Harrogate’s development as a prosperous and flourishing spa town dates back to the 16th century.
William Slingsby discovered the first spring in 1571 in the area now known as High Harrogate. It was named the Tewit Well Spring and the water coming from this spring was found to be medicinal. People, rich and poor, began to come in increasingly large numbers to test the curative powers of the waters.
By the late 1600s more springs, including the sulphur spring, in Low Harrogate had been discovered. The different waters were recommended for the treatment of a variety of ailments including scurvy, epilepsy and skin complaints such as ulcers and sores. The springs were by now being used by travellers from all over the country.
The waters come from an ancient geological sea far below the earth’s surface and rise up through faults in the Carboniferous rock.
When first discovered, the waters simply ran into the surrounding ground creating a marshy area. Visitors brought along their own ladles and cups to scoop up the water, or put it directly onto their skin.
However, the increasing numbers of visitors and rising knowledge of disease led to four wellheads being erected in 1772.
In order to provide facilities for the increasing numbers of visitors to Harrogate, accommodation and entertainment venues were built through the Georgian period (1714 to 1830) and through Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 to 1901).
Harrogate gained its own 'season', between May and September each year, when it was fashionable for the rich, famous and aristocratic to gather in the town.
From the 1800s, more and more spa buildings were built to meet demand. One of these was the Royal Pump Room (the building that now houses the museum), a grand octagonal building opened in 1842 to replace the earlier building that had covered the popular Old Sulphur Well. Under cover from the elements, and at a charge, the water was served in a glass and customers could enjoy bands while they promenaded in the building. To meet the needs of the poor, who also continued to require access to the sulphur water, a free tap was provided outside the building. This tap remains to this day, although it is no longer recommended for drinking!
There was an established daily routine at the Pump Room. Visitors would arrive between 7am and 9am and drink one or more glasses of water. Afterwards they would join the promenaders outside where they would concentrate on fashion, gossip and music before taking breakfast. Shortly afterwards the chronically sick would have hot bath treatments, whilst others would go shopping, sightseeing or attend parties. Doctors recommended that the basic length of ‘the cure’ should be for a period not less than three weeks.
The treatment element of 'the cure' was received at other sites in the town. In the early days of the spa town, waters would have been collected by hotel staff for their residents and brought back to the hotel for them to bathe in. However, specialist spa treatment establishments were later developed in the town. One of these was the new Victoria Baths, which opened in 1871 with separate treatment rooms and bathing pools for men and women. This was followed by the Royal Baths, which opened in 1897. The Royal Baths were designed to provide a luxurious setting for specialist hydrotherapy treatments to compete with other European spas.
Venues were also established in the town to cater for the society element of spa town life and provided places for socialising and entertainment. Visitors could gather and socialise at the Promenade Room, which was built in 1805 and remodelled by Arthur Hiscoe in 1875. This building is now the Mercer Art Gallery and is home to Harrogate's fine art collection.
However, the popularity of the spa was not to go on forever. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 saw medical treatment available for all and there was a feeling that ‘the cure’ was no longer necessary. One by one the wells fell into decay and the Royal Pump Room closed. It was used as a café for some time and then reopened as a museum in 1953.