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Chapter 5

Strained Relations


 No Straygate holder could complain about the provisions which finally went into the new Act of 1841.In many ways it was a faulty piece of legislation and it did not take the Improvement Commissioners long to discover that the courts were not at all favourably disposed towards them as a unique and independent body whose style of government was not easily to be questioned. Not surprisingly, the courts took what opportunities they got of clipping the Commissioners' wings when, from time to time, they were unfortunate enough to indulge in litigation.

But that is altogether another story, our concern being with the Stray and, at this juncture, the effects of the Act on the management of the 200 acres. The gateholders far from having anything to complain about were very favourably treated. They were even wrongly described as Stray Owners, a title which did nothing to improve their relations with the public in the sense that the myth was perpetuated that the gateholders actually owned the Stray. They owned nothing but the herbage, but the new Act certainly gave them what they had not enjoyed before; the right to let off extra gates, to lay paths, and, for the sake of uniformity, to dispose of slips in front of houses, and to share the income from these as soon as the draining and levelling of the Stray had been paid for. In this ingenious way they were able to overcome or rather by-pass the intention of the original stint laid down in the Award of 1778 without flouting it. (The activities of the Stray Committee during its first decade are detailed in Note 2).

On another matter, the new Act gave the gateholders what had hitherto been out of reach by reason of the non-operation of the 1789 Act. They were empowered to measure out and take in 15 acres of verges on the slip roads.

Remarkably, though the 1789 Act had offered this extra acreage as compensation for what would be lost by tree planting, walks, and so on, the 1841 Act made no mention of the gateholders' obligation to carry out these particular improvements. They were, in short, committed only to improvements which would increase the value of their holdings by improving the herbage and so make it available for more cattle.

One more provision newly introduced by the 1841 Act was a rule that there should be no pasturage between April 1 and May 12 each year in order to let the grass grow. It says something for attitudes towards animals in that period that this "close season" of six weeks was imposed solely in the interests of letting the grass grow. It was not until 1883 that the Stray Committee instituted a by-law that there should be no grazing between November 12 and May I. Hitherto, the animals had been left out in freezing weather all through the winters. At last. conscience had caught up with pecuniary interests. Yet when one gateholder Samuel Sugden. defied the by-law and was taken to court. his defending solicitor. Malcolm Bateson (who then occupied the place in Harrogate's legal world formerly occupied by Samuel Powell Jnr.) argued that the by-law contravened the basic Act (i.e. the 177S Award, confirmed by the Improvement Act of 1841) and was therefore not operative. The magistrates were not convinced and granted a case. Public opinion doubtless won the day.

The circumstances created by the 1841 Act were to obtain for 52 years and during that time public opinion was torn between two attitudes - a growing dissatisfaction with the independent control the Stray Committee exercised over the common to which the public had perpetual right of access and a marked unwillingness to undertake the capital cost of securing the trusteeship of the Stray for the people by putting it in the hands of the local authority

.Much the greater dissatisfaction was caused by the Straygate owners refusal to carry out tree planting. No sooner was the Act put into operation than pressure started for tree planting on the Stray which until then had conformed to Smollett's description in "Humphrey Clinker": "A wild common, bare and bleak, without any signs of cultivation". In hot summers Victorian visitors not convinced of the merits of sunbathing bemoaned the lack of shade and regarded the walk involved between High and Low Harrogate which largely consisted of fields, as a tedious preliminary to a stroll on the unsheltered Stray.

To his credit, Joseph Waite, the chemist, obtained in 1848 permission to plant half a dozen trees in High Harrogate but it is noteworthy not only that he had to get permission but that he had to plant the trees at his own expense.

Certainly during the first decades after the 1841 Act, it seems to have been taken for granted that if improvements of benefit to the public were to be carried out, it would be the public, through the Improvement Commissioners, who would have to pay. The gateholders had lost no time in having the verges on the slip roads, measured and indeed in commissioning a complete survey of the Stray which was carried out by none other than Charles Greeves who, despite all his previous opposition to change, proved not to be above earning an honest fee in establishing the extent of the Stray.

He recorded that the Stray consisted of 201 acres and 3.91 roods, and hat the slip roads totalled 19 acres 2.22 roods, giving a total of 221 acres and 2.13 roods. The gateholders had won their extra 15 acres and more and, so far as they could see, the law put no obligation on them to spend on the improvements for the public envisaged by the now inoperative 1789 Act.

Because the gateholders were in such complete control of the Stray there was little the Improvement Commissioners could do by way of interfering. Their relationship with the Stray Owners, as they were wrongly called, was not a cosy one and it was not improved when cab-stands which the Commissioners controlled through their hackney carriage powers were established on the sides of the Stray, for the Stray Owners charged a rent which the Commissioners advised the cabmen not to pay. As usually was the experience, when the case went to court the magistrates found against the Commissioners who left the cabmen to pay the piper. 

(For details of the hackney business, the treatment of animals and the carriage stand case see Notes 3 and 4).

It was annually the custom for the Cavalry to visit Harrogate in the late summer for exercises and, presumably because this afforded the visitors an entertaining spectacle, the Commissioners undertook to spend about 10 on the work necessary for the manoeuvres on the Stray.

It was also the practice to hold an annual race meeting on the Stray and it became the custom of the Commissioners to contribute l() towards preparations for this event. Henry Brown, a member of the family which had been last ditch opponents of the 1841 Act, put a stop to that. He appealed as a ratepayer against the expenditure of 10 in 1856 and won his case at the Knaresborough Sessions. Commenting on the Commissioners' accounts which had contained the record of that year's payment of 10, the Harrogate Advertiser said this was "one dark spot". The 10, it said, was given to the race committee "under the pretence of improving the Stray" and it should be appealed against. Mr. Brown took the hint, arguing that it was for the gateholders, not the Commissioners, to pay for improvements on the Stray.

The Stray Committee still had the upper hand in the sense that it could not be forced to effect public improvements. The need for tree planting continued and it was not until June, 1859, that Richard Ellis, never warmly disposed towards the Stray Owners, took a stand at a meeting of the Commissioners when he demanded and was granted the formation of a committee to inquire why the 15 acres of Stray had never been planted. That failure, said Ellis, amounted to embezzlement since the Stray Owners had obtained their extra 15 acres and had given nothing in exchange.

Ellis's aggressive attitude paid off. Whatever the special committee discovered as to the law on the subject, it was settled at a meeting of representatives of both sides that the Stray Owners would provide trees and plant them while the Commissioners, for their part, would pay for guards to protect the saplings. The project was to take six years with the planting of 120 trees each year. The trees would be 35 yards apart and would be shared between the Stray of High and Low Harrogate.

Five years later it was reported that the planting scheme had not been completed and that, worse, it was not very successful. It seems that many f the young saplings died for want of good soil and because of vandalism and the interest which cattle took in them. The need was for better soil which should be obtained from building excavations of which there were then plenty. Two years later difficulties were still being experienced. Tree guards costing 13s. each had been supplied by the Commissioners but it was considered that the saplings, which had cost but 2s. each, were "unworthy" of them. When slightly more mature trees were obtained, this time by the Commissioners, the gateholders complained that the herbage had been disturbed.

Planting and re-planting was still going on in 1868. The Harrogate Advertiser acidly commented that such saplings as had survived the earlier planting were still saplings and would be saplings for another 20 years. The gateholders were still betraying an unwillingness to take financial responsibility for tree planting and their secretary, James Powell (younger brother of Samuel Powell Jnr.), complained that his committee was still having to pay towards the improvements since a promise that the public would subscribe towards them had not been kept.

Meanwhile, Richard Ellis, who was at the forefront of every progressive scheme in the development of Harrogate, had been active once more on behalf of the public whose rights about the Stray he championed.

Until 1862. Harrogate had no central railway station. The Thirsk-Leeds line which passed through Starbeck had been opened (i.e. at Starbeck) in 1848 and a few years later the line branching from it to Knaresborough and York had been completed. Also, in 1848, the line from Church Fenton had been brought to its terminus at Brunswick Station which was built on land near to where Trinity Church now stands.

The need was for a central station which would enable the Church Fenton Line to be linked to the Leeds-Thirsk and York lines. Objections to this were that a central station would devalue central Harrogate property and that the line would have to cross the Stray. The objections were overcome but Ellis, who was a partner in the Victoria Park Company, through whose land the line would run after it had crossed the Stray, but who was not a gateholder, was intensely suspicious of the Stray committee's negotiations in reaching agreement with the railway company about the Stray crossing.

He suspected that the gateholders would enjoy a cash benefit from disposing of the land required for the crossing of the Stray and he was probably right. His own Victoria Park Company would also benefit, but that was another matter.

Thanks in great part to the fuss he made, the public's rights were safeguarded. The railway company was obliged to give some of its own land on the corner of what is now the West End estate to compensate for the cutting through the Stray. Moreover, it was required that the cutting across the Stray should be deep enough to hide the passage of the trains. It says something for the jealousy with which the public clung to its rights that it was even complained later that the extent of the Trinity triangle, given over as Stray when the demolition of Brunswick Station was completed, turned out to be three perches short of the area of land lost as Stray.

For more about the exchange of land, see Note 5.The schemes for tree planting had covered about a decade between 1859 and 1869. They had not been very successful and they had certainly been, if not resisted, at least but grudgingly supported by the Stray Committee. On the other hand, the Improvement Commissioners who from 1862 operated under the Local Government Acts rather than under their own unique Improvement Act, were becoming stronger in the sense that as Harrogate developed and its rateable value increased there was more money available for much-needed reforms. Unfortunately, the purchase of the Straygates was little more than an idea to be toyed with while such fundamental matters as the provision of a sewerage system and the building of the Victoria Baths (on the site of what are now the Council Offices) were priorities.

When in the late 1860s, Richard Ellis had a scheme for building the new baths on land which now constitutes the Valley Gardens, he wanted the Commissioners to acquire the Bogs Field which contained the Magnesia well and many other springs and which though it is not always well appreciated, constitutes a separate part of the Stray. A different site, the Victoria estate, was bought to house the new baths and nothing at that time came of the proposed purchase of the Bogs Field though this was in fact purchased from the Stray Committee in the early 1880s long before the Town Council steeled itself to buy out the Stray Owners' rights in the Stray proper.

In 1874 James Holroyd (whose brother, Joseph was much later to bequeath his Herring picture of a Horse Fair to the town) left 250 to the Commissioners to be spent on ornamenting the area of the Stray opposite the Holroyds' home in Esplanade, but this would have involved enclosure' and the bequest failed on that account. There was further the suspicion that such a scheme would enhance the value of the Holroyds' property.


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