, as distinct from the Bath Hospital in Cornwall Road, was opened in 1870 in three cottages in Tower Street after an appeal by the Vicar of old St. Mary’s Church.

Placed under the supervision of Dr. Loy, patients paid from three shillings to seven and six a week, depending on their means.

Within a space of only two years, the new “Cottage Hospital” was found to be too small, so its governors investigated some property on the opposite side of Tower Street that belonged to a Mr. Hudson, which they purchased for £550, and after refitting, the hospital moved into these new premises in 1873.

The numbers of patients dealt with at the Cottage Hospital increased throughout the decade. During the half year between 13th September 1870 to 14th March 1871, 25 patients were admitted as bed cases and 63 as out patients. During the year 1877-8, the annual total numbered 66 bed cases and 213 out patients.

The former Home Guard club and potential mosque.

In June 1878 the highly esteemed Dr. Loy died. His successor was a Mr. Hartley, who did not remain in position for very long. He was succeeded in 1879 by Dr. Neville Williams as the institution’s medical officer. By the end of the decade, patient numbers had increased to 75 bed cases and 292 out patients.

Charge of the Light Brigade

Perhaps the Cottage Hospital’s most famous patient was Sergeant-Major Robert Johnston, who had participated in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, consequently receiving the Crimean medal, which later included clasps for his service at the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman.

In all, Sergeant-Major Johnston served his country for 22 years, 336 days, during which time his health deteriorated, which was probably why he came to the celebrated health resort of Harrogate.

When Sergeant-Major Johnston died at the Cottage Hospital on 28th November 1882, his funeral was attended by an estimated 20,000 people at a time when Harrogate’s population was around 12,000. He is buried in Grove Road cemetery.

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The following year, the hospital moved into new, purpose-built premises that now contain St. Peter’s School.

The Masons move in

In December 1883, the press reported that the old hospital premises had been purchased by John Richardson and Moses Perkin on behalf of the Harrogate and Claro Lodge of Freemasons, who paid £560 for the building.

They subsequently doubled the size of the building, adding to the older Tower Street section, which dates from the 1840s, the wing that now stands next to St. Peter’s School.

The Masons remained there until moving into their new Station Avenue building in 1931. A little later, the building at the corner of Tower Street and Belford Road was occupied by the Home Guard Club.

Home Guard members would play snooker at the club.

Today, the building presents a somewhat forlorn appearance to the passer-by, as its windows have been covered, the walls are badly stained, much of the external decoration has vanished, and pigeons have left unmistakable signs of their presence.

I was therefore not surprised to see an application to convert the building. I may be alone in this, but I would be sorry to lose this piece of Harrogate’s medical history, particularly in view of its connection with our Charge of the Light Brigade resident, if demolition occurs.

The building, even in its present condition, is an original feature of an especially delightful Victorian townscape, which if restored — assuming restoration is possible — would enhance, rather than diminish, the whole locality.

Opinion: The big lie

The news that we are all facing extraordinary rises in energy prices, together with the forthcoming reorganisation of local government are but two aspects of the great lie and con trick played on us by decades of politicians and career officers, that bigger is always better.

It is this grotesque fallacy that has led to local people losing control of the services that they originally created, financed and administered, in exchange for services controlled by strangers for whom the screwing of as much profit as possible from their reluctant customers, with as low a service as possible, seems their only purpose.

Let me provide some examples relating to Harrogate, with the reorganisation of local government being a particularly topical issue.

Local government

The liars say that Harrogate has too small a population to be a unitary authority. Of course they say this, as it is in their interests to promote the concept of big authorities, as salaries and payments are invariably higher when applied to responsibility for a larger population as against a smaller one. They will say that the merging of – say – six local authorities will mean one chief executive instead of six, one borough planner instead of six, one treasurer, instead of six, etc. etc. Whereas in truth, the savings come at the dire cost of local people becoming further removed from control over the services for which they are paying.

Harrogate too small to be a unitary authority. Rubbish! Today, the Harrogate district’s population is around 161,000, that of the town being little over 75,000. Yet when Harrogate town had a population of only 26,583, about two thirds smaller than the Harrogate town of today, it was able from the yield of its local rates, to build the Royal Baths, the Royal Hall, a gigantic series of reservoirs and an unequalled water distribution network, to run its own electricity works, to build and run its own schools and pay the staff salaries, to administer its own fire services, run its own public health facilities and many other things. All this was possible because Harrogate had the authority to levy its own council rates (and to keep the greater part of the income) and for Harrogate’s Council to spend the proceeds in ways permitted by Acts of Parliament.

Kursaal,at height of Edwardian season. Walker-Neesam archive

The Royal Hall, previously known as the Kursaal, at height of Edwardian season. Pic: Walker-Neesam archive

Yet today, thanks to the gradual erosion of local democracy, the present North Yorkshire County Council takes the vast majority of every pound paid in council tax by Harrogate residents, with much less going to Harrogate Borough Council. Is it any wonder that our democratically elected Harrogate borough councillors are hamstrung at every turn when they try to provide the services demanded by local residents? The secret of true local democracy has little to do with population sizes, and everything to do with financial control, which must include the power to set local taxation and the power to spend such taxation within the town that supplied it – such powers being determined by Parliamentary authority.

Naturally North Yorkshire’s councillors and career officers will seek to expand their spheres of influence, and to retain and enhance their existing stranglehold on Harrogate – it is absolutely in their interests to do so. But history shows that their ever increasing power to control our lives has been at the cost of local representation and accountability. The latest calamitous “reforms” of local government will further reduce the rights and powers of local people to control their own lives, with Harrogate becoming further prey to the financial leech which is bleeding the town to finance road repairs in Tadcaster, libraries in Skipton, schools in Easingwold, and social services in Selby.

Nevertheless, it remains my hope that one day – maybe in 50 or 100 years time – Harrogate will regain powers to control its own finances, and re-establish democratic control of its affairs by its citizenry.


When some Harrogate people decided the town should have access to a supply of gas, they obtained an enabling Act of Parliament in 1846, after which a gas works was built at Rattle Crag financed by local private shareholders.

After overcoming initial difficulties with the Improvement Commissioners, the gas company supplied the lighting of the public streets as well as gas for residential and commercial use. The profits produced went back into improving the gas plant and paying the salaries of those employed in the work, many of whom lived at New Park.

After several extensions of its area of supply, Harrogate’s gas company was nationalised by the Gas Act of 1948, which merged some 1,062 privately owned and municipal gas companies into 12 area gas boards.

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The York, Harrogate and District group of gas companies had already merged on 1 January 1944, comprising Harrogate, York, Malton and Easingwold, which were joined by the Yeadon, Guisley, and Otley companies on 1 October 1946. This arrangement, however, barely survived for two years, until the 1948 Gas Act changed everything.

With every enlargement, control of the manufacture, distribution and pricing of gas passed further away from the people who had created the company, and for whom its products were intended, to huge, impersonal and uncaring conglomerates.

This process has continued to this day, resulting in the crazy situation that Harrogate’s gas customers now have absolutely no control over the gas they use nor the rate at which it is priced. What would those Victorian founders have said on hearing that we are to some extent reliant on Russia for the continuance of our gas supplies?


Electricty works 1897 opening ceremony Walker-Neesam archive

Electricity works opening ceremony in 1897. Pic: Walker-Neesam archive

In order to provide the people of Harrogate with an alternative to gas, Harrogate Corporation’s elected representatives built a Municipal Electricity Undertaking near to the site of the present Hydro, which opened in 1897.

The people’s democratically elected councillors regulated the supply and pricing of electricity with regard to the local situation, so that when in 1933, at the height of the terrible depression, many were experiencing economic hardship, the council reduced the unit cost of electricity from one penny to three-farthings.

When war came in 1939, Harrogate’s Electricity Undertaking was supplying 20,670 consumers, and selling 26,815,046 units of power, with a gross income of £178,857.

By the end of the year to March 1945, those figures had increased to 21,977 consumers, selling 39,254,676 units of power, with a gross income of £242,412 – an incredible achievement given the conditions of war time operation.

But in 1948, and by order of the government’s Electricity Act of 1947, Harrogate’s Electricity Undertaking was transferred to the enormous new British Electricity Board and thus removed from the town a valuable asset which had hitherto been controlled by local people.


Turning on the reservoir water. Pic: Walker-Neesam archive

Just the same thing as described above applies to water. When a group of local people raised money to establish the Harrogate Water Company, following a Parliamentary Act of 1846, the townspeople supported the project, and the little company grew as the town grew.

In 1897, an Act of Parliament empowered Harrogate Corporation to buy out the private water company, which was then run purely for the benefit of the townspeople. Under the inspirational leadership of Alderman Charles Fortune, the corporation undertook a massive programme of reservoir and distribution construction, which ensured Harrogate had an adequate supply of water for the next 50 years.

Harrogate’s municipal water undertaking was one of the jewels in Harrogate’s crown until the 1945 Water Act, which paved the way for the creation of the huge Claro Water Board in 1958/9, which covered an area of 420 square miles, between one fifth and one sixth of the area of the West Riding of Yorkshire, with a population of 119,000. On such a scale, it was inevitable that the concern would no longer be run purely in the interests of the people of Harrogate, nor would its profits be returned to the local economy.

Malcolm Neesam, Harrogate-based historian

How I’d develop the Royal Baths and Prospect Square

Keeping in mind the importance of a vision for Harrogate’s future, the Stray Ferret asked Malcolm Neesam to come up with suggestions for making Harrogate more attractive to visitors and residents alike, regardless of cost or planning requirements. This is the third of three articles. Malcolm fully understands that his “visions” may not appeal to everyone, and he submits them as purely private dreams.

Vision 7: Royal Baths

With my unlimited budget and full planning control, my next vision involves the Royal Baths, and let me explain immediately that contrary to what some might guess, my vision does not consist of restoring the building as a working Spa, as I am not convinced the market for such an amenity exists in Harrogate today outside small, private luxury hotels.

The Royal Baths should remain at the heart of Harrogate’s leisure and entertainment area.

Instead, I see the Royal Baths building as being at the heart of Harrogate’s leisure and entertainment area, and consequently, I would leave the bars and restaurants in the 1897 building intact. As for the former Lounge Hall, I would restore this as Harrogate’s ‘town’s hall’, or an assembly space for use by local groups, Mayor makings, school prize days, fashion shows, or simply as a place of assembly with refreshments still being available, but on a far reduced scale to the present situation.

It was, in my opinion, very wrong of Harrogate Borough Council to have disposed of the lease of this complex for such a long period when the place was built using public money for the whole community. But let that pass, as the centre-piece of my vision for the Royal Baths is outside the former Lounge Hall.

When the council allowed the block of flats known as “Royal Baths 2” to be built, it ensured it had an underground car park, yet for the adjoining site between the former Fountain Court and the road at Montpellier Gardens, it approved its conversion into a surface car park! This was a gross waste of one of the most valuable building sites in Harrogate. And to add to the bad decision, it allowed the lovely Fountain Court to be torn down in an act that provided for a mere nine cars. I would construct an underground car park here, and restore the Fountain Court, but giving it a glazed roof, so that it could be used throughout the year.

Fountain Court 2001: Walker-Neesam Archive

Fountain Court 2001: Walker-Neesam Archive

But my most ambitious work would be between the restored Fountain Court and Montpellier Gardens, where on the site of the long demolished New Montpellier Pump Room I would build a four-storeyed replica of an old Harrogate coaching inn, complete with galleried courtyard, which would be filled with whatever catering, accommodation and entertainment facilities the market was judged to require. It would need to be attractive and picturesque, to draw as many visitors as possible, and would be a major enhancement for the Montpellier and Royal Parade Quarters.

Vision 8: Prospect Square

The large urban space bounded by Cambridge and Prospect Crescents, St. Peter’s Church, the Yorkshire Hotel, and – across the busy road – the old Pier Head, certainly has as good a claim as any to be regarded as the heart of Harrogate.

Pier head lavatories and terrace: Walker-Neesam Archive

Pier head lavatories and terrace: Pic: Walker-Neesam Archive

As its last makeover came from the experimental pedestrian zones of the 1970s and 1980s, with little subsequent change, it makes a good candidate for the last of my series of visions for the future.

The first thing I would do, if I had unlimited funding and full planning control, would be to re-open the suites of underground lavatories at what is facetiously called Pier Head, which the council built on the Stray after the passing of the 1893 Harrogate Corporation Act. The location, opposite the junction of Prospect Place, James Street, Cambridge Street, Parliament Street and Montpellier Hill was perhaps the best site in the town for such an amenity. As this location was within 75 yards of Hopewell House (now Bettys) the 1893 Act required that it be built underground.

To comply with this requirement, the corporation removed soil from the crown of Montpellier Hill, built the lavatories, and covered them with the excavated soil, thus giving the impression of subterranean construction. Work does not seem to have begun until 1896, and progressed slowly, in that the brick structure was not ready to receive its disguising “ornamental rockery” until January 1897, when the council discussed tenders. On June 2, an advertisement appeared for male and female applicants who would be required to work from 9.00am to 9.00pm each day, including Sundays, at a wage of twenty shillings a week for the man and fifteen shillings a week for the woman.

These wonderfully constructed public lavatories remained in use for nearly a century, until the council, still reeling from the lamentable mishandling of the Conference Centre affair, took the frankly stupid decision to close them to “save money”. The power and water were disconnected, and the entrances filled in with soil. I am sure that 95% of the present council has no idea they are there. Given the wonderfully convenient location of the Pier Head lavatories, it would be sensible to restore and properly staff them, and this would be my first goal for this location.

Prospect Square

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For the rest, I would close the short length of road in front of Cambridge Crescent, to link the central war memorial to the Crescent, and I would pay for a facsimile of Samson Fox’s sensational Water Gas candelabra. This was built by Fox as a demonstration piece for his water gas plant. It consisted of a “gigantic lamp of four tiers of branches, each branch have 12 double branch light, making a total of 48 brilliant lights”.

The Water Gas experiment was a great success, with Parliament Street lit to great effect, so much so that by autumn, the press reported visitors were coming from far and wide to see how the Mayor of Harrogate “had bottled the sun”. Despite the overwhelming brilliance of the Fox Water Gas candelabra, its energy consumption was enormous, so its modern use would have to be minimal. I would also floodlight the whole of Prospect Square and the War Memorial as – hopefully – an attraction for residents and visitors alike.




My radical blueprint for Station Parade and Cambridge Street

Keeping in mind the importance of a vision for Harrogate’s future, the Stray Ferret asked Malcolm Neesam to come up with suggestions for making Harrogate more attractive to visitors and residents alike, regardless of cost or planning requirements. This is the second of three articles. Malcolm fully understands that his “visions” may not appeal to everyone, and he submits them as purely private dreams.

Vision 4: A radical blueprint for Station Square

If I had unlimited financial resources and full planning powers, plus the power for compulsory acquisition, I would buy the tower block next to the railway station and demolish it. I would also demolish the single storey shoe box that passes for a railway station, and realise David Cullearn’s vision that the architect of the Victoria Centre once outlined to me. David Cullearn of Cullearn and Phillips, Architects, was the author of the design for the Victoria Centre that won the maximum public support when the designs were exhibited in the Lounge Hall around 1989.

He once told me that his dream would be to repeat the curved frontage of the Victoria Centre on the other side of Station Parade, where the Palladian design would be continued as far as Station Bridge. This would provide the eastern boundary of Station Square with a magnificent stone-faced architectural framework, that would surely overwhelm all visitors arriving by rail and bus.

Victoria Centre copyright Walker-Neesam Archive

The Victoria Centre when it opened in 1992. Photo copyright: Walker-Neesam Archive

At the Victoria Centre, I would reverse the alterations of 1999, and restore the surrounding walk way, the top floor’s open air balcony, and the original set of atria which allowed sunlight to flood down to all floor levels. The arid plaza outside would be re-integrated into the Station Square gardens and filled with flower beds, grass and trees, so that visitors could see that Harrogate was indeed a town of flowers, grass and trees.

As for the former railway goods station, hidden away behind the ugly brick wall of the 1938 bus station, a feature of old Harrogate that I suspect is known only to a few people, I would convert this already roofed structure into a permanent market, whose location next to the bus and railway stations could not be improved. The Victorian brickwork would be revealed, and the repaired building would become a valuable amenity.

Oh yes – I nearly forgot. I would restore Station Square’s underground public lavatories!

Queen Victoria monument, Walker Neesam archive

Queen Victoria monument. Pic: Walker Neesam archive

Vision 5: Cambridge Street

Cambridge Street could do with smartening up and were I to be given unlimited financial resources and total planning control, I would smarten it up in the following manner.

Cambridge Street in Harrogate

Cambridge Street today — in need of smartening up.

First, I would set up a Cambridge Street retailers group charged with co-operating over such things as improving paving, lighting, planting, seating and above all, signage. I would introduce an element of uniformity by re-erecting the Victorian lamp posts so cavalierly removed and use them as a base for floral columns of flower baskets. The ugly and over-sized plate glass windows would be replaced by windows more in harmony with the buildings in which they are located, with well designed signage.\

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More could be made of the little garden at St. Peter’s Church, which would be improved by a set of steps from the pavement, and several benches – all of which would be subject to strict no-alcohol rules!

When the first market went up in flames in 1937, the lovely clock tower survived, but alas, it fell victim to the demolition mania of the age, and the intact structure was torn down. It was one of Speyhawk’s proposals to rebuild the clock tower as part of its Victoria Gardens project, which unfortunately was never realised, so I would rebuild the clock tower at the eastern extremity of Cambridge Street to provide it with a “point de view” that would not only hide the ugly and jarring brick wall of the old Bus Station, but would add once again a very useful time-piece to Cambridge Street.

Cambridge Street, 1998, with the old clock tower

And as I’m at it, I would repeat some of the above processes in Oxford Street, Parliament Street and James Street, the last of which would have all the disfiguring coats of paint removed from its stone frontages, with both sides provided with ornamental metal and glass canopies over the pavements, so that shoppers would have all-weather protection throughout the year.

Vision 6: Library Gardens and Princes Square

With my mythical unlimited financial resources and total planning control, my next vision would probably be contentious, but nevertheless remains my vision. I would swap Library Gardens for Princes Square, as was the original intention of the Victoria Park Company. Until 1929, Princes Square was a pleasant and largely residential square filled with gardens and ringed with mature trees. Then, in 1929, the council decided to try to encourage more motorists into the town centre by making it “car friendly”, so to the fury of many of the residents they chopped down the trees, dug out the gardens and turned the central area into a car park.

Princes Square

Today, Princes Square cries out for pedestrianisation, which would still permit traffic to flow along both Raglan and Albert Streets. The square could be provided with grass, flower beds, trees and benches, and would be a great boost for the cafes and restaurants already established there, some of which already set out tables and chairs on the broad pavement. But it could be made so much better, and become a pleasant green oasis only a few yards from James Street.

As for Library Gardens, which were sold to the council in 1885, when it accepted a generous offer from the Carter brothers to convey 4,532 square yards of land at the junction of Victoria Avenue and Station Parade, on the strict understanding that the land would only ever be used to build a Town Hall for Harrogate. This obligation has never been honoured by successive councils, although a start was made in 1907 with the opening of the public library, the first part of Henry Hare’s magnificent plans for a Municipal Palace in full Edwardian baroque, complete with clock tower. Alas, the rest of the superb monumental building was never finished, and its completion is something I would love to do.

Library Gardens

I am appalled by the reduction of democratic control of their own affairs that the people of Harrogate have suffered over the last 70-odd years, and hope that one day the administration of such things as education, highway planning and many more matters will be returned to local people to administer. When that time comes, maybe in 50 or 100 years time, Harrogate’s Municipal Palace will be completed to house them.

In the final part of the series tomorrow, Malcolm looks at ways to improve the Royal Baths and Prospect Square.

How I’d unlock the potential of Crescent Gardens

Keeping in mind the importance of a vision for Harrogate’s future, the Stray Ferret asked Malcolm Neesam to come up with suggestions for making Harrogate more attractive to visitors and residents alike, regardless of cost or planning requirements. This is the first of three articles. Malcolm fully understands that his “visions” may not appeal to everyone, and he submits them as purely private dreams.

Vision 1: Unlocking the potential of Crescent Gardens

Here, I am referring to the gardens themselves, rather that the building that was until recently the home of Harrogate’s administration.

Crescent Gardens consists of the detached portion of Stray outside the Hotel St. George, and the rest of the gardens to the west of the slip road, which so awkwardly divides the council-owned gardens from the Stray. Although this rat-run is popular with motorists trying to avoid the traffic lights, it really should have been grassed over years ago, to create a single civic space at the heart of the spa area.

The centrepiece of my vision for Crescent Gardens is to complete the architectural frame-work of the unfinished building ensemble, which has the Grosvenor Buildings and the Royal Baths to the south, the Royal Hall and Exhibition Hall “M” to the east, the Hotel St. George and the former council offices to the north, and on the western edge – a small block of public lavatories and the disused Shelter of 1910.

Despite several attempts in the Victorian and post-Great War eras to build something handsome and useful on the gardens’ western edge, nothing was ever achieved. The site has tremendous potential, and the loss of a small strip of the gardens for a new building could easily be compensated by grassing over that awkward slip road and adding it to the main gardens.

Crescent Gardens

Although this land is owned by the council, it lacks the vision and business sense to grasp the development potential. I would commission an eminent, classically-based architect, to design a three or four-storey building on the western edge of Crescent Gardens to contain either offices or apartments in the upper floors and very high quality shops and restaurants on the ground floor.

Built of solid stone, and with elevations to harmonise with the other buildings around the gardens, the development would breathe new life into the heart of the spa area, and complete the architectural framework of this most important locality. The ground level would be fronted with a classical colonnade to protect pedestrians, and the first floor would have as its centre piece a large restaurant with a spacious terrace overlooking the gardens.

I would erect a splendid fountain at the centre of the gardens, consisting of a series of circular bowls of diminishing size to create an attractive water feature symbolic of the town whose old motto was Arx Celebris Fontibus (a citadel famous for its springs).

As for the pretty but under-used Shelter, I would move it 180 degrees on to the grassed area to the north of the Mercer Gallery for use by the gallery to display sculpture or the Park Drag.

Perhaps the new North Yorkshire Council will see the sense in doing something creative with the under-used asset that is the western edge of Crescent Gardens.

Vision 2: Replace the ‘piecemeal bungling’ of the Island site

This is the site bounded by Ripon Road, King’s Road and Springfield Avenue, excluding the land and buildings of the Hotel Majestic.

An aerial view of the Island site. Pic courtesy of Simon Kent.

The development of this key site for the economic prosperity of Harrogate was undertaken with a series of coherent master plans, until 1958, when these were junked in favour of amateurish, piece-meal bungling, which was so incompetent that the subsequent buildings had neither adequate road access nor a single floor level.

My vision for the island site is that I would demolish everything apart from the Royal Hall and the Convention Centre, and rebuild in the following manner to a master plan that ensured vehicular deliveries occurred away from the public highways and footpaths; that all ground floor areas other than that of the Royal Hall were of the same level; with an external architecture that harmonised and enhanced Harrogate’s historic monumental buildings; and, with green open space at its heart as an amenity for visitors and residents and to serve as the centre piece of a leisure and retail complex.

Royal Hall Harrogate

Malcolm would keep the Royal Hall but suggests a complete rethink for much of the land behind it. Photograph: Flickr, Tony Hisgett

Before embarking on my expenditure, I would undertake or commission fastidious research to establish the economic future on which the conference and exhibition business is based, possibly by such a reliable company as Mintel. If such research showed that these activities were likely to continue into the post-covid world, I would include the appropriate facilities in the development specification. If not, I would drop them.

Whatever the result, I would ensure that the new development was targeted at residents and general visitors, with an emphasis on leisure, entertainment, and retailing. After all, this is the heart of the town, and if I could change history, I would have shifted the whole damn development to the Great Yorkshire Showground and kept intact the old railway link that once crossed the site.

As for the new buildings, they would be built over a large underground vehicle park, above which several new structures would frame an open garden accessible to them all. Some of these new buildings would be dedicated to exhibition use, if the demand for this can be demonstrated. Others would contain such leisure amenities as bowling alleys, a trampoline facility, shops, cafes, and office space.

On the important site at the junction of Ripon and King’s Roads, I would reconstruct the most important monumental building ever erected in Harrogate, the Spa Rooms, with a stone facade including the main entrance of six Doric columns with a proper entablature, and the great Georgian internal saloon with its vaulted ceiling, musicians gallery and chandeliers. This would be used to contain a luxury restaurant, and also through its link, a break-out space for the neighbouring Royal Hall. I would also restore the little garden in front of the Royal Hall, long lost under a sea of tar, and replant the chopped down beech trees at the pavement junction of King’s and Ripon Roads.

Vision 3: Create stunning fountains on Prospect Place

Perhaps the most important entrance to the heart of the town is Prospect Place, as it is flanked by an imposing architectural backdrop and also by that wonderful symbol of Harrogate, the Stray.

Culminating at the War Memorial, from which Harrogate’s principal shopping streets radiate, it might be thought that the locality was beyond improvement, but given unlimited funding, I would add something so spectacular as to make visitors arriving at the town’s centre gasp with wonderment.

Prospect Place, 12.2010 Walker-Neesam Archive

Prospect Place. Pic: Walker-Neesam Archive

Prospect Place between James Street and Victoria Avenue was at one time fronted by the individual gardens of the private or commercial properties to the east, all of which were converted into the present gardens after the Second World War, Harrogate Borough Council being responsible for their maintenance – a task they perform with great skill.

Here, I would introduce at least four multi-bowled cascade fountains to advertise Harrogate as the original Spadacrene Anglica — the English spa fountain, which would be illuminated at night, and of such a design as to ensure the minimum side effects from wind. Along the low row of boundary stones, which separate the gardens from the footpath, I would add a long ornamental railing, which would be attractive to the eye and useful in emphasising that pedestrians should remain on the path.

Why should earlier attempts to provide Harrogate with handsome water features always be doomed to failure? When a fountain was placed in Station Square after the Second World War, as part of the council’s plan to improve the town’s appearance, an order came from Emmanuel Shinwell’s Department of Power to turn it off, to save energy. A few years later, the council re-introduced a water feature as part of its reconstruction of Station Square, which was eventually filled in.

When Speyhawk remodelled the area outside the Victoria Quarter in 1992, it incorporated pools and fountains, which a subsequent owner was allowed to remove. The time is well overdue to provide Harrogate with some magnificent water features to celebrate its Spa past.

Tomorrow Malcolm gives his visions for the future of Station Square, Cambridge Street, Library Gardens and Princes Square

Malcolm Neesam History: Harrogate’s Victorian Christmas

This festive history is written for The Stray Ferret by celebrated Harrogate historian, Malcolm Neesam.  

It is often said that much of our modern Christmas was introduced by either Charles Dickens or Prince Albert. For the great majority of Harrogate’s Victorian citizens, Christmas was not only an important religious festival, but a welcome break from the long working week. Then, as now, children played a central role in the Christmas festivities, but it was perhaps the role of the church which was paramount in shaping the form and content of the Victorian Christmas.

Harrogate’s principal shopping streets usually began to take on a seasonal appearance in the first week of December, with their shop windows being packed with desirable consumables of every type, many of which were advertised as “products of the Empire”.

In those days, it was seldom possible to look through a shop window directly into the shop’s interior, as window backs were solid, and lined with racks on which as many goods as possible were crammed. Typical of these were Harrogate’s two most fashionable grocers, Woods,  which occupied premises now filled by Ogdens, and Standings, which stood at the corner of James Street and Station Square. Their solid windows prevented natural light from illuminating the interiors, so even on sunny days, light came from gas globes, which often hissed and popped in accompaniment to the whizzing of pneumatic tubes which sent receipts and change to customers on every floor.

Cambridge Street 1905

Woods and Standings were patronised by Harrogate’s wealthier customers, whereas the majority did their Christmas Shopping at the old Market at the end of Cambridge Street,  where the Market’s external shops were festooned with festive poultry – chickens, ducks, and above all, geese, which were the centre-piece of Christmas in 1900, which was Queen Victoria’s last Christmas. Turkey was not unknown, but still rather a rarity. In the days before home freezing was available, people usually left their shopping for festive foods until the latest possible moment.

Children’s toys could be had from specialist shops in Lowther Arcade, which linked Cambridge and Oxford Streets, the Market, and shops in town centre streets. The better quality toys came from Germany, particularly Nuremberg, which specialised in mechanical toys of tin and wood.

Harrogate’s Churches vied with one another to provide Christmas-themed concerts, with such pieces as “Messiah” and  “Elijah” being regulars. The main celebration of Christmas day naturally included plenty of recitals of Christmas Carols, but music from a much older tradition came with the Harrogate Waits, who not only performed old Christmas pieces in the town centre, but also in the more modest surroundings of Smithy Hill, New Park, Tower and Union Streets. Secular entertainments included the performance of “Marianna” at the new Grand Opera House, which had opened in January 1900

Original Harrogate Christmas Waits  

Perhaps the most spectacular Christmas festivities could be found at the newly opened Hotel Majestic, one of whose guests during December 1900 was Winston Churchill, another being Samson Fox and his family, who stayed there during the rebuilding of Grove House. For the majority of Harrogate people, the new century seemed to offer unparalleled opportunity, and the Christmas of 1900 seems to have been celebrated with great enthusiasm.

Merry Christmas to you all!


Majestic kitchen staff with mascot bulldog!