Harrogate is not on early maps of Yorkshire, because it is essentially a town with its roots in the 18th century. Before the discovery of the underground springs and their healing potential, it was a sleepy hamlet known as Harrowgate, part of the ancient parish of St John’s, Knaresborough. The history of the Christian community here is bound up with Harrogate’s development as a spa town.
There is evidence of a medieval chantry chapel a short distance from the present church, near what is known as St John’s Well on the Stray. We know this because in his will in 1439 Thomas Linley leaves £12 to the chantry priest to say masses for the repose of his soul over three years. Presumably, like other chantries, this building was demolished at the Reformation and no traces of it remain today.
The real story of the worshipping Christian community in Harrogate begins in 1749. The vicar of St John’s, Knaresborough realised that the little village at the top of the hill was growing, and needed a church. So – on the site of what today is the Parish Centre – he built St John’s Chapel. Both locals and the growing number of visitors had a place to say their prayers. It only seated 100, but was the first home of the Christian community here. It is also worth noting how well this illustrates an often forgotten feature of the Church of England in the 18th century: it is a century often described as a time of little zeal in church life, but the Rector of Knaresborough, like many of his contemporaries, shows genuine missionary instincts in planting a new church in this growing part of his parish.
The new church building was known as St John’s Chapel because of its links with its mother church at Knaresborough, but it was dedicated on 17 June 1749 as Christ Church. The links with Knaresborough remained until 1852 when Christ Church became a parish in its own right, and the right of appointing the vicar passed from the Rector of Knaresborough to the Bishop of Ripon. As Harrogate grew and prospered over the next 150 years four further parishes were formed from Christ Church, High Harrogate: St John’s Bilton in 1858, St Peter’s in the town centre in 1870, St Luke’s in 1898, and St Andrew’s Starbeck in 1911.
Spas were big business from the 18th century onwards and the increasing fame of Harrogate’s healing waters brought many distinguished, aristocratic and royal visitors to the new town. The little chapel was soon too small for the needs of the growing congregation of both parishioners and visitors. So in December 1829 a special meeting was held at which, by a large majority, it was decided that a new church must be built.
The Duchy of Lancaster provided a site for the new building next to the old chapel. Legal difficulties delayed the building of the new church, but by the end of September 1831 it was ready for use. The architect was John Oates of Huddersfield, and his new church was described by the York Herald and Leeds Intelligencer as ‘a prominent and beautiful object of admiration from all the surrounding parts of this celebrated watering place’. The old chapel of St John was dismantled and rebuilt in the centre of the town at the end of James Street as a Congregational Chapel. It has since been demolished.
The new church, in an austere Early English style predating the exuberance of Victorian Gothic Revival, is very much the core of the building you see today – without the additions at the east and west end of the church, and of course without the Parish Centre.
The west tower leads into the nave with long lancet windows on either side. Internally there is a gallery on three sides. The 1831 building originally had a central pulpit at the east end of the nave. Behind it was a small apse with the Holy Communion table. This reflects the worshipping patterns of the time, when the daily and Sunday services were usually Morning and Evening Prayer, and Holy Communion was celebrated much less regularly than it is today.
The organ was in the west gallery and a plastered ceiling concealed the roof timbers. The church was lit by oil lamps. Narrow pews with vertical backs (not the pews in the church today!) provided seating for 1,250 worshippers. Underneath the church, extending for the whole length of the nave, is a vaulted crypt. Originally the crypt was designed as a burial ground, and some burials did take place there. Today there are fledgling plans to re-think the use of this exciting space.
The total cost of the new church was £4,500. Most of this was raised through donations, including £300 from the Duchy of Lancaster, and £50 each from the Archbishop of York and the bishops of Durham and Chester. The church was dedicated at 2 pm on Saturday 1 October 1831 by the Bishop of Chester, Dr John Bird Sumner (who was later to be Archbishop of Canterbury from 1848-62). Harrogate at that time was in the diocese of Chester, which had been formed at the Reformation from parts of the dioceses of York and Lincoln. It was not until 1836 that the present diocese of Ripon (recently re-named ‘Ripon & Leeds‘) was created. The Feast of Dedication is still celebrated today on the first Sunday of October, and the Patronal Festival is celebrated on the Feast of Christ the King.
Over time there have been many additions and alterations: on 23 November 1860 the Vestry Meeting approved a proposal to enlarge the church ‘to meet the requirements of a greatly augmented residential population’. The plans, by the eminent Bradford architects Lockwood and Mawson, were to provide chancel, sanctuary and transepts at the east end of the existing church.
As well as the need for extra accommodation there had been a shift in architectural fashions and in styles of worship in the 30 years since the new church had been built. In the wider culture, the Romantic Movement had brought about a new interest in the past. In architecture this led to the Gothic Revival, with a new emphasis on medieval building styles and techniques (and not just in church building – St Pancras’ station is one of the great neo-Gothic buildings of Britain). The same cultural and philosophical changes had a huge impact on the worship of the Church of England – above all a re-discovery of movement and symbolism, and the placing of Holy Communion at the centre of the church’s life.