Malcolm Neesam: Farewell to Crescent Gardens
Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam looks back at the council's early days at Crescent Gardens as they prepare to move to new purpose built offices. He wants to emphasise that his references apply to no living people.
Aware of the Harrogate council’s forthcoming removal from their traditional home in Crescent Gardens to the new, custom built structure in King’s Road, I decided to pay my final visit to the old building, partly in order to indulge some memories.
Back when it opened at Halloween, 1931, after an expense of £41,000, the Councillors, Aldermen and Officers of Harrogate Borough Council probably felt that the matter of their accommodation had been settled permanently.
Their architect, the talented Leonard Clarke, had not only provided a spacious new building with two storeys over a basement, but he had also reinforced the roof so that it could take an entire additional floor if ever the need arose.
He could not have foreseen that when need did arise, the Council would opt for an entirely new building.
Pushing through the double entrance doors, I enter the reception hall, a noble space that of late has looked more like an employment exchange or social services office.
The lovely marble busts of Harrogate’s greatest have been swept away, possibly because they were too uncomfortable a reminder of past achievement, banished to who knows where.
But at least the staircase is intact, awaiting more sympathetic treatment from the next occupants.
And the great window with its stained glass still illuminates the staircase landing, although that, too, may be destined for removal.
Gazing down from the staircase’s landing, I see the crowds of the robed elected, as they prepare to march to the War Memorial for the November commemorations, or to a special church service, or perhaps a parade, where they will watch the soldiers, the young musicians, the waiters from French Week, Second World War Tank crews, the decades of honoured visitors, as they pass and fade into history.
On the upper landing, the impressive portraits of past Mayors have also been removed, and are now displayed in the more appreciative surroundings of the Harrogate Club, where they are regularly admired by visitors on Heritage Open Days.
The men and women who made Harrogate, it seems, are no longer wanted at the new Council Offices.
Town Clerk’s office
Passing the Council Chamber, I head along a corridor to the former Town Clerk’s Office. “...he was, like all Town Clerks, from north of trent... his most capacious brain will make us cower, his only weakness is a lust for power...”
Betjeman’s lines come to me as I stand before the door, which swings open to reveal - an empty room.
Ah!, there it is, the real power centre of the town.
Here, in this room, what dreams and nightmares have been given legal sanction, what wild-eyed ambitions received bureaucratic encouragement, sometimes with support from scripture.
What writs threatened and QC’s consulted, what promotions promised, what advancement given and withdrawn.
Thank God for pink papers, whereon secrecy may be guaranteed (well nearly).
Here was planned the destruction of Victorian Harrogate – well past its prime and ripe for change.
Let the start be made on Willaston Road, with all those Victorian Villas – let them be demolished, and to hell with Sir Nicholas Pevsner and his pleas for retention.
To hell, too, with Sir John Betjeman and his unprofitable calls to save the White Hart.
The railway station, with its glass canopy, its flower baskets and its eight platforms – too Victorian by far. Down with it, let it be swept away and in its place a tower block.
What a mark for a Town Clerk’s CV, what a symbol for progress. Best of all the Royal Baths, thanks to a host of developers. How those developers did lick, slaver and paw over the chance to rebuild Harrogate. And how modest their demands.
To redevelop the Royal Baths, the developers only wanted to be given the Library, the Theatre, the Court House and the Rates Office as well, so let them all go, they are old, and we must move with the times.
How the developers were courted, flattered and encouraged to do their worst.
And then, local government re-organisation appeared.
What one would give to have been a fly on the wall when that was under discussion.
Should Harrogate go into wealthy great Leeds where the Town Clerk would be a small fish, or into impoverished North Riding, where Harrogate would be bled white, but at least the Town Clerk would be a big fish – no prizes for naming the outcome.
But just as well none were present at those discussions, as local government reorganisation always brings out the worst in local authorities, .
The leader’s office, that modest room at the top of the stairs – for me forever associated with the smell of whiskey, the favourite tipple of one never-to-be-forgotten Council leader I knew long ago – again, deserted.
Here, in this room, what visions, megalomania, intrigues and political machinations were plotted.
What schemes hatched, what dreams and nightmares given the backing of solid party approval, what egos massaged, toasts consumed, cream cakes gobbled and heels clicked.
Here, the Minister, Nye Bevan, was persuaded that Harrogate could become a centre for the National Health Service’s centre for RheumatoiArthritis research.
Here, the plan for the Coppice Valley Olympic Park was drawn up, and then quietly ditched when government support was withdrawn. More recently, the plan for the Harrogate Great Park, to urbanise the land between Harrogate and Killinghall received approval, before it was dropped.
Then, there was the planning office, before the move to Knapping Mount.
How well I recall meeting the Borough Engineer in 1972 when the plans for the Conference Centre were advertised for inspection.
Only they weren’t available, and anyway, I wouldn’t be able to understand them!
The Council Chamber, the architectural heart of the building, its panelled walls made from wood originally intended for the coffins made by Charles Walker’s wonderful furnishing business in Parliament Street, now engraved with the names of all those public-minded people who served the community so nobly.
These, at the very least, must be moved to the new building – unless that is, the Mayorality is deemed unnecessary, as something that should be abolished as soon as possible, as an outmoded ritual.
As something that, after all, really does not fit in with the brave new building in King’s
Road, which – if what I hear is true – does not have a Mayoral Parlour.
Parlour I look into the Mayor’s Parlour, helped by the Council’s set of visitor books. There, bending over the table as he signs, is Winston Churchill, visiting the town for a secret military conference, the entry gives his home address as number 10 Downing Street. General Montgomery springs into view, followed by several senior military figures, as they also sign the guest book. A few pages further, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip enter their names during their 1949 visit to the Yorkshire Show, the Royal couple being shown over the building by Harrogate’s first female Mayor, Coun Mary Fisher. Other pages conjure up a variety of figures within the historic parlour – Sir John Barbirolli, Lady Bomanji, commandants of Menwith, the Army Apprentices College, the Yorkshire Regiment, the entire English cricket team, the Russian Ambassador – over the page, a grinning Edward Heath is pictured with Mayor Richard Welch, shortly before the Prime Minister entraps the nation in the web of the European spider. There are signatures from Wellington, New Zealand, from Montecatini in Italy and Luchon in France, entered by the Mayors and leaders of those friendly visiting communities, all receiving hospitality within Harrogate’s Council Offices, which became as no other place the “drawing room” of Harrogate. Silver Around the Parlour, I see the Municipal Silver, presented by so many generous souls to recognise or commemorate some events in the town’s history. Silver trowels used by Richard Ellis to lay the Victoria Baths foundation stone, the silver spade used by Alderman Fortune to begin the reservoir programme, the beautiful silver model of the Royal Pump Room from Mayor Whitworth – things that visitors saw, and in seeing knew that here was a town that was loved and respected by so many. Stairs There are the stairs, leading to the side entrance. For over 30 years, polio victim Lal Walker struggled up and down those stairs with his two sticks in order to be present at Council meetings, so that every word uttered by our local democracy could be reproduced in the Advertiser to keep the public informed of what was being done in their name. This at the time before disabled lifts, railings and ramps were so prolifically introduced to public buildings. Below, in the basement, I see that fine man John Lovell, the “Chief Executive” examining the “bomb shelter” installed in the 1980’s, if memory is correct, where the good and great of Harrogate would secure themselves if the worst happened. It was never used, thank heavens, and when I last saw it, it was filled with old plans and unwanted chairs. Would it be unfair to describe it as yet another flavour of the month - perhaps – but if so, it was only one of many. Committee Room One room of special significance was the committee room. In the early days of the Harrogate International Festival, the Committee would assemble under the eye of Director Clive Wilson, to plan the Festival’s future. The same room saw some of the most anguished discussions of the secret Conference Centre sub-committee, the plan to convert the Stray into allotments during the Second World War crisis, the attempts to force the government to release more of Harrogate’s sequestered hotels after 1945, and the debates about whether the town should become part of Leeds or North Yorkshire during local government reorganisation. Here too, the film censorship committee debated which films Harrogate should be allowed to view, and which should be banned – after all, the Council knows best what is in the public’s interest.
Home to town’s democracy Like layers of lacquer on a Chinese cabinet, history has given the Council Offices a patina of achievement, a showcase of what Harrogate represents, and a place citizens feel is the home of their democracy, at the very heart of the town. As I leave the entrance, I see Mayor Wheater on an army tank, telling the public in 1940 that this symbol of our democracy would be defended to the last. A sudden gust swirls a cloud of dust in my face, as if casting judgement on recent events. Although I regret the decision to abandon the Crescent Gardens building, I wish the new occupants well, as I also wish the Council well in its newly erected Kings Road building. But it will be interesting to see how long they stay in it.