Through the years: Taking the waters in Harrogate

At one time, the equivalent of today’s health conscious gym clubs and sports halls was ‘taking the waters’ at the vast number of spas which sprung up and flourished from the early 17th century until around 1948. Once established, the spas encouraged urban growth and a whole range of other social activities were staged for amusement and entertainment.

Harrogate Valley Gardens
Harrogate Valley Gardens

Yorkshire’s most celebrated spa town is, of course , Harrogate, often noted in the past as ‘The Queen of Inland Watering Places’ and ‘England’s Premier Spa.’ Yet, other areas of Yorkshire, such as Scarborough, offered similar spa facilities.

Harrogate’s first mineral spring was discovered in 1571 by William Slingsby, who claimed that water from the Tewit Well possessed similar curative properties to that from the springs of the Belgian town of Spa, which gave its name to spa towns.

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The term spa itself was first applied in English to Harrogate. Author Edmund Deane attributes the use of the word to Timothy Bright, who gave the name the English Spaw to the Tewit Well at Harrogate about 1596.

In 1626 Deane noted the medicinal properties of the Harrogate waters in his book The English Spa Fountain.

The social development of the spa was stimulated by the pleasure seeking wealthy and leisured upper class, whilst the spirit of scientific enquiry, symbolized by the establishment of the Royal Society in 1662, brought a new critical and analytical approach to medical treatment.

Towards the end of the 17th century more springs in Harrogate, including the sulphur spring, in Low Harrogate, had been discovered. The different waters were recommended for the treatment of a variety of ailments including scurvy, epilepsy and skin complaints such as ulcers and sores.

As centres of social life, Britain’s spas provided ordered formality and the pattern of life required a formal range of equipment: the baths and pump rooms were, in time, accompanied by assembly rooms, parades, libraries and theatres in a distinctive landscape.

In England during the early 18th century it was noted there were 228 ‘spaws’, ‘besides several others of less note.’

Commenting on the trend of taking the waters in the 18th century one writer aptly termed it ‘an age of watering places.’

Daniel Defoe wrote in 1724 ‘the coming to the Wells to drink the waters was a mere Matter of Custom; some drink, more do not, and few drink physically. But company and Diversion is, in short, the main business of the place.’

Harrogate developed as a spa town following the enclosure of surrounding lands in 1770, when 200 acres were reserved as a public common, the Stray. The area was preserved in order ‘that all persons whomsoever shall and may have access at times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof...’

To provide entertainment and accommodation for Harrogate’s ever increasing visitor numbers, facilities were erected during the Georgian period (1714-1830), including a Theatre in 1788 and Bath Hospital (later the Royal Bath Hospital) in 1826.

But, it was during the Victorian era the town reached a height in popularity, becoming as well known as Bath amongst individuals taking the waters. Towards the end of the 1830s there were over 10,000 visitors to Harrogate each year.

The Victoria Baths, with an Ionic front, were completed in 1832 and the Montpellier Baths and Spa Rooms were both built in 1835. Housed in an elegant building, the Montpellier Baths featured twelve tile-lined baths, and a central hall where bathers were entertained by a band each morning. In 1839, it was recorded that the Victoria Baths were giving 4000 baths each season, and the Montpellier 6000.

Social amenities were enhanced by the opening in 1835 of the Royal Promenade and Cheltenham Pump room. The largest public building in Harrogate, its Doric portico made it one of the very few structures in the town with any architectural distinction. It contained a large saloon, a pump room and a library, and subscribers had, in addition, access to six acres of gardens.

The Royal Pump Room was erected at a cost of £3000 in 1842 by Isaac Shutt to replace the earlier building that had covered the popular Old Sulphur Well. The pre-existing cover erected in 1804 was transferred to the Tewit Well.

By 1860 the town’s annual tourists numbered 30,000. One well known visitor, Charles Dickens, wrote: ‘Harrogate is the queerest place with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading and dining.’

From 1887 visitors could enjoy the newly laid out Valley Gardens commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. They could also choose from a list of options at the many spa rooms including: massages and Turkish baths, Vichy douches and Electric shock therapies.

In the Royal Pump Room water was served in a glass and visitors could enjoy bands playing while they strolled around the building. The poor also required access to the sulphur water, and a tap, used freely, was provided outside the building.

Towards the end of the century, Harrogate became noted for its specialist spa centres. The new Victoria Baths, opening in 1871 and replacing the earlier baths building, provided separate treatment rooms and bathing pools for men and women. Then, in 1897 the luxurious Royal Baths offered: sulphur baths, for the care of rheumatism or eczema; fango treatment, where mud packs were applied to troublesome joints; and deep pool therapy, allowing the patient to exercise whilst in a hydrotherapy pool.

One prestigious venue established to cater for the society element of Harrogate’s spa life was the Kursaal concert hall, opening in 1903. Amongst the many famous names to appear, were Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, Nellie Melba and Edward Elgar.

The zenith of the Victoria spa was reached by 1914, claimed J. A Patmore in An Atlas of Harrogate (1963) ‘The social levelling of the years following the First World War reduced the demand for the socially significant Cure. As towns, the spas began slowly, but inevitably to change, seeking new bases for a continued urban existence,’ said the author.

Three years after the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, the B.M.A. published a booklet, The Spa in Medical Practice, which announced: ‘[T]he future of British spas will depend, not so much upon the presence of natural medicinal waters, or their specific therapeutic value, as upon a proper orientation of all modern methods of treatment integrated into the natural and developed amenities provided by the spa locality.’

In time, Harrogate’s spa centres, as in many other spa towns, fell into decay or were demolished. The Royal Pump Room existed for a period as a cafe before reopening as a museum in 1953, its displays featuring Harrogate’s former times as England’s Premier spa.