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Note 5

The Railway Cutting

 

Richard Ellis had demonstrated his distrust of the Stray Owners in 1859 when he attacked them about their failure to plant trees on the Stray. He had relied on the moribund 1789 Act for his view that the Stray Owners should plant trees if they were to take the 15 acres (it was more than 19 acres) of roadside herbage by way of compensation but the 1841 Act had placed no legal obligation on the Stray Owners in this matter of ornamentation and, as we have seen, it finally devolved on the Commissioners to take a share in the tree planting at the expense of the ratepayers, and the lion's share at that.

The question of the Stray crossing for the railway line into Central Harrogate came just a year later when Ellis's dislike of the Stray Owners was at its height. When he initiated a campaign on the subject he knew he was speaking for the public. The controversy is worthy of detailed examination, for until then nothing had so greatly excited public opinion.

In mid-September, 1860, the North Eastern Railway Company advertised that a meeting would be held in the Brunswick Hotel of the parties having commonable rights and other rights in the Stray to form a committee of five who would treat with the company for the extinction of the common rights in respect of a little more than two acres of the Stray required for the railway crossing from Tewit Well to York Place. Ellis seized on the words "other rights", for that would include the public in general which had the perpetual and statutory right of access to and over the Stray and he had no difficulty in persuading his fellow Commissioners to send a deputation to the meeting consisting of himself, George Beazley, Edward Pullan, and J.J. Harrison, the banker. They went with an instruction to obtain from the railway company an equal portion of land on the site of the Brunswick Station to that which would be taken for the crossing of the Stray.

It was not a satisfactory meeting for the deputation of Commissioners. The local M. P., Basil Woodd, was chairman and at the outset he refuted a suggestion by a private individual, William Watson, of Elmwood, who said that though he did not own a Straygate he nevertheless had along with all other people, the right to ride, walk, or drive over the Stray and consequently had the right, like any other member of the public, to a vote at the meeting. George Beazley was similarly unsuccessful in persuading Woodd that the public had a right to representation. Only Straygate owners had the right either to take part in the meeting or to vote at it, said Woodd.

Richard Ellis explained that the Commissioners were concerned on behalf of the public who would be satisfied if they obtained an equivalent in land since they did not seek a monetary compensation. The Commissioners were there because it was understood that the Stray Owners wished to make it a money compensation. Woodd commented that it had been premature on the part of the Commissioners to assume that the Stray Owners desired to pocket the money which would be realised.

Watson, with John Barber who though a Commissioner was attending the meeting as an inhabitant, moved that the committee empowered to negotiate with the company should consist of Harrison, Beazley, Ellis, T Hall (of the Granby Hotel, a Straygate owner), and Richard Carter. On the grounds that only gate owners had a right to take part in the meeting, James Powell (their secretary) moved that the five should be Woodd, Hall, Carter, Richard Whincup, and himself. The Advertiser's report says the chairman refused to put the first motion and consequently the amendment was carried.

Reporting to the Commissioners about the Brunswick meeting, Ellis said the Commissioners had been treated in an "ungentlemanly manner" by the chairman, Woodd, who had omitted to put the first motion to the meeting. When refusing to put the motion, said Ellis, Mr. Woodd had explained that he had already done so "but nobody had heard it". Later, Mr. Woodd was to adhere to that statement (that he had indeed put the motion but that nobody had heard it) whereupon Beazley acidly observed, in the subsequent discussion, that if that was indeed the case, then it would have been a courtesy on Mr. Woodd's part to put the motion again.

Frustrated so far, the Commissioners felt the matter to be far too important to be left to the mercies of the Straygate owners. They accepted Ellis's advice that, in order to strengthen their hands, they should call a public meeting and at the same time seek a legal opinion on the situation.

Within the week the public meeting was held and it says something for public feeling on the subject that despite the short notice and "the inclemency of the weather" the Town Hall (i.e. the Victoria Room, now the Old Town Hall) was crowded to capacity. William Watson was appointed chairman and in his opening remarks left his audience in no doubt about his opinion of the Straygate owners. The 1841 Act had made the owners a corporate body and since Straygates and the powers that went with them were saleable, they were the worst kind of closed corporation. In fact, he said, the owners owned nothing more than the right of eatage. The public should have enjoyed a say at the Brunswick meeting, for they held precisely the "other rights" to which the advertisement calling the Brunswick meeting had referred.

Ellis rehearsed all his opposition to the Straygate owners who, he said, had always given themselves away by putting a higher value on the public's rights than on their own. This he neatly explained by pointing out that when the owners wished to sell a portion of the Stray (e.g. for a path) and so to surrender their own rights (of pasturage) they charged hut is. 6d. a yard. If, however, the purchaser wished to enclose the area bought then they charged 5s. a yard because then the public would be deprived of its rights. As to the generosity of the Straygate owners in planting the Stray, he reminded the audience that the owners had paid 5 for trees while the Commissioners had paid 100 for tree guards. That was a specimen of their "generosity".

Richard Carter speaking rather on behalf of the owners introduced an argument which had not previously been advanced. He held that the public's rights of access to the Stray did not take precedence over the rights of the gate owners, for the original gate owners had been copyholders in the Forest of Knaresborough. Their copyhold of the Stray gates was on a par with their other copyholds except that the gates were never to be enclosed. The owners had been "twitted" about spending only 5 on trees but the fact was that they had spent large sums on draining and improving the Stray which within his own memory had been largely a bog. His advice was to let the owners and the railway company go ahead with their negotiations and not to interfere. The owners would see that the public's rights were maintained. The meeting did not share his confidence or his viewpoint. Ellis insisted that the first object in setting aside the 200 acres had been to preserve the public's right of access to the wells.

Beazley thought that if they followed Richard Carter's advice they would find that the owners would simply pocket the proceeds of the compensation. They would certainly not ask the public how they were to spend it. The loss of the land for the railway cutting would be an absolute loss to the public whereas a path merely represented a loss of herbage to the gate owners.

Predictably, the meeting endorsed the Commissioners' activities on behalf of the public in pressing for land compensation. There was in fact remarkably little the Commissioners could do about the negotiations between the owners and the railway company. In May, 1861, Ellis raised the subject at a Commissioners' meeting in his capacity as spokesman for the unsuccessful deputation to the Brunswick meeting in the previous Autumn. He had no further information about the possibility of an exchange of land and it was agreed to ask the gate owners how much cash compensation they were getting for the railway cutting and also how much land in exchange.

Ellis must have known how at least one of the questions would be answered. Clearly he was seeking to emphasise the closed corporation aspect of the Straygate holders. The answers, from Thomas Hall, were that the owners would receive an equal area to that taken for the line but that as to money compensation he "altogether declined to give the information sought by the Commissioners". At the Brunswick meeting in the previous Autumn, Ellis had said the public would be satisfied if it got land by way of compensation and on the face of it he should now have been content with Hall's assurance that the land in compensation would be forthcoming. His dissatisfaction with the gateholders now went further than that. He persuaded the Commissioners to appoint a sub-committee consisting of himself, Edward Pullan, and George Beazley, to take such measures as they thought desirable to obtain information about the compensation agreed to be paid by the railway company to the gateholders and generally to watch the interests of the public.

It was all a waste of time. Though the 1841 Act required the Stray Committee to keep accounts it contained no provisions for the enforcement of their publication. The public was never to learn how much the gateholders received for the land they surrendered. The resentment this caused lingered long after the Brunswick station was demolished and the land it had occupied was included within the Stray. Seen from the public's viewpoint, it was necessary only to ensure that the area received in exchange was equal to that given up but from the gateholders' viewpoint the land they surrendered was worth far more than the land received in exchange. The difference, in cash terms, was for them, and presumably they pocketed it.

 
 

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