Restoring Harrogate's mysterious The Club that Sherlock Holmes creator loved

A air of mystery hangs over The Club. But this historic Harrogate institution has thrown its doors open recently to the public and let in the light.

Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, left, with the general manager of the Royal Baths, Fred Broome in Harrogate in 1917. (Picture courtesy of Walker-Neesam Archive)
Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, left, with the general manager of the Royal Baths, Fred Broome in Harrogate in 1917. (Picture courtesy of Walker-Neesam Archive)

And it's in the middle of a painstaking project to restore it to its glory days when famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was among its regular visitors.

In the years surrounding the First World War, the creator of the legendary fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was a regular visitor to The Club at 36 Victoria Avenue in Harrogate with its grand facade and great curved bay windows.

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In fact, it’s believed this believer in clairvoyance and spiritualism even attended a seance there in the early 1920’s.

The Club on Victoria Avenue, Harrogate.

Now this venerable institution is in the middle of a mission to recreate how it looked when the famous author would unwind from writing Holmes and Watson stories by playing a game of billiards.

Spearheading efforts are current president Andrew McMillan, treasurer Peter Bagnall and honorary member Malcolm Neesam.

Their mission to revive the halycon days of elegance at The Club has been far from straightforward.

Like a mini version of the restoration of Harrogate’s glittering Royal Hall, it’s taken a lot of care, craftsmanship and cash.

The Club on Victoria Avenue, Harrogate.

Perhaps just as importantly, much effort has also gone into tracking down the details of exactly how it looked in the days of Conan Doyle.

Andrew McMillan said: “We wanted to take The Club back to its original glory from top to bottom and reproduce it as accurately as possible using only the best materials and best fabrics.

“A lot of it is stuff you just can’t buy in shops now. So it was absolutely crucial to find the original plans.”

Enter Malcolm Neesam.

Being Harrogate’s leading local historian he already knew The Club had first been launched at Gascoigne’s Hotel in 1857 by a group of professional men.

He also knew what was then a “gentlemen’s club” was so successful by 1886 it had its own address and own purpose-built club house.

The question was, who built it?

After completing a report on the state of the building in 2014, Malcolm set to work to uncover the original blueprints.

Andrew picks up the story.

“We had a lot of help and advice from Richard Tinker at the Harrogate branch of the Victorian Society.

“Malcolm found the original architects plans in the offices of Linley Bown, a member of a practice originally based on Victoria Avenue, too.

“Without that we had no hope of putting The Club back to the way it had been.”

Plans for a full restoration were put to the members last summer.

Although still a private member club, these days membership is open to everyone.

The “gentlemen only” tag is a thing of the past and current numbers are the highest ever.

Even so, the members do still include what was once described as the “great and the good” and a total of £60,000 was donated collectively for the first phase of the refurbishment.

Working to detailed drawings by Harrogate firm Smith Smalley Architects, the first step has been to rescue the second floor’s upper lounge which had gradually turned into a bit of a junk room.

To return it to the past, however, years of history had first to be undone.

The last six months or so has seen been custom joinery by the experts taking place side by side with the occasional bit of general chipping in.

Pillars were knocked down, plastering removed and the dust of decades swept away.

At one point, members of The Club, even those advancing in years, could be seen on their hands and knees pulling up thousands of nails.

So many local businesses and people have contributed, I hesititate to mention them all for lack of space.

The following names suggest the breadth and depth of affection for this grand old building:

William Woods Interior Design. Richard Grafton Interiors. Harrogate Fireplace Company. Elite Scaffolding. Chris Holmes Antiques.

What an impact their support has made.

Having been invited inside to have a look at work to date, the results are stunning.

What’s more, they came in under budget.

A dignified riot of magenta red and sage green, the upper lounge with its glittering chandeliers looks fit for a king - or a Conan Doyle.

There’s a gleaming new bar, handmade in deep mahogany, while the swirling patterns of the Zoffany wallpaper feature additional decoration - a series of historic portraits owned by Harrogate Borough Council of Harrogate’s past mayors dating from 1884 to 1949.

Previously these had been stored securely in the darkened bowels of the town’s Mercer Art Gallery but now they will be returned to the limelight.

Andrew McMillan said: “With the council set to move offices, Malcolm had asked for photographs of the mayoral portraits.

“To my surprise, the Mercer Gallery suggested lending us the original paintings, subject to the usual things like security and temperature.

“Potentially, The Club could be a showcase for more of Harrogate’s great artefacts.”

With a series of open days launched recently, the general public can now view portraits of former mayors such as Richard Ellis (1884-87) and Jack Simpson (1947-49).

In this new era, The Club aims to be more than an enjoyable place to relax and read, enjoy a meal and a drink or play cards or a game of billiards.

This private club is seeking to recover the sort of public role it fulfilled in the days when its members included the likes of Samson Fox and Sir Titus Salt.

It’s also liaising with both Harrogate Borough Council and the Mercer about the second and, hopefully, final phase of this grand restoration.

An even more ambitious undertaking, this will necessitate a budget estimated at between £300,00-£500,000.

The same small team of people at The Club are currently working on an application for assistance from The National Lottery’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

There’s already talk that phase one is going to be nominated for an award for restoration and regeneration.

It certainly augurs well for the success of phase two.

Despite its pedigree and traditions, one thing that isn’t being restored are the old-fashioned social, conventions which saw it attract admirals and generals in its younger years.

It was awash with colonels during both world wars, it is said and, at one point Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien is also reckoned to have been a visitor

Despite its high standards, which mean it still retains its own sommelier for selecting wine for its members, change is happening at The Club.

Wi-Fi has been installed, computers are as common as newspapers these days and there’s live acoustic nights starting shortly on Fridays with talented young musicians presented by local music company Ont’ Sofa.

Members today hail from all ages and backgrounds and its recent renaissance has seen women as well as men joining.

One thing hasn’t altered at The Club, however.

The billiard tables remain match grade, just the way they were in the days Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a frequent visitor.

In fact, it’s said one of the cues in its current collection was used by the author himself. It’s to be hoped it doesn’t retain the spirit of the man who invented the world’s most popular detective.

On the centenary of The Club’s foundation in 1957, a book was published by Wilfrid Edgecombe, one of the last of the spa physicians and a man of many talents.

Part of the book hails Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for being in the “front rank of amateur players” when he played billiards at The Club

But the renowned writer and physician was also described as a “dour opponent, smoking his pipe, concentrating intensely on every shot, reminding one of Sherlock Holmes in one of his contemplative moods.”