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Chapter 4

A Crucial Move

 

  

Meanwhile, matters were back to the square one of 1778 as regards the Stray. It is hard to say how long the situation would have been tolerated with an increasing number of important visitors year after year in search of health and relaxation, the Stray in virtually no better condition than it had been in 1778, and the wells vulnerable to vandals while the townspeople had to club together to keep the paths fit to walk on and to provide a few public seats.

Unquestionably the best thing to happen to Harrogate in those years of inaction was the piratical attempt of Joseph Thackwray of the Crown Hotel to divert the public waters of the old sulphur well to his own private use in the new baths he had recently built on his Montpellier estate (now the Royal Baths estate).

It was on December 1, 1835, that Jonathan Shutt, father of the ultimately more famous Isaac Thomas Shutt, walking from his Swan Hotel through Victoria Place (now Crown Place) peered in a shop tenanted by a Mr. Husband and saw workmen digging a well. That was the start of an uproar that lasted more than 15 months. The public took action, for Thackwray's intended diversion of the priceless sulphur water for his private profit would effectively ruin their economy, but it was finally left to a few deponents to bear the greater part of the cost of the law suit which required Thackwray to open his new well to the public.

The innkeepers had had a bad fright and other traders too had more sense than to let matters so stand that some such other piratical attempt might be made on the sulphur wells, the fountains that ensured them their livelihoods. It was there and then determined that matters should be put on a proper footing.

Meanwhile, yet another matter for controversy had arisen. It will be remembered that the 1789 Act had proposed that to compensate for the loss of space on the Stray which would arise from tree planting, and the making of walks, paths, and the dry ride, the gateholders were to have the right of pasturage on slips of roads adjacent to the Stray to the extent of 15 acres. Since the Act had not been observed there had been no tree planting and the road verges had not been taken up by the gateholders. Instead, in very recent years, the Highways Overseers had taken it upon themselves to let the eatage of the side roads with unhappy consequences for the gateholders. Charles Greeves, home from America complained bitterly that cattle, not the property of gateholders, strayed as was their wont from the road verges on to the Stray proper, "so that we often have three times our number".

One would have thought that Greeves with this and other odds and ends to complain about as a gateholder (he had inherited three of his late father's five gates) would have welcomed any sound scheme for reform. On the contrary he opposed to the bitter end, relying pointlessly on the false proposition that he was a joint owner of the Stray's land in every sense of the word, freehold, except for having no claim on mineral rights. On the contrary, he owned nothing but the grass his tenants' cattle ate in so far, as Mr. Powell wryly put it, "it had not been trodden underfoot". Greeves also clung to the last to the principle that any payment made towards improvements should be a voluntary one, not an imposition of any kind.

But for him and for any other opponent of reform, events were moving too fast and the mounting pressures were too great to be resisted. The Thackwray case had alerted the townspeople to the unsatisfactory state of the law which did not safeguard them against some future attempt to divert the public springs' waters. Even a joking reminder by a group of humorists that the rules converting Husband's shop well into a public well did not forbid them to congregate early in the morning and draw off such quantities of sulphur water that the well would take hours to refill, to the deprivation of morning water drinkers, proved to a further cause for concern.

The only thing for it would be an Act of Parliament which this time would have to be comprehensive and achieve three major objects - the protection of the wells, the improvements and proper management of the Stray, and the power to levy a rate for improvement of a general kind in the town. The latter would include the introduction of street lighting, some street cleansing, the control of hackney carriages, and various other matters, among them the provision of a market.

This comprehensive piece of legislation would have to embrace two sets of circumstances - the improvement of the Stray which was in the hands of the Straygate owners and the improvement and enclosure of the springs along with all the other local improvements needed which were the responsibility of the community as a whole.

It needs to be remembered that local government was still in its infancy, scarcely changed since the mid-l6th century and based here on the township and the quarter sessions. What there was of it was minimal. To get anything better, a community must needs obtain an Improvement Act. This Knaresborough had done some years earlier.

Three attitudes were paramount: the owners of the Straygates were determined to remain a separate and self contained body; the townspeople were concerned only to make improvements for visitors, to preserve their statutory rights to make use of the Stray, and to obtain statutory power over the control of the wells; and they were not disposed to spend a penny more on the project than was absolutely necessary.

This extreme closeness in money matters characteristic of the townspeople not only dominated their approach to the new Act they required; it was to prove a persistent brake on future reforms and developments. The birth of modern local government in Harrogate was to be laboured indeed.

In addition to their reluctance to spend any more than they need in obtaining their new Act, the townspeople at that time were not inclined to take on the responsibility for the Stray by buying out the gateholders. That, though it would surely have been a most sensible and imaginative step, was beyond them. Their concept of local government did not entertain such boldness. They were content to leave the Stray in the hands of the gateholders provided their own rights were assured. The result was a situation which gave rise to endless controversy over the next half century.

Even granted public willingness in general to tackle the job of obtaining a local Act, Powells had to act in a slightly unconstitutional rather than an underhand manner. A series of meetings was arranged. At the first of these, a meeting for the public, on November 9, 1840, in the Queen Hotel, the attendance was relatively small but it made up for shortage of numbers by consisting of resolute and influential people whose decisions were later to be upheld by larger and more representative meetings. Time was of the essence if the proposed Bill were to be presented to the ensuing session of Parliament. It was resolved to give immediate notice of application for an Act to repeal or amend the Acts of 1770 and 1789 respecting the Stray and to include provisions for the various reforms the movers had in mind. Notices to this effect were posted on church doors on the three successive Sundays.

Powells, well experienced from past failures to secure reform, seem to have calculated the chances of success very nicely. When the gateholders, some 20 of them or their legal representatives met in the Queen Hotel on November 23, 1840, they represented 36 gates. During the meeting, five stormed out, representing 13 gates, but not before they had supported two resolutions - which (a) acknowledged the need to improve the Stray and (b) the need to apply for a new Act.

They left behind them 15 gateholders who represented only 23 1/2 gates. Powells, acting as advisers in the project and relying on what they declared was the custom of taking decisions by show of hands, continued the meeting and accepted its resolutions as authority to proceed towards the Act.

It is noteworthy, however, that when distributing the printed resolutions from this meeting of November 23 they were at pains to point out that since the meeting one holder of six gates, Mr. Fountain Brown, had sold three and a half of his six gates to a supporter of the proposed improvements and that one other gateholder, Mr. I. Emmatt, who had been one of the five to retire in high dudgeon, had since "coincided" with the resolutions. Furthermore, some of the gateholders who had not attended the meeting had subsequently sanctioned the resolutions.

On the strength of this Powells asked all holders of gates who were in accord with the resolutions to sign to that effect. This was a crucial move and it paid off. Signatures equivalent to the ownership of 38 gates from 20 holders were forthcoming. From that moment the scheme could go ahead safely.

What all this amounted to was that some multiple gateholders who were opponents of the plan threw the towel in. Either they sold out to people who supported the scheme for a new Act or they changed their minds and decided to go along with it. Within a matter of days no fewer than five individuals who were in favour of the scheme bought a total of 12 gates and then signed the resolutions from the November 23 meeting. Those acquiring gates were Jonathan Benn who took 8 (he was now the proprietor of the Granby Hotel having bought from Macready who had initially leased the hotel to him and who lost heavily on the deal); and John Fletcher, highways surveyor, Nicholas Carter, the elder, of the Prospect Hotel, Richard Whincup, Carter's brother-in-law, and Joseph Waite, the chemist, whose business is now Windemer Ltd., all of whom bought one gate each. Those who sold could not see they would be on to a good thing by retaining their holdings.

In the event, the solution to that hitherto insurmountable problem of financing improvements to the Stray was both simple and ingenious. The principle established half a century before, that all improvements should be paid for by voluntary subscription, was cast aside. Instead, the management and improvement of the Stray would be the exclusive responsibility of the gateholders who would be required by the new Act to form a Committee from among themselves which would have a clearly defined constitution.

For some weeks during the drafting of the Bill one old idea and one new scheme ran in harness about the financing the improvements. The old idea was that of creating more imaginary gates which would be sold. presumably at 80 each. The new idea was, in addition, to levy up to 5 a year on each holder in respect of each gate for up to five successive years. There was violent opposition to either suggestion from the gateholding opponents of the Bill whose draft letter of detailed objection is in the Powell File. It was doubtless the seriousness with which supporters of the Bill pursued these ideas that proved that last straw for the opponents and brought about their retirement from the fray.

Even so, the ideas reached the Bill in a modified form. The levy of up to 5 a year for up to five years would become law but there would be no creation of extra gates. Instead, the statutory committee would be empowered to let off extra gates and to credit the income to the improvement account. Thus, if all went well, as in the event it did, the holders would find their five annual investments of at most 5 showing a profit as soon as income exceeded expenditure in the improvement account.

The Bill for the drafting of which Samuel Powell Jnr. was largely responsible in collaboration with the Parliamentary agents, created the Straygate holders and their committee as an independent statutory body enjoying undisputed control over the Stray. As time went on, it was to be realised that though they had to keep accounts these were to be subject neither to the scrutiny nor approval of anyone outside the body of gateholders.

All else in the Bill was concerned with reforms and improvements which were to be under the control of the inhabitants by means of an executive body to be elected and to be known as Improvement Commissioners whose powers would be entirely contained within the clauses which created them. These arranged for their perpetuation by annual elections of thirds, and gave them among many other things absolute control over the public springs.

Briefly to digress about the protection of the springs, a problem which had run hand in hand with the need to improve and ornament the Stray, it must be remembered that hitherto insurmountable difficulties had stood in the way. The waters were freely available to all and the essence of the 1770 Act had been that they should always be freely accessible. Since1789 it had also been an accepted principle that the cost of any means adopted for safeguarding the wells must be met by public subscription. The latter principle stood in the way of any major effort at protection, say by way of continued supervision, because there could be no guarantee that sufficient money would be forthcoming by way of donation.

A further problem was that the waters of the sulphur springs served two purposes: they were for drinking, preferably in the morning and under medical advice, and they were also used for bathing in various lodging houses and hotels. Manifestly, bathing needs called for much greater quantities of the water and long before the 1841 Act it was the accepted convention that the morning water drinkers should have the first call and that the large quantities of water for bathing should be collected and carted off later in the day.

The only satisfactory way of protecting the wells from pollution would be to enclose them in buildings which could be locked overnight. That would cost far more than could be met by public subscription and, moreover, it would deny the public its inalienable right of access to the water at all times, free of charge.

The 1841 Act solved all these problems neatly. In this its compilers were on familiar ground. The Improvement Commissioners were empowered to erect buildings over the wells and to charge an admission fee which would not be a charge for the water. For those who wanted access to the water without having to pay to enter the enclosed area, an outside tap must be provided. To ensure that the convention held good about not taking excessive quantities of water at inconvenient times for bathing it was enshrined in a clause which forbade the drawing off of large quantities from the free outside tap for bottling purposes earlier than 11 a.m. and further required that water removed by the barrel, "or similar large vessels" should be taken from a reservoir to be provided for collecting bathing water.

When Isaac Thomas Shutt's Royal Pump Room was opened in 1842 some of the well women who in the past had served the morning water drinkers for tips, under the eagle eye of the Queen of the Wells. Betty Lupton, were engaged to serve customers in the pump room from the vases into which the water was pumped from the well below.

The rest, led by Mrs. Ann Watson. former actress and extrovert personality, set up a table with glasses at the outside tap and invited patients to drink with them and so avoid the admission fee to the pump room. The furious Commissioners took Mrs. Watson to court. It was their first venture into litigation and humble though it was, it was just as disastrous as future tangles were to prove to be at higher levels. The Knaresborough Magistrates found for Mrs. Watson who thereafter tapped a proportion of the Commissioners' potential revenue. After all, she was doing no more than Betty Lupton had done for half a century before the Royal Pump Room was built.

There remains the matter of financing both the cost of acquiring the Improvement Act of 1841 and the "improvements" which the elected Commissioners were empowered to introduce.

An initial rate exclusively to pay for the Act was to be levied on both houses and land, including the Straygate holders and in fact a rate of ls.9d. was levied for that purpose. This was a once and for all rate. Thereafter, buildings only were to be rated. All land was exempted and the gateholders as such were not to be rated since they were "rating" themselves by paying for their own improvements. Not to rate other land. of which there was a considerable quantity, was contrary to the practice of general rating then obtaining, but it was apparently felt that the improvements to be effected in the town and to the wells were for the benefit of the occupiers of buildings rather than for the occupiers of land. At any rate, whatever the reasoning, that was the method adopted and it was to hold good until changed later in the century when national legislation introduced the general district rate and when the Improvement Commissioners had ceased to be the unique and independent body their local Act had made them.

A limit of 4s. in the pound was set on the rating powers of the Improvement Commissioners and, a most lamentable decision, a limit of 3,000 was put on their borrowing powers which, by the way. contained no provision for the repayment of loans.

 
 

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