Selling mineral spring water in times gone by was big business – rather like the present-day trade in bottled water. The extent of the commercial competitiveness between spa-resorts and indeed within a spa town like Harrogate was vicious.
The Crown Inn, Harrogate, originally built in 1740, made money from its reputation for making bathing convenient and comfortable: a warm indoor bath with attendance cost 3s 6d, which must have been attractive to those who could afford it, in comparison with the discomforts of the public springs.
In the 1830s an incoming speculator, John Williams, opened the Victoria Baths to provide private bathing facilities. Joseph Thackwray, proprietor of the Crown Hotel, retaliated by constructing the Montpellier or Crown Baths (1834). This provoked John Williams to build the Spa Rooms (1835) to exploit the so-called Cheltenham Springs, offering chalybeate water (including the strongest iron-chloride spring in the world) alongside the Old Sulphur Well.
This flurry of competition in commercial bathing led to one of the more famous controversies of Harrogate’s history. In December 1835 Jonathan Shutt, the proprietor of the Swan Inn, casually discovered that a tenant of Joseph Thackwray was digging a deep well inside his shop on Swan Road.
Shutt hastily consulted the proprietors of the Granby, Dragon, and Queen Hotels and John Williams of the Victoria Baths and Spa Rooms and they concluded that Thackwray was attempting to divert the waters of the Old Sulphur Well to establish a monopoly. The case eventually came to York Assizes, where Thackwray secured a technical acquittal.
As a result, his rivals joined with the Duchy of Lancaster to promote the Harrogate Improvement Act of 1841, which placed control of public amenities in the town firmly in the hands of twenty-one elected Improvement Commissioners.
Joseph Thackwray could be credited with giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “taking the waters”.