Harrogate historian praised for 'monumental' achievement as Wells & Swells is published after 17 years of research

There was praise all round for celebrated Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam this week as he launched his monumental new book charting what he described as “this special town’s greatest years”.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 28th April 2022, 10:13 am
Updated Thursday, 28th April 2022, 10:15 am

More than a decade in the making and an epic 1,600 pages long, Wells & Swells: The Golden Age of Harrogate Spa 1842-1923 was unveiled by Mr Neesam at a glittering event hosted by the Harrogate Civic Society.

Taking to the stage at Cedar Court Hotel in front of a packed gathering of dignitaries from the town’s civic life, Mr Neesam showed considerable strength and some true wit in telling the story of a book which reveals how Harrogate was transformed into one of the leading towns in Victorian Britain.

Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam pictured with his new book and new portrait at the launch of Wells & Swells at Cedar Court Hotel.

“This book means so much to me for various reasons,” he said. “I doubted I would live to see it published.

“There are so many faces here I recognise. The book would not have been possible without the support of Hornbeam Park Developments and Carnegie Publishing.”

Introduced by Stuart Holland, chairman of Harrogate Civic Society, the event was meant to have been attended by Edward Fox, great grandson of Samson Fox, the Harrogate mayor who features prominently in Wells & Swells.

But, Mr Holland told the audience, sadly the BAFTA-winning actor had contracted Covid over the weekend and had sent his apologies and a message hailing his great friend’s latest achievement and saying he would be up to see him when he had recovered.

Book launch - Historian Malcolm Neesam with Harrogate Mayor Coun Trevor Chapman and Mayoress Mrs Janet Chapman.

Harrogate Mayor, Coun Trevor Chapman congratulated Mr Neesam for completing the “immense task” of writing the second part of what is designed to be a three-part history of Harrogate - telling its story right from the earliest roots to the present day.

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones sent his apologies, praising Mr Neesam for his “wonderful knowledge of Harrogate’s history and passion for the town”.

The event also saw the unveiling of a new portrait of Mr Neesam painted by Matthew Wyatt, a member of Harrogate Civic Society.

Wells & Swells arrives 17 years after the publication of Harrogate Great Chronicle, 1332-1841.

As always, Mr Neesam’s painstaking research included trawling through the pages of the Harrogate Advertiser, which was first printed in 1836.

Mr Neesam himself presented a slide show of a potted version of Wells & Swells, which traces the rise of Harrogate from a population of 4,300 at the book’s beginnings to 38,500 by its close.

These were crucial years in the town’s history which saw its burgeoning reputation for spa water attracting the cream of Europe’s royalty and aristocracy, the introduction of railways, electricity and street lighting and the construction of Harrogate’s ‘crown jewels’ - the Valley Gardens, Royal Baths, Harrogate Theatre and the Royal Hall.

So extensive is the second part of Malcolm Neesam’s epic history of Harrogate, it is being published in two volumes.

Wells & Swells: The Golden Age of Harrogate Spa 1842-1923 was at one time going to finish before the outbreak of the First World War, Mr Neesam explained at the book launch.

“I meant to end it in 1914. I didn’t want to have to focus on all the horrors of the First World War,” said Mr Neesam.

“But where did it really end? It was followed quickly by the influenza epidemic and then there was the great reconstruction plan introduced for peace time.

“I decided a suitable place to stop was 1923 - and that was the year Harrogate’s war memorial was built in the town centre.”

Despite his on-going health battles, Mr Neesam also used Tuesday’s book launch to look ahead to the future.

The third and final book in the historical trilogy has now been “substantially drafted”.

But, Mr Neesam, one of the first members of Harrogate Civic Society when it was formed 51 years ago, reminded those gathered in the Cedar Court Hotel that he regarded his books as warnings on protecting the heritage of the town.

“My work contains more than history,” Mr Neesam said after presenting a copy to the Harrogate Mayor. “

I believe I have incorporated ideas about how to improve the town we all love in a discreet way.

“These are ideas Harrogate Civic Society and I have promoted for years, though they have never happened.”

Harrogate Civic Society’s chairman Stuart Holland paid tribute to Mr Neesam’s incredible achievements as a historian and his pride in Harrogate.

“Malcolm has made Harrogate’s history his life’s work,” he said. “But his comments about the importance of heritage will do this town proud in the future.”