Yorkshire House Histories: An Edwardian 'house of widows' on the prestigious Duchy estate in Harrogate

The Duchy estate has been one of Harrogate’s most desirable addresses for over 150 years.

Carrie Cook, a former Harrogate Advertiser reporter now working in PR, is one of those lucky enough to own one of the turn-of-the-20th-century homes built on land released by the Duchy of Lancaster – an estate owned by the reigning monarch – as the spa town boomed.

The Victorian and Edwardian properties vary in grandeur, and Carrie’s family live on Kent Road, where the houses are semi-detached and date from around the time of Queen Victoria’s death. Yet in many ways the streets still retain orderly Victorian values, and there is an active residents’ association that upholds standards and reins in excessive development plans.

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Not wanting to get their hands dirty, the Queen’s agents operated by granting building leases to applicants whose work was overseen by a superintendent. One of the beneficiaries, who made his fortune from the Duchy project, was builder David Simpson, who laid out many of the streets and villas that survive today. Construction began in 1891, ending in 1909. Unusually for the time, even by the standards of the well-off, the properties had water, gas and electricity supplies. While Harrogate’s population had mainly been visitors taking the medicinal waters at the ‘hydros’, by the beginning of the Edwardian age it was becoming more permanent, as mill owners from Leeds and Bradford sought out the town’s peaceful prosperity. Private schools, tennis and golf clubs sprang up. The morning train to Bradford even had a private ‘subscription club’ coach for these businessmen, with its own drinks cabinet and bathroom.

Fenham House, built as the Victorian era was drawing to a close, on Harrogate's Duchy estateFenham House, built as the Victorian era was drawing to a close, on Harrogate's Duchy estate
Fenham House, built as the Victorian era was drawing to a close, on Harrogate's Duchy estate

Although Simpson himself left the estate and his home, Oakdale Manor, after living there for 12 years, its exclusivity only increased as the 20th century continued. A community of doctors and surgeons moved there, including members of the influential Harrogate Medical Society, who lobbied the council for public health improvements, although their scope also widened to include taxi fares, road surfacing and rail links.

Several Duchy properties had their own tennis courts, and the Davis Cup was even played in Harrogate in 1926. Oakdale Golf Club, which hosted dances, was a social hub fo the estate, as was The Sports Club on Firs Road, and the Wayside Gardens Tennis Club. A wool baron with one of the largest homes was one of the most renowned entertainers.

When first built in 1901-2, Carrie’s house, 19 Kent Road, was known as Fenham House. It appears to have just missed being occupied in time for the 1901 census, and thus it is not possible to trace the household until 1911, when the property first appears on records. The head of the family was, in contrast to many of their neighbours, a 30-year-old widow of private means called Ellen McKee.

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As her youngest child, Faith, was less than a year old, it seems likely the loss of her husband had been a recent one. Living with her, the baby and her four-year-old son Teddie was her younger unmarried sister, Hollie Levenson. The sisters were born in Huyton, near Liverpool, but the children’s birthplaces were recorded as Harrogate. They also had two female servants, one of them a nurse for the baby. It is more difficult to trace the family after this point, with only Ellen appearing in the 1939 register taken at the outbreak of World War Two, when she was living in another spa town, Buxton in Derbyshire.

The period staircase remains intact and a main feature of the houseThe period staircase remains intact and a main feature of the house
The period staircase remains intact and a main feature of the house

Ten years later, in 1921, there was another widow heading up a household at number 19. Eva Agnes Morrison, approaching her 50th birthday, had three single daughters in their 20s called May, Nora and Constance, and a teenage son, John, as well as two servants. They were originally from Knaresborough.

Eva also appears in the 1911 census, when she had six living children and had lost one, and her address was a hydropathic establishment in the Merseyside resort of Southport. This raises intriguing links, given the similar number of ‘hydro’ facilities in Harrogate – was her late husband a doctor or employed by these spas in some way, or was she a resident receiving treatment herself? The Southport baths, known as Kenworthy’s, still exist and have been converted into apartments.

By 1939, the family were still at number 19. Eva was by now ‘incapacitated’, and she lived only until 1945. John was the secretary of the Soft and Bridge Club, unmarried, while of the girls, only Constance was employed, as a civil service clerk, with her sisters engaged in domestic duties. They still had one servant.

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Since both families lacked a husband and father in a period when few women worked, their census returns alone do not give an idea of the sort of people who lived on The Duchy before World War Two. However, other entries for Kent Road – home to some of the estate’s relatively modest abodes – can answer these questions.

Carrie Cook bought 19 Kent Road around eight years agoCarrie Cook bought 19 Kent Road around eight years ago
Carrie Cook bought 19 Kent Road around eight years ago

Most families had servants, many of whom had been born far from Yorkshire in the south of England. Their employers tended to be more local, but had migrated from other areas of Yorkshire such as Leeds, Bradford, Beverley, York or rural villages. Few of the adults had been born in Harrogate, suggesting they were the first generation to move to the town after it developed as both a health tourism destination and then a genteel residential address. Several were of ‘private means’ – meaning they did not work in business or the professions, and lived off inherited wealth or land – including the widowed and single women.

The occupations of the men – and the only working woman, teacher Florence Bird – were varied. James Coombes was a sporting and leather goods merchant, Ernest Appleton a land agent and John Bain an insurance broker. There were doctors, solicitors and the vicar of nearby St Wilfrid’s Church.

Then there are those connected to industry, particularly West Riding textile spinning – iron, steel and coal merchant Robert Barmingham from the north-east, Bradford chemical manufacturer William Ackroyd, silk agent Horace Flinn, wool manufacturer Arthur Hirst. Some seemed to have retired to refined Harrogate after stepping back from running factories and mills.

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There are others there to service the tastes of these industrialists – auctioneer Cuthbert Montgomery, wine merchant Frederick Perham and pianist Frederic Helmsley. A few outliers are in the mix – successful builder Hampton Matthews, retired Hartlepool marine engineer John Champlin and the flamboyant-sounding William Heaven, a ‘gentleman financier’ normally resident in Mexico.

In 1961 the house was sold at auction for a bargain priceIn 1961 the house was sold at auction for a bargain price
In 1961 the house was sold at auction for a bargain price

Carrie is friends with the great-great-grandson of the man who built her house, and she also knows the son of a family who lived there in the 1960s.

"Our house isn’t one of the grandest, and they are all so different in the Duchy. There are some very grand detached homes, and some with gardens so large that parts of the plots have been sold off for more building.

"The previous owners – we moved in eight years ago – did quite a lot to the house, landscaping the garden and knocking through internal walls, because the original kitchen was tiny. One of the things I wanted to know was whether there had ever been servants, as there are only two floors and no cellars.”

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Some original late Victorian features remain, including fireplaces, cornicing and the verandah, and she and her husband have uncovered the fire tiles that were hidden during the 1960s when such features were unfashionable.

She also has sale catalogues from down the decades which give a fascinating insight into the local property market. In 1961, Fenham House was offered for sale for just £45,000 – but the next time it was on the market, the asking price was £295,000. In later years it sold for £595,000.

The Duchy Residents’ Association – which Carrie was already familiar with from her days at the local newspaper – still monitor planning applications in the estate, a Conservation Area, though they are aware of how families’ needs have changed since the houses were built. Kitchens were once almost a source of shame, small and hidden away for the use of only the cook and housekeeper. Now they are focal points for the homes.

The entire Duchy estate was built as the Victorian age faded into the Edwardian eraThe entire Duchy estate was built as the Victorian age faded into the Edwardian era
The entire Duchy estate was built as the Victorian age faded into the Edwardian era

"We’ve recently been granted permission to replace a garage that was built in the 1960s, and we’ve cut some trees down without any problems.”

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Would you like your home to feature in our House Histories series?

Any house in Yorkshire built before World War Two can be put forward. You can be the owner or a tenant, and it doesn’t have to be a large or listed property. It is helpful if you have some idea of its past as a starting point, but you don’t have to have conducted extensive research.

Some of the previous houses we’ve featured:-

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