Harrogate for Health and Happiness: A 20th Century Spa Town at the Pump Room Museum

By Richard Moss | 19 January 2012
a colourised postcard showing a busy street scene next to a rotunda style building in the Edwardian period
An Edwardian postcard promoting the joys of the sulphur springs in Harrogate© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
Exhibition: Harrogate for Health and Happiness – A Spa Town in the 20th Century, Royal Pump Room Museum, Harrogate, January 21 - December 31 2012

Today it may be the tea rooms, gardens, shopping and the gentile ambience that draws tourists to the serene North Yorkshire town of Harrogate, but most visitors know that its fame and wealth are rooted in its reputation as a spa town.

From the 17th century through the Georgian and Victorian periods and up until the 1960s, visitors flocked to the town to take in a range of local treatments and spa waters.

Now a new exhibition at Harrogate's historic Royal Pump Room Museum – itself a late Victorian relic of the Spa town boom – is inviting visitors to get a taste for the water by exploring Harrogate's long but last hurrah as a spa town in the 20th century. 

Through a collection of photographs, recently unearthed film footage, personal memories and objects visitors are introduced to a world in aspic that was conjured beautifully by the cricket writer, AA Thompson, in his 1936 autobiography The Exquisite Burden:

"There were countless old ladies who spent the whole summer at Harrogate. They were a race apart," he wrote.

"They were always very stout, very kindly and very rich. You generally saw them in carriages. They were not going anywhere in particular.

"They were just going for a drive. Sometimes you saw them being towed up the steepest walks by bent bath-chair men."

The Royal Baths, which opened in 1897 with the aim of being the most advanced centre for hydrotherapy in the world, catered to their health needs by offering a variety of treatments.

a photograph of a woman up to her neck in a peat bath attended by a woman in white unifrom
A Peat Bath (circa 1946)© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
These ranged from encasing willing victims in a sulphurous mass of heated peat – specially imported from Thorne, near Doncaster – to the Vichy Bath, a shower-turned-bath (with massages thrown in) which mimicked the fabled restorative powers of the French resort town's waters. 

After the First World War, the range of treatments were expanded to include Plombieres treatment, a form of colonic irrigation.

Newly discovered 1930s film footage reveals people enjoying some of these treatments - thankfully not the latter - including peat baths, as well as spa water drinkers at the Royal Pump Room. This original footage, recently deposited with the Yorkshire Film Archive, was found at Harrogate Library.

"Some of the treatments involving massage look relaxing, but others, like a nasal douche, probably using sulphur water, look very unpleasant," says Curator of Human History Ros Watson. "The electrical treatments look rather scary, too."

Visitors to the museum can also see examples of the Vichy Bath and a teak example of the Peat Bath, which was moved along on wheels and rails to the treatment room.

The role of the town during wartime is also explored through photographs and memories. During World War I a number of local hospitals were opened for the wounded, and the Second World War saw an influx of civil servants from different government departments in Blitz-torn London and many local hotels were taken over.

In 1944, plans were developed in Harrogate to reinvigorate the spa as a centre for the study and treatment of rheumatic disease. Throughout the 1950s the NHS sent patients to Harrogate, and by 1955 130,000 treatments were given annually.

But by March 1966 treatments at the Royal Baths had stopped, and Harrogate ceased to be a spa and the town was left to prosper by other means. These photographs, films and memories recall a heyday very well.

More pictures from the exhibition:

a black and white postcard photograph showing the Edwardian styled interior of a spa lobby
The interior of the Royal Pump Room© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a black and white photograph of a group of five women wearing 1920s flapper dresses
A church fundraising fashion show© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a colourful painting full of figures using a public garden
Anna Zinheisen, The Valley Gardens (circa 1933)© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a photo of a man up to his neck in a peat bath attended by a man in a white coat
Male Peat Bath - the peat came from Thorne near Doncaster and was often mixed with sulphur water and heated© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a black and white photo of women in a sap pool attended by women in white coats
The Physiotherapy Pool© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a black and white photo of a woman receiving ultra violet treatment from a lamp
UV treatment at the Royal Baths or Royal Bath Hospital© North Yorkshire County Council Unnetie Digital Archive
a photograph of injured soldiers of the First World War with crutches and slings etc together with nurses on the steps of a hospital building
Soldiers & Nurses outside hospital (circa World War I)© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a photo of a group of a group of women cheerfully sweeping up the broken galss of a storefront window
Sweeping up bomb damage (circa World War II)© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
a black and white photo of a man having a massage
A Vichy Bath in use at the Royal Baths (circa 1950)© Courtesy Harrogate Borough Council
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