In 1770, when the Enclosure Act was passed, Harrogate consisted of two villages, High and Low Harrogate, respectively parts of the townships of Bilton with Harrogate and Pannal. From 1571 onwards the villages' fame rested on the periodical discovery of medicinal springs. Firstly, the chalybeate, (iron), springs in High Harrogate and later the sulphur springs in Low Harrogate. Where these springs were found on common waste land of the Forest of Knaresborough they were public property and so long as the forest remained unenclosed the public, in the widest sense of the word, had access across the common waste to the springs, of which anyone could drink freely.
On August 19 1778 the Award of the Commissioners for the Enclosures of the Forest of Knaresborough, in the Duchy of Lancaster, came formally into effect. From that date the control and management was established of 200 acres of open common in Harrogate which had been pastures for all and sundry from time immemorial.
The Award is described thus:-
'The said two hundred acres of land shall forever hereafter remain open and unenclosed and all persons whomsoever shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof, and shall and may have, use, and enjoy full and free ingress, egress and regress, in, upon, and over, the said two hundred acres of land, and every, and any part thereof, without being subject to the payment of any acknowledgment whatsoever for the same, or liable to any action of trespass, or other suit, molestation, or disturbance whatsoever, in respect thereof.'
By the Forest Award, the Stray was converted into a stinted pasture and apportioned into 50 CATTLEGATES which, at that time, were held by 26 owners, of which member the devisees of Sir Thomas Ingilby, baronet, held 12.
The Definition of a Gate:
- 1 cow, ox, steer or heifer, of more than 2 years as 1 gate
- 3 beasts of 2 years as 2 gates
- 1 horse, mare or gelding of 2 years as 1 gate
- 1 calf of 1 year as ½ gate
- A foal of 1 year as ¾ of a gate
- A mare, with foal unweaned and under 1 year, as 1 ½ gates
- 4 sheep, each above a year, as 1 gate
- 1 ewe, with her lamb or lambs unweaned, as ¼ gate
- 2 weaned lambs, under 1 year, as ¼ gate
No sheep or lambs were to be depastured during the first 7 years after the execution of the Award, nor any asses, mules, goats, swine or geese at any time.
The value of a cattlegate was about £155.
The Award concluded that the Crown reserved to itself all rights of mines, minerals and quarries and forbade any digging, sinking of pits or quarrying, etcetera, which might damage the mineral springs.
The Award was nothing more than the right to graze such grass as had not been trodden underfoot. They owned neither the land, the soil, nor anything beneath the soil. Neither in 1770, nor in the 1778 Award, was the upkeep and improvement of the 200 acres mentioned.
Problems arose when unauthorised people were found grazing cattle on the Stray, and, even, some gateholders grazed more animals than their stint allowed. In 1779 the gateholders got together and subscribed to a deed in which they undertook to take group action to protect themselves against trespasses by unauthorised persons. The deed had 15 signatories. The Stray gate owners were responsible for improving the Stray's condition. However, they were more concerned with their rights than their duties.
Original Map of The Stray, circa 1821
The Improvement Commissioners' Act of 1841 called for the formation of a committee of Stray gate owners which would pay stricter attention to the owners' responsibilities. What happened, however, was that the Stray gate owners, through their committee, set up the practice of leasing part of the Stray and letting off extra, imaginary, gates. They charged the Improvement Commissioners for every inch of Stray taken for footpaths, plus rents for cabstands. Itinerant musicians and entertainers were encouraged to provide outdoor entertainment for both visitors and townspeople, providing the Stray gate owners with lucrative revenue. However, these exploits were viewed as an intolerable nuisance by those whose property fronted the Stray.
Harrogate was growing at a remarkable pace and the influx of summer visitors rose. It was in the town's interest that it should acquire the Charter of Incorporation and in February 1884 the Charter was granted and the Town Council duly elected. One of its most important aims was the need to purchase the Stray gates.
It took Harrogate nearly nine years, an Act of Parliament and a purchase price of £11,780, to finally achieve this end.
The stint, which had been such a revered feature of the 1778 Award, but which had been cleverly circumvented by, and since, the 1841 Act, was by-passed altogether. With all the pasture rights vested in one body there was no further need of a stint regulating the number of animals which might be grazed.
Clause 10 of the Act required the corporation to keep the Stray at all times unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. Subsequent clauses required the Corporation to preserve as far as possible the Stray's natural aspect and state, but at the same time allowing them to improve the pasture, make and maintain roads, footpaths, plant trees and shrubs, and to provide pasture and pounds for stray cattle.
Building over wells was allowed and a charge for admission of a maximum of three shillings per week. Parts of the Stray were set aside for games and sports, sermons and speeches, entertainments and horse exercise. The very nuisances permitted by the Stray gate Committee, which had influenced public opinion in favour of the taking over of the Stray by the Corporation, were perpetuated by the Council.
Harrogate lacked nothing in the way of entertainment. The Council sponsored the Town Band to give free outdoor concerts, at the same time inviting itinerant entertainers to compete for a pitch on the Stray, for which a rent was charged. Punch & Judy and Pierrot shows were held on West Park Stray.
In 1914 the Stray was used as an airfield and provided short flights for a fee. The Stray was used as a landing strip in the King's Cup air Race and in later years there were special occasions when the Stray became a temporary airfield.
It was the use of the Stray for either the Great Yorkshire Show or the Royal Show (1929) which provoked some opposition from the very early Stray Defenders, who claimed their right to walk across the enclosed area.