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The Song of the Swan

Cover  -  Introduction  -  Chapter 1  - Chapter 2  -  Chapter 3  -  Chapter 4 
Chapter 5   -   Chapter 6   -   Chapter 7   -   Pictures

Chapter 4

During the mid-century years, and particularly after the coming of the railway, Harrogate's prosperity went forward by leaps and bounds. The social pattern of the gentry was to move at set times of the year from their country seats to their town houses for the London season. This started in May, with coming-out parties for eligible daughters, and continued into June, the month for weddings and Royal Ascot, then Wimbledon and finally Henley. Harrogate nicely filled the gap before the "Glorious Twelfth" of August when Grouse Shooting began on the moors and residence was again taken up in the country to supervise the harvest, to shoot, and later to hunt.

Nineteenth century Victorian socialites needed the rest and the purge which Harrogate could offer after such a round of indulgence. Their annual arrival, in season, became known as "The Harvest that never Failed."

There were other spas, of course, Cheltenham, Leamington, Bath, Buxton and Matlock, but none had the variety of waters Harrogate offered.

At Matlock in Derbyshire, the famous Doctor Smedley, taking a leaf out of the European spas' book, had been developing Hydropathic treatments in Smedley's Hydro with some success.

Doctor Richard Veale, of Cornish stock, had qualified at the age of 21, after studies in Edinburgh and Paris. He had come to Nidderdale for the traditional year's service with another doctor and, taking a liking for the Yorkshire Dales, decided to settle in Hampsthwaite, but to practice in Harrogate. Dr Veale became deeply interested in hydropathic treatment and in the possibilities of extending their range. He went to Smedley's Hydro in Matlock for three months and came back convinced that a hydropathic establishment in Harrogate would succeed and have a bright future.

The Swan Hotel was the obvious choice. Enlarged by its architect proprietor on an almost adequate site, a further acre and a half were leased from the Duchy of Lancaster for 50 a year to complete a tidy symmetrical plot. This was more than adequate for the 200-bedroomed Hydro, planned with dining room for 300 patients, quiet rooms, billiard room, ballroom, Winter Garden and pleasure grounds. Coal fires in every bedroom with running hot and cold water basins but bathing was to be only in the magnificent new suite of medical baths approached by separate stairways from the bedroom floors. There were wc's in plenty, most with extractor fans to combat the sulphuretted hydrogen fumes associated with the cure.

The Medical Baths were under the strict supervision of qualified bath attendants, masseurs, and the doctor himself. Behind were the Turkish bath and rest cubicles; in front, side by side, the gentlemen's medical bath and the ladies' baths, both complete with Vichy douches, Berthol let and even electric shock baths, for the new Harrogate Hydro was the first building in Harrogate to be lit by electricity.

Power came from an enormous Cornish boiler, coke fired, burning 10 tons per week; this raised steam which in turn provided vast reserves of hot water at roof level for the baths. Steam at 80 lbs per square inch drove the steam engine, which generated the electricity and also powered the laundry with a capacity of 1,000 articles per day. Harrogate had its own Gas Works, so coke was an available byproduct in those days.

Dr Veale became The Hydro's first resident doctor. Any fears that the intense concentration on visitor-patients might prove unprofitable were soon at rest. The Hydro, under what in effect was Dr. Veale's managing directorship was an instant success. The course of treatments - a very strict and plain diet plus baths, exercise, massage, and carefully controlled water drinking together with a total absence of any temptations of the flesh - appealed strongly to the Victorians' masochistic instincts and what is more to the point, the treatments worked and became immensely popular.

The Hydro, owing to the allegiance of the clientele, continued to be known during its 70 years of prohibition as the 'Swan Hydro'. It was the first of Harrogate's hydropathic establishments; for success soon brought a number of imitations, but it remained the most highly thought of, because in choosing the Swan Hotel for this venture, Dr. Veale had rightly put his faith on the hotel's most valuable and personal asset - the affection its guests had for it as a family concern. The strict regime of the Hydro which included early to bed and early to rise, morning prayers, and no alcohol, was not maintained unfeelingly. Dr Veale was the father figure who made his patients feel at home whilst involved in rigorous treatment provided for their well being.

It is curious how great influences of the past seem to reflect on into the regimes that follow, for as we shall see, the inheritance after two world wars still imbues the present day management with a fatherlike approach in providing for the needs of the visitors and with the job satisfaction of the resident staff; though the qualification may have changed from medical authoritarianism to culinary persuasion in the process.

Many anecdotes from those masochistic years come through. The doctors who made their daily rounds of the principal hotels in carriage and pair, were top-hatted, in frockcoat and spats, for the prestige of the call. They called and washed their hands even if only to spend a penny in the absence that day of a patient's guinea fee!

Arrangements were sometimes made with the hotel manager that a window be inadvertently left open all night in order that a pampered wealthy patient might take a slight chill, so that the doting doctor could prescribe, extra days' stay and be cosseted in bed and thus increase his income and the occupancy of the hotel at the same time!

In the final weeks of 1977 a film unit moved into the hotel to shoot scenes for the Warner Bros. production, "AGATHA". Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave star in this intriguing story based on the eleven missing days in the life of the world's greatest mystery writer, Agatha Christie. The Harrogate Hydro, was where Mrs. Christie stayed - under an assumed name - during her mysterious and still unexplained disappearance in December 1926. Vanessa Redgrave (who plays Agatha), Dustin Hoffman and Helen Morse acted out many scenes from the film in the Winter Gardens and the Hotel dining room. Extras for the film were recruited from Harrogate's Operatic and Dramatic Societies. AGATHA is directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay by Kathleen Tynan. The film will be released in 1978 and distributed world-wide by Warner Bros.




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