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Telling the story of Edwardian Harrogate's workforce

The new exhibition coming to the Mercer Art Gallery pulls back the curtain on the workforce who made Harrogate what it is.

Many Harrogate stories focus on celebrity spa visitors and the experiences of genteel cure-seekers. For the first time, this exhibition will discover the largely untold stories of Harrogate’s workers: the people who built and maintained the town and those whose service sustained the glowing, international reputation of Harrogate’s baths, pump rooms, shops and hotels.

Water carrier

The exhibition will focus on the Edwardian period in the early years of the 20th century, considered by many to be the heyday of the Harrogate spa. Visitor numbers reached record levels in these years and some of its grandest buildings, like the Majestic and Grand Hotels, the Opera House and Kursaal were opened. But Harrogate was much more than a spa, it was also an important local and regional retail centre, and a base for a number of institutions: those for health but also many private schools. Importantly too it had become a residential centre for those with private means, the retired and commuters to the nearby industrial cities of Bradford and Leeds and their families.

Harrogate Boarding house illustration

The town’s workforce reflected this economy. Numerically the most important sector for women was domestic work, hotel and institutional service, but they also worked in laundries, retailing and in dressmaking and millinery. For men, the building trades and the railways provided the biggest source of employment, but many worked in hotels, as gardeners, both private and municipal, as coach- and cab-men and, increasingly in these years, as chauffeurs. The treatments provided at the spa provided work for both men and women and a small number found work as entertainers and musicians.

Many people found employment in hotels, including European workers, particularly Germans, whose numbers increased over the years.

Curated by historian Dr Paul Jennings, this exhibition will reveal an essential but often neglected group, the workers who made the elegant life of the European spas possible.

Royal Baths builders Charles Dawson co Medium