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Chapter 6

The Final Act

 

Proposals for the purchase of the Stray by the Improvement Commissioners were brought up in 1875 and again in 1878.The more serious attempt was the latter. Negotiations spread over months but the longer the matter was discussed and each side stuck to its notion of a price (the Commissioners had 10,000 in mind, the Straygate owners, 15,000) the more disenchanted the townspeople became and though in the end a compromise figure of 12,500 was reached, the proposals came to nothing.

Readers will remember that in the days of Harrogate's early growth, before the introduction of the Improvement Act of 1841, it became customary for the inhabitants to hold public meetings when a project of a substantial nature was afoot. The system derived from the old vestry meetings of the early period of local government when the inhabitants were entitled to voice their opinions and to authorise or reject any scheme which lay beyond the bare minimum of services the township provided.

This concept of a "town meeting" was carried forward into the early reforms of local government and what a stumbling block to progress it proved to be! The statutory provisions for town's meetings were both minimal and vague but this did not prevent their exploitation by activists and, indeed, in Harrogate, sometimes Commissioners themselves, interested in a standstill policy. There was no surer way of putting the kiss of death on some progressive scheme than to submit it to the whim of a town's meeting which could be relied upon to vote against it if there was the slightest likelihood of its costing the ratepayers anything.

Time and again the technique worked and two examples that come readily to mind date back to the 1840s. In 1848 the Commissioners had a scheme for the provision of a market, a sorely needed amenity since tradesmen were understandably inclined to sell their commodities, especially fish, meat, fruit and vegetables direct to the hotels and lodging houses so that ordinary townspeople had their pick only after the best had lone. Yet the market scheme was firmly voted out at a town's meeting and Harrogate had to wait until 1874 for its Market Hall.

A year later, 1849, when negotiations with the newly-formed Gas Company, about the price and quantity of gas to be supplied to the few street lamps, were hanging fire, a town's meeting, convinced that the company was making enormous profits, an idea wildly contrary to reality, declared against an agreement and for months the town was nightly condemned to an Elizabethan gloom.

Once again, in 1878,it was a town's meeting that disposed of the project to purchase the Stray. The negotiations had dragged on so long that the townspeople had been given time to realise that they were being invited to pay 12,500 for effectively the same privileges they presently enjoyed for nothing.

What they did not quite bargain for in 1878 was the development by the Straygate owners, through their Committee, of the practice of leasing parts of the Stray for public entertainments. From the very start of the new form of statutory control given them by the 1841 Act, the Straygate owners had found ways and means of raising revenue, to offset the cost of improvements and maintenance, by letting off extra imaginary gates, charging the Improvement Commissioners for every inch of Stray taken over for footpaths (a most convenient transaction since a narrow path would be used by pedestrians in preference to the treading down of a wide route from A to B, thus preserving more of the herbage), and by charging rents for cab stands and occasional entertainments.

A time came with the always rising influx of summer visitors to Harrogate when the revenue from frequent lettings of areas for entertainment improved on the traditional rents charged for the extra gates - but of that, more shortly.

During the few years after 1878, a much more important topic than the Stray came to be argued over - the question of Incorporation. As always with any major enterprise in the town, this, the most important of all, was intensely argued and as always, Richard Ellis was in the forefront of the progressive party. Harrogate was growing at a remarkable pace and it was manifestly in the town's interests that it should acquire the dignity and status that would go with a Charter of Incorporation. Opposition, considerable though it was, finally gave way and in February, 1884, the Charter was granted and the Town Council was elected. For the most part, the Charter gave the town a much improved status and dignity but little else by way of powers, except that plural voting at non-secret elections was abolished and for the first time the Ballot Act operated with a resumption of one man, one vote, cast for the first time in Harrogate in secrecy. Hitherto, tradesmen and workers had been obliged to decide which candidates for the Board of Commissioners they would please and which they would offend.

There remained a need for powers which were not contained in the national legislation or in what remained of the 1841 Act and subsequent provisional orders and for some years the enterprise of the new Town Council was restricted to the acquisition of land including the Town Hall site (adjoining the present Public Library) on which a town hall was never to be built, and the Valley Gardens, together with the purchase of the Montpellier Estate which was later to house the Royal Baths.

The Council needed among other things, the power to provide entertainments and to advertise, but most of all it needed the power to purchase the Straygates. During the years from 1884 itinerant musicians and entertainers (largely of the coloured minstrel kind) "infested" the town, as the Editor of the Harrogate Herald put it. The Stray Committee reaped useful revenue and there was entertainment galore outdoors for visitors and townspeople alike but for the people whose homes or hotel rooms fronted the Stray these competing activities amounted to an intolerable nuisance.

Nothing more strongly motivated the Council in resolving to purchase the Stray and to get statutory power to do so than the need impressed on it by the Stray frontagers to exercise some form of control over the 200 acres and it was indeed this motive which tended to silence critics, who, under earlier circumstances, were not prepared to pay for what they already had, free of charge.

For so important a measure to the town, the Improvement Bill as it was first called, which became the Harrogate Corporation Act of 1893. had a remarkably easy passage both in town's meeting and House of Commons Committee, the matter for greatest dispute in the latter being the academic question whether the ditches alongside the slip road (which had been added to compensate for loss of acreage from tree planting) were themselves to be measured as part of the Stray.

The Duchy of Lancaster not only seized on the Corporation's proposal that no entertainments, sermons, or music should take place within 75 yards of any building but lengthened the distance to 100 yards and further increased it by substituting "enclosures" for "buildings". In the event there was a typical compromise. Events must be distant by 75 yards from any enclosure, which necessarily meant the fence or garden wall of a building.

The Act of 1893 has, all told, served its purpose well. Its preamble summarised the existing legislation and, while acknowledging that the Stray Committee had acted in accordance with the authority given it by the 1841 Act, went on to say that "such continued management of the Stray is not for the benefit of the inhabitants of Harrogate or of persons resorting to the Stray, and such powers are insufficient". Moreover, it would be of public and local advantage if control and management of the Stray, discharged from the pasture gates exercisable thereon, were vested in the Corporation.

To achieve this end, the Act vested all rights of pasture in the Corporation and required the authority to pay 230 per gate to the Straygate holders and an additional payment of 280 to the Duchy of Lancaster by way of quit rent to secure the freehold of such gates as still remained copyhold. The total cost was 11,780.The stint which had been such a revered feature of the 1778 Award but which had been cleverly circumvented by. and since, the 1841 Act, was now by-passed altogether. With all the pasture rights vested in one body there was no further need of a stint regulating the number of animals which might be grazed, for the one body could harm only itself by over-grazing.

Clause 10 of the Act required the Corporation to keep the Stray at all times (except as in the Act provided) unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. Subsequent clauses required the Corporation to preserve as far as possible the Stray's natural aspect and state and to protect trees, shrubs, plants, turf, and herbage growing on it, and to prevent damage by felling, lopping, cutting etc. As to powers, the Corporation might among other things improve the pasture of the Stray, make and maintain roads, footpaths, and ways on it; plant trees and shrubs for ornament and shelter, and erect temporary enclosures to protect them. There was also power to let the pasturage and to provide and maintain pounds (for straying or trespassing cattle). The 13th clause revived the power in the 1841 Act to build over the wells and to charge for admission a maximum of 3s. per week, and the 14th clause forbade digging on the Stray, or the removal of gravel, sand, stone, or other material.

The power to make by-laws for the control of the Stray was vested in the Corporation and though most of these were to be concerned with the necessary proper management and control so as to prevent abuses, damage, and danger, including matters envisaged in the previous clauses, the by-laws were to give the Corporation manifest power to set aside parts of the Stray for games and sports, sermons and speeches, entertainments, and horse exercise, and some of these in turn envisaged the provision of temporary enclosures. Moreover, further clauses made it clear that not only was there power to erect bandstands, shelters, and temporary enclosures but also power to provide seating and to charge for its use, a power which the Corporation might delegate to others.

Finally, a clause gave power to erect cab shelters and lavatories but the latter, if within 75 yards of any enclosure, must be underground.

The long-need authority to provide entertainment was obtained in a clause which allowed the Corporation to spend up to a Id. rate for the provision of bands "in any public place".

Two important concepts were enshrined in the Act over and above the age-old concept of the Stray's being kept forever open and unenclosed. One was that certain kinds of recreation would, by their very nature at times, physically discourage the public's access to every square inch of the 200 acres, and certain kinds of entertainment could require temporary enclosures. These provisions did no more than enlarge the basic concept of the Stray as a place for enjoyment by entertaining the idea of temporary restriction or enclosure. The one abiding prohibition was so much as the very thought of permanent enclosure.

It is much to be doubted whether anyone experienced in the government of Harrogate seriously believed that with this comprehensive piece of legislation which vested the Stray and its management in the hands of the Town Council as trustees all controversy would be at an end.

On the contrary, the very nuisances permitted by the Stray Committee which more than anything had influenced public opinion in favour of the taking over of the Stray by the Corporation were perpetuated by the Council. What the Herald described as "fair ground troupes" were, if anything, more in evidence than ever by 1895 and the noise and turmoil similarly increased. In its efforts to see that Harrogate lacked nothing by way of entertainment the Council overdid things. It sponsored a Town Band which gave free concerts out of doors and at the same time it invited the itinerant entertainers to compete with them on pitches on the Stray for which rents were charged. Mr. Sidney Jones and his Orchestra attracted the paying kind of patron to the Spa Rooms, then still under private management, the Town Hall Theatre (the self-same Promenade Room of 1806 enlarged in 1875. and now the Old Town Hall, Swan Road) provided privately-sponsored very distinguished theatrical entertainment, and visiting circuses occupied for many weeks at a time a site on the Dragon Fields where residential development of the Dragon Estate had barely begun.

Within a matter of eight years, the Grand Opera House would be built, the Spa Rooms would be acquired by the Corporation and the Kursaal, later named the Royal Hall, would embark on a fabulous career of music-making, but the taste for outdoor entertainment remained, apparently encouraged by summers which markedly improved on modern experience during that glorious Edwardian period.

After the excesses of 1895, it seems that the Corporation learned, in the memorable phrase of Richard Ellis (delivered in an entirely different context), to "draw it mild". Older readers, however, may well remember the days when Punch and Judy and pierrots shows were held on West Park Stray and certainly were to be found in the area known as Bogs Field at the apex of the Valley Gardens.

As aviation developed before 1914, the noted airman, Blackburn, not only was allowed to use the Stray as an airfield but also to provide short flights for the then brave spirits prepared to pay a fee. In 1925, the Stray was a landing point in the King's Cup Air Race and in later years there were special occasions when the Stray was a temporary airfield. It was the use of the Stray for either the Great Yorkshire Show or the Royal Show (the latter was in 1929) which evoked some opposition from the very early Stray Defenders who claimed their right to walk across the enclosed area and in the 1930s, as in the years after the 1939-45 war, the Stray was used for the Harrogate Flower Show.

One usage which evoked a good deal of angry opposition was the staging of polo matches in the mid-1930s, but this needs in retrospect to seen more as reaction following an earlier and much more substantial controversy of the early 1930s than as a complaint founded on any sort of legality, for the 1893 Act unquestionably permitted temporary enclosures.

What it did not permit in any certain sense was the formation of the flower beds which were introduced on an unhappy day with the best of intentions along the edge of West Park Stray. It would be wrong to imagine that the people who objected to the flower beds were making a great fuss about very little. An important principle was at stake. The law said nothing whatever about flower beds. Trees, plants, shrubs, yes, but no mention of flower beds. If this failure to observe the Act were allowed to slip through, then goodness knows what might happen next. The controversy raged for two years. A Stray Defence Association was formed and its candidates made alarming headway at municipal elections.

Nothing could have been more unfortunate for Harrogate's local government, for the continued stubbornness of the Council is refusing for months to return the flower beds to greensward brought its members into disrepute and when the battle had been fought and won by the Stray Defenders, many ratepayers were convinced opponents of the Council and all its works. A Ratepayers' Association followed, as the night the day, and this at a time when Harrogate's fortunes as a spa were on a downward slope.

The 1939-45 war brought a new economy to Harrogate and a new use for the Stray. From the digging of trench traps to discourage enemy aircraft from landing, the Council turned to cultivation in the interests of food production. The once green pastures, from which, by the way, cattle had long since disappeared since their tendency to roam was at odds with the horseless carriage, became great areas of immemorial wheat. Elsewhere, allotments prevailed.

With the end of the war and the slow return to normality, the cultivated areas of the Stray were re-drained and re-seeded. Highly efficient motor mowers have turned the Stray into vast and precious lawns.

Though every now and then some idea crops up for making a use of the Stray that would be inimical to its tradition, and has to be put down again, there is no doubt that the Stray's management is admirable. Early in the years after the war, the late Sir Bernard Lomas-Walker initiated a scheme for planting crocus and daffodil bulbs on some of the Stray's verges. Any fears he and the parks director had that townspeople would resent this proved to be groundless. Not only were people delighted with the effect; not a word of opposition was raised largely perhaps because the casual planting of bulbs might well be quite legal. Certainly, it was a very different matter from the laying out of formal flower beds.

It would be unwise, however, to imagine that there is no longer any need for a Stray Defence Association, dormant though it may now seem to be. The need now and in the future is to ensure that far from permitting so much as the slightest diminution of the Stray's area, its acreage whenever possible should be increased and that this shall be the net effect of any future changes.

It is, on the whole, just as well that when replacement trees are planted at a greater distance from the roadways than the old, people should ask why, concerned that this might one day allow for a widening of the roads. The answer, of course, is that the replacements must have space to grow in.

The situation we have reached today, 200 years after the Stray was awarded, is that though Stray Defenders may be reasonably satisfied that major changes and objectionable abuses of the Stray are things of the past, they are jealous of their heritage to the point where they would not willingly sanction some actions that would lie well within the powers of the local authority.

 
 

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