Our Heritage with Malcolm Neesam – Harrogate’s Central Railway Station anniversary

The central railway station after the additions of 1896-7.
The central railway station after the additions of 1896-7.

For local people, recent Government news about plans to upgrade certain railway routes has been timely, in as much as it coincides with the 150th anniversary of the opening of Harrogate’s central Railway Station on August 1, 1862.

At the beginning of 1860, visitors arriving at Harrogate by railway had to disembark at either the Brunswick Station at the junction of Otley and Leeds Roads, or, at Starbeck Station, which like the Brunswick, had been opened in 1848. This was hardly convenient for visitors travelling to Harrogate for the spa season, nor was it of any use to the increasing numbers of retailers who sprang up in central Harrogate as a result of the Victoria Park company’s activities.

Thomas Prosser's 1862 Harrogate railway station.

Thomas Prosser's 1862 Harrogate railway station.

The Improvement Commissioners who then ran Harrogate were aware of public dissatisfaction with the lack of a convenient railway station, and on September 3 1860, they agreed to send a memorial to the railway company, asking them to complete the branch line to central Harrogate in time for the season of 1861.

Although the Victoria Park company had an interest in the successful outcome of this project, it does not appear to have dominated the progress of their developments. The tricky question of crossing the Stray had to be dealt with, before work could begin on the link line.

Richard Ellis came up with the answer: land lost by excavating a cutting across south Stray could be compensated by adding to the Stray some of the land from the soon-to-be-redundant Brunswick Railway Station.

A public meeting at the Brunswick Hotel (today the Prince of Wales Mansions) on October 15, 1860, recorded public support for the efforts of the Improvement Commissioners to effect an exchange of land for land. Prompted by these developments, the railway company began construction work for the new central railway line in 1861, but on April 1, the Improvement Commissioners heard that slow progress was being made, and that the Navvies had left the town.

Malcolm Neesam

Malcolm Neesam

A letter was sent by the Improvement Commissioners to the railway company, urging more speed. Somewhat late in the day, the so-called “Stray Gate” owners (who controlled the surface of the Stray) entered the argument on May 13 1861 with news that they, as a group, supported the concept of an equal quantity exchange of land for the cutting construction. No doubt their comments were heard by the Improvement Commissioners with a feeling of “better late than never”.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing the railway company was the purchasing of five acres of land from the estate of the former Dragon Hotel, owned by the wealthy Joshua Bower. Although the railway possessed the power of compulsory purchase, Mr Bower was entitled to compensation, and as the two failed to reach agreement, the matter went to arbitration, which was heard in May 1861.

Bower received only £4,850, instead of the £11,000 of the original estimate of the losses he had incurred as a result of the railway company’s crossing of his Dragon Estate. Despite Bower’s opposition, work on the new central railway link continued, the line and new station being opened on August 1, 1862.

Historian Grainge later estimated that the cost of the five acres, one rood and seven perches of land from the Dragon estate had been £4,850, and that the four and one half mile link had cost nearly £100,000 to build. The new central station, isolated in green fields, had been designed for North Eastern Railways by Thomas Prosser with two facing platforms without either bridge or subway link, an unsatisfactory state of affairs not rectified until 1873 when a footbridge was added.

It was the first major structure in Harrogate to have been built of brick. It used a pleasing mixture of warm red brick, seen on many other North Eastern Railway Stations, and Pease’s white glazed brick (also known as Scarborough brick). The windows of the long, single storey structure, had architraves of sandstone, with attractive arched tops. Each end was terminated by a slightly taller square water tower.

The new line, sometimes referred to as the Harrogate loop line, consisted of a connection between the Leeds to Thirsk main line, and the Church Fenton branch. The Brunswick Station closed shortly afterwards, the land then being added to the Stray as compensation for the loss incurred during the making of the cutting. It was reported that a large crowd welcomed the arrival of the first train,which was the 5.52 am arrival from Leeds. At this time, Harrogate Railway Station had only one platform, but in 1866, a second one was added on the eastern side .

Despite the harsh penalties magistrates could inflict on criminals convicted of violent crime, railway staff were often attacked by members of the public. The edition of the Harrogate Advertiser for June 21 1902 carried a recollection of an assault on Harrogate’s first station master, Charles Matthews: “In 1864, Mr Charles Matthews, the first Station Master, whilst on duty, was brutally assaulted by a gang of militia men, and for six months lay at death’s door. … It appears that on Saunday nights the station used to be place of resort for young folk, and that passengers by train were much annoyed by the general behaviour of the militia men. In view of the complaints made, Mr Matthews decided to exclude the militia men from the platform.

This the men resented, knocked the porter in charge down, rushed on the platform, and, attacking the station master with buckled belts, left him unconscious on the ground. As a result, however, terms of imprisonment varying from, six months to five years followed.

The staff in the early years comprised the station master, ticket collector, and eight porters. The 1862 opening of the central railway station was a powerful boost to the Victoria Park Company’s expansion of central Harrogate, leading to the impressive developments of Richard Ellis in James Street, and George Dawson at Cambridge and Prospect Crescents.

Thomas Prosser’s new station building, along with its further embellishment in 1896-7, provided Harrogate with an efficient and spacious railway station, that served the town well until its totally unnecessary demolition in 1965.

It is therefore appropriate that Northern Rail, with the help of current station master Colton Hyde, and the co-operation of Harrogate Civic Society, have commissioned a traditional plaque to mark the railway station’s 150th anniversary. The new plaque will be fixed in the station’s entrance hall, and unveiled by the mayor at 3.30pm on Wednesday, August 1, members of the public being welcome to attend the event.

A further event has been planned by Northern Rail on Saturday, August 4, with a special railway event to celebrate the anniversary. There will be a number of vintage vehicles in the car park, such as a bus, an ambulance and a fire engine. There will be black and white movie footage showing local people heading off on holiday by rail to the Yorkshire coast from the 1920s up to the 1960s. There will also be a model railway, stalls from local businesses and charities, refreshments, memorabilia display, a prize raffle and we will have a fancy dress competition for anyone who comes in Victorian style clothes. The event will be open from 10am until 4pm and Northern Rail are calling it a Family Fun Day. Well done Northern Rail.

Readers wanting to know more about Harrogate’s railway history can also consult James Rogers fine book Railways of Harrogate District. My thanks to Mr Bill Counter for supplying me with historic railway photographs.