Fascinating history of Cedar Court

The history of the Cedar Court Hotel dates back to c.1671. (S)
The history of the Cedar Court Hotel dates back to c.1671. (S)

Today, Queen Building is occupied by the Cedar Court Hotel, a name adopted when the refurbished building was opened in the spring of 1999, but for most of the time between c.1671 and 1999, the building was known as the Queen Hotel.

Visitors began arriving in Harrogate after 1571, when William Slingsby discovered the Tewit Well, and such numbers increased when a second well, the so-called “Sweet Spa” was discovered by Michael Stanhope in 1631. It was therefore understandable that when Harrogate’s first custom built hotel was erected, the site was half way between both mineral wells.

According to which historian is consulted, the Queen’s Head (to use its earliest name) was erected in either 1671 or 1687, the former being the most likely date. There are several amusing descriptions of the difficulties encountered by visitors to Harrogate, before the opening of the Queen’s Head Inn.

When the Verney family visited Harrogate in 1665, Lady Verney described her experience in a letter: “Harrogate, 4th June 1665. The first inst. We arived att the nasty Spaw, and have now began to drinke the horid sulfer watter, which all thowgh as bad as is posable to be immajaned, yet in my judgmnent plesent, to all the doings we have within doorse, the House and all that is in it being horidly nasty, and crowded up with all sorte of company, which we eate with in a roome, as the spiders are redy to drope into my mouthe, and it sure hathe nethor been well cleaned nor ared this doseuen years, it makes me much moare sick than the nasty watter.”

When the new inn was built, the name of Queen’s Head was taken in recognition of the role of King Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza, who in 1665 was granted the Duchy of Lancaster revenues from the surrounding Royal Forest. Harrogate’s new inn, with its gratifyingly regal sign of the Queen’s Head, must have proved a success, as it was followed within a few years by two further large inns, the Dragon, said to have been named after a favourite race horse of Charles II, and the Granby.

Each of these establishments formed the apex of the High Harrogate triangle, and determined the physical appearance and growth of High Harrogate, whose geographical centre was the town’s principal place of worship, St John’s, later Christ Church.

This old well appears to have been abandoned by about 1850, although doubtless its water still rises beneath the Stray between the Cedar Court Hotel and the York Road. Something of the size of the old Queen Hotel and its associated farm, may be found in the plan of the great Award of 1778, in which the Crown – through the Duchy of Lancaster – presented the Stray to the town.

Plot number 268, held by John Coates, contained 27 acres, and reached back from the Stray frontage well into what is now Station Square in Central Harrogate. Here was land enough to provide visitors not only with fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products, but also pleasant gardens and walks. By the time the hotel and estate were sold in 1827, the farm lands contained no less than 70 acres, which shows how the hotel had increased its food production to cope with increasing numbers of visitors.

One famous name to be associated with the Queen’s Head Inn during the early 18th century was that of Jack Metcalf, otherwise known as Blind Jack, the Yorkshire road maker. Blinded by smallpox at the age of six, Jack Metcalf nevertheless went on to enjoy a varied and colourful life as a musician, soldier, road maker, and lover.

His autobiography refers to his being summoned to Harrogate in 1732, when the Queen’s Head Inn was building a “long room” for the pleasure of its guests, in order to supercede the old fiddler, Morrison, who at 100 years of age, was said to be incapable to playing his fiddle fast enough for the new dances. The old “long room” is now the Cedar Court Hotel’s ballroom, and this is where Blind Jack played his fiddle over 250 years ago.

It was also the fashion, at this time, to provide live music during the breakfast hour, and in his autobiography, Blind Jack relates that it was his habit of serenading guests during their breakfast. On another occasion, Blind Jack undertook, for a wager, to ride from the inn to Knaresborough Market Cross, and back, in less time than one other man could gather 120 stones laid at regular distances of a yard each, putting them all into a basket placed at the end of one line. Blind Jack won his wager!

In early December 1762, the famous poet, Thomas Gray, visited the Queen’s Head, after crossing “the ugly moor of Harrowgate” in the course of a journey to Leeds. It seems that at about this time, the three great High Harrogate hotels were catering to what today is called specific client groups! The lordly Granby, with its aristocratic patronage, was nicknamed the House of Lords, whereas the Dragon, patronised by the fast set, including gamblers, men of the turf, the military, and high livers such as the Duchess of Marborough, was nicknamed the House of Commons.

The Queen’s Head however, patronised by the wealthy middle classes – bankers, indusrialists, commercial men, etc, – bore the nickname of the Manchester Warehouse! To cater to these guests, Landlord Gilbertson advertised in the York Courant for 2nd May 1769, that he had instituted many improvements to the hotel, including new stables, coach houses and other conveniences, and that the Long Room had been “finished and fitted up in a genteel manner”.

By 1775 however, John Gilbertson had retired, to be succeeded by his son, Robert, who with his wife Ann, offered the Queen’s Head’s guests the luxury of special warm baths. At this period, the common method of bathing in the Harrogate waters – but let author Smollett provide the account, taken from his visit to Harrogate in 1766: “At night, I was conducted into a dark hole on the ground floor, where the tub of hot sulphur water smoked and stunk like the pot of hell in one corner, and in another stood a dirty bed provided with thick blankets – used by at least thirty other people - in which I was to sweat after coming out of the bath…”

This method of bathing was the subject of much criticism from the medical profession, so the Gilbertsons were wise in providing improvements, which were described in a newspaper advertisement of 26th June 1781: “As many objections have been made to the usual mode of bathing in tubs, in order to accommodate them in a more convenient manner, Robert and Ann Gilbertson have been at considerable expense in erecting a warm bath upon a similar construction to those used in the Medicated Baths in York.”

Thus far, I have described the history of the modern Cedar Court Hotel over its first 100 years. The story of the hotel’s next 250 years will be told in a later Advertiser.