Formerly known only as the Royal Pump Room, the building that now houses the museum was built by Isaac Shutt in 1842 to provide a shelter for the town’s affluent visitors who wanted to sample Harrogate’s spa waters.
At its peak it is estimated that the Pump Room attracted around 15,000 people per summer. Among the most famous visitors to the Royal Pump Room was Tsarina Alexandra of Russia in 1911.
Harrogate’s development as a spa town dates back to the 16th century, when William Slingsby discovered the first spring in 1571 in the area now known as High Harrogate. It was found that the water coming from this spring was found to be medicinal.
As the years progressed, Harrogate grew in popularity among both the rich and the poor, and by the late 1600s more springs, including the sulphur spring in Low Harrogate, had been discovered. The different waters were recommended for the treatment of a variety of ailments including scurvy, epilepsy and skin complaints such as ulcers and sores.
Writer Charles Dickens once described Harrogate as the queerest place with the strangest people leading the oddest lives!
An annexe was built in 1913 to provide space for the expanding number of visitors. This is the part that now houses the permanent exhibition and shop. On May 22nd 1953 the Royal Pump Room was reopened as a museum.
A silent film by Leeds-based Charles R.H. Pickard’s photographic firm, show that even in 1939 the Royal Pump Room was still an important visitor attraction and source of revenue for Harrogate Corporation and other parties.
After the Second World War, the Pump Room attracted fewer visitors, and thanks to the success of the nascent National Health Service the ‘curing’ waters were no longer taken as seriously and eventually the doors were closed.
The museum is now operated by Harrogate Museums and Arts, a division of Harrogate Borough Council.
Nowadays it seems crazy that people would travel across the county to drink at a bar that only sold water, and not just that, also smelled strongly of sulphur. At the height of its popularity, it wasn’t unusual for 1500 glasses of water to be served each morning. The museum now tells the fashionable story of Harrogate and the daily spa routine, a place for health and happiness.
The museum hosts a regular programme of special exhibitions. These make use of some of the more unique collection and loaned items. In 2014 a Great War centenary exhibition was held at the museum, featuring numerous artefacts and personal memorabilia belonging to local people who went to serve. In late 2013 the Royal Pump Room displayed some of the costumes from ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey.