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HARROGATE UNDER THE COMMISSIONERS (1841-1884) 

The Baths and Wells  -  Rival Authorities  -  The Stray  -  The Commissioners at Work  -  Some Sidelights on the Town

The "Commissioners for the Improvement of High and Low Harrogate," appointed first under the special Harrogate Act of 1841, were the main factor in the ordered development of the town during the next forty-three years. Those who put them into office were almost all the ratepayers, for a voter's qualification was an assessment for the Poor Rate of only, 3. The minimum qualification for Commissioners was a good deal higher; they must be rent-payers of 35 or property-owners of 20 a year. There were 21 Commissioners, 7 of whom retired each April, and the elections were held by paper-vote. The arrangement was democratic enough, though people still considered that if a man had large financial interests in the neighbourhood he would be all the more likely to safeguard the interests of the community and so should be chosen as their representative. 

It is a common practice, but far from a wise one, for governments to decry the doings of their predecessors, and for the most part the Borough Councillors of 1884 appear to have followed this fashion in their estimate of the Commissioners. Since then, the sins of omission and commission of later times have not escaped comment. Experience shows that mistakes will occur in any business that is worth doing, but they should not be allowed to obscure the positive achievements of past (or present) governing bodies. As Yorkshiremen say "A man who never makes a mistake makes nothing." 

The problems the Commissioners were called upon to deal with were largely new, and pretty considerable. The population grew during the period from some four to twelve thousand people, and a good many of these, not being Harrogate-born, needed time to become, as the word now goes, absorbed. It is true the Improvement Area was to remain the same for the forty-odd years, except for the small extension in 1870 to include the West End Park (as far south as the present St. George's Road) which was built upon after the demolition of the railway-line there in 1862, but the Commissioners saw the two one-time village Harrogates grow to meet each other and to form a more or less compact built-up area. 

The new population needed a greatly increased water-supply, such as could not be obtained within the town itself. Then, although in the earlier century Harrogate had been notably free from epidemics (it had escaped the cholera outbreak of 1832), the retention of the scavenging and drainage system of 1841, adequate as it had been, would have been suicidal afterwards. Again, some method of town-planning had to be introduced for the securing of ready communications and hygiene. Houses could no longer be built to an unreasonable height when they were in streets, or erected as they had been at any odd angle and in almost 'any place. When the streets were laid out, with a regulated building-line, they had to be effectively lighted at nights. A police force had also to be organised. The township part-time Constable, who then carried on a grocer's shop as his main business, could not cope with the conditions of the crowded season, nor with the host of navvies who invaded the town during the making of the railway-lines in 1848 and 1862. The greatly increased use of the Stray demanded detailed regulations, and the Baths and Wells needed organising and extending. To remove the eye-sore of the booths that appeared on the Greens at High and Low Harrogate, a town Market was highly desirable. 

The Commissioners did do all these things - or at least saw that they were done. The suspicion that they did them satisfactorily is confirmed by the fact that the town's visitors constantly increased during the period (they were estimated at 20,000 in 1858). and the influx of permanent residents - retired folk, men of property, business men from Bradford and Leeds - showed no sign of slackening. A Bradford business man who came to live in Harrogate, George Rovers, showed his respect for the towns of his work and leisure by building and endowing his pleasant and roomy Almshouses (near Victoria Avenue) in 1868 for guests from both places. The Commissioners, after long hesitation, allowed private companies to undertake the important duties of supplying both water- and gas. It is not clear, however, that this action of theirs was an error of judgment. The shareholders of the Waterworks Company received no return on their capital for many years and bore a loss that would have fallen on the ratepayers had it been a public undertaking. It may not always be unwise to allow citizens to use their own initiative even in the supply of public services.

The Baths and Wells  -  Rival Authorities  -  The Stray  -  The Commissioners at Work  -  Some Sidelights on the Town

 

 

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