One of the strengths of our museum is that we remain relevant to Harrogate and what it does; both now and in reflecting the past.
This summer, thanks to funding from The British Society for the History of Science, we’ve been working with a scientist in residence, Matt Holmes, to
explore Harrogate’s approach to well-being, both now and in its Victorian heyday.
For centuries, the sulphur and chalybeate (iron) waters of Harrogate have been part of a rigorous, daily routine of drinking and bathing prescribed by doctors to improve health. Yet Matt says that, thankfully, “historic Harrogate was not all sulphur water and cold baths. An important part of spa therapy was a change of environment.” Fresh air, relaxation, regular exercise and ‘agreeable company’ were all thought of as important components of a healthy
lifestyle. Harrogate was far away from urban chaos and, unlike Victorian seaside resorts, there was certainly ‘no concrete promenade and harsh bands to strike the ears.’
Doctors still advise us to take 150 minutes of exercise per week and Harrogate is home to sport and fitness enthusiasts of all types. Where once around 1500 glasses of sulphur water could be served in the Pump Room each morning, today Harrogate Spring Water sends 64,000 bottles through their production line every hour. So water now moves through the town on an industrial scale: Harrogate’s aquatic legacy continues.
The ‘experience economy’ is also rooted in the history of our town. People – particularly millennials - want to take time out from their busy lives and treasure memorable moments with friends and family. A thirst for novel and inspiring experiences has driven the creation of new destinations for inspiration and enjoyment. Havens like the Royal Pump Room and Royal Baths have long provided such experiences for visitors to Harrogate. This approach is at the heart of what the museum can again become for all our visitors.
The Turkish baths, which opened in 1897, provided a luxurious setting for specialist hydrotherapy treatments and visitors could consult a duty doctor for advice on the best treatments and routines for their stay. Matt says, “A visit to the Turkish Baths today follows the same principles as when it first opened. Cleansing the body in a luxurious setting was believed to be a healthy, and often social, activity, dating back to the time of Roman Britain.”
Beauty treatments are also on offer at the Turkish Baths and other independent businesses around Harrogate, helping to draw visitors to the town. Some treatments, such as light therapy, have been reinvented for the modern age. In the early 20th century, ultraviolet light was used at the Royal Baths to treat everything from skin disease to pneumonia. Today, LED red light treatment is offered to rejuvenate skin, stimulate muscle and aid healing.
At the start of the 20 th century, Harrogate Council opened the Mechano-Theraputics Hall: a centre for special adjustable apparatus to treat patients with different ailments, such as strains and fractures. Matt describes how these machines “could simulate horse-trotting, cycling rowing or hill climbing. During the First World War, this was used alongside hydrotherapy to treat injured soldiers.” Yet when discussions began to establish the NHS in the wake of the
Second World War, there was little enthusiasm to fund ailing spas, already hit hard by the Great Depression during the 1930s.
Next year we’ll be celebrating our 65 th birthday at the museum and the British nation will be acknowledging the 70 th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS. In 1968 the NHS finally withdrew its support for water-based treatments at the Royal Baths.