Behind the scenes at Ripon Museums: "We pride ourselves on being hands-on, we like to make history that bit more interesting by putting some flesh on the bone"

Ripon Museums.Volunteer co-ordinator Wendy Hunwick-Brown with volunteers David Rushton, Toby Holbrey, Denis Boniface, Eric Monk, Elanor Jones and Chris Moore (1611123AM1).
Ripon Museums.Volunteer co-ordinator Wendy Hunwick-Brown with volunteers David Rushton, Toby Holbrey, Denis Boniface, Eric Monk, Elanor Jones and Chris Moore (1611123AM1).

“We are very hands-on here”, said Ripon Museums volunteer Harry Corps, smiling devilishly and in character, dressed as an 1830s ‘Peeler’.

Demonstrating the truth of his admission almost immediately, Harry gestured at what looked like one of the Prison and Police museum’s most well-used contraptions. “Step on that”, he said, “it’s a treadwheel used to exercise the prisoners”.

Reporter Finola Fitzpatrick goes behind the scenes.

Reporter Finola Fitzpatrick goes behind the scenes.

Getting on after more than just a moment’s hesitation, Harry said: “Come on, you can do better than that - step up, step down.”

It was a rigorous workout regime, and not one you would want to repeat again funnily enough.

Harry said: “We pride ourselves on being hands-on because we like to make history that bit more interesting by putting some flesh on the bone, We tell people stories and we believe that visitors learn best from trying things out for themselves first-hand.

“They want to know and feel for themselves what it would have been like inside a Victorian prison. Doing the exercises and seeing things in here can actually act as a deterrent for children when they visit.

Volunteers manager Wendy Hunwick-Brown

Volunteers manager Wendy Hunwick-Brown

“I enjoy volunteering here, it’s an interesting way to fill my time.”

Harry has been at the heart of Ripon Museums for the last 13 years, and is just one of the many volunteers committed to bringing the city’s history to life.

Over at the Workhouse Museum, co-curator Mandy Whitehead looked across the kitchen garden.

She said: “In the garden we grow the fruit and vegetables that were available in the 1890s.

Volunteers Harry Corps and Debbie Boyd. ( 1611123AM7)

Volunteers Harry Corps and Debbie Boyd. ( 1611123AM7)

“The excitement has been seeing this garden as it was before we started working on it, and having the opportunity to restore it and bring it back to how it would have been.

“What’s really special about the garden is that visitors really feel a connection with it when they come here, and they’re very reflective. I think it transports them back.”

Richard Taylor, chairman of the museum trustees, said: “We are very proud of the gardens. A lot of the history is in the names of the plants. The garden is a part of the story of Ripon, as is the workhouse and our other museums.

“The blending of history and horticulture that we have here in the garden is very unique and that’s what makes it special I think.

Denis Boniface.

Denis Boniface.

“I enjoy the variety of the work I do here, whether that’s sweeping up the leaves and helping to maintain the garden, or helping out in a trustee board capacity.”

Inside the workhouse, visitor Linda Williams enjoyed the company of the Tramp Major, a role played by volunteer Denis Boniface, who was busily polishing boots.

Linda said: “I’m really enjoying my visit, it’s very informative. I brought the grandchildren last time, and it really made them appreciate what they have got now compared to the past.”

Volunteer manager Wendy Hunwick-Brown looked at Denis entertaining the visitors, and said: “Having volunteers around the place in costume makes things even more real for visitors and really adds something to their experience.”

The broad age range of the volunteers was notable across the three museums.

Elanor Jones, 11, volunteers in the workhouse, close to 75-year-old Denis. When Elanor is in and around the museum, she plays the part of Kathleen Bell - a workhouse girl originally from a rich family, but when both of her parents disappeared she had to go to the workhouse.

Elanor said: “I volunteer because there are lots of fun things to do. You get to dress in costume and think of new ideas for the museum, like introducing more modern things to the museum, including wifi for visitors. The museums are really important, because they are a part of the city’s history.

“It wouldn’t be Ripon without the workhouse. Volunteering here is a really good experience and you meet lots of amazing people of all different ages. You learn a lot from each other along the way.”

David Rushton helps to maintain the workhouse museum by painting and decorating.

He said: “The museum is a second home for me. All of the volunteers come from different backgrounds, and we all bring different things to the museums. The museums draw new people to our community.”

Young volunteer Toby Holbrey greets visitors and finds that volunteering enhances his studies.

He said: “I like coming here because it feels like you are doing something to make a difference in your community and helping out in some way.”

The courthouse was the final museum to visit, and volunteer Robin Boardman said it is the social aspect of his role that he enjoys the most.

He said: “I do front of house and some maintenance, but I like to turn my hand to anything really. Volunteering is a great way of meeting people, and it is nice to have a bit of a laugh with the visitors when they arrive and while they are looking around.

“We stage mock trials for children, and we always find them guilty. They like dressing up and find it exciting seeing what a trial is like.”

New Year opportunity to become a museum volunteer:

Ripon Museums are looking to recruit new volunteers in the New Year, and Volunteers Manager Wendy Hunwick-Brown would like to hear from anyone who might be interested.

Wendy said: "The museums are really important in preserving, protecting, and bringing to life the history of our city and the stories that come with it. I know that our volunteers really enjoy being a part of that, and I do too.

"No two days are the same at the museums, and I love seeing visitors having a fun day out while learning something new at the same time. I enjoy working with such a wide range of lovely volunteers and people who put in so much time to make the museums as special as they are.

"If you would like to get involved in something a bit different, that really makes a difference to your local community, come and get involved. We would all be keen to hear from you, and I thin there is something to suit all interests."

Volunteering opportunities include: guiding groups of visitors, teaching groups gardening, researching, cataloguing, fundraising, painting, marketing, being in costume and in role.

Call Wendy Hunwick-Brown on 01765 690799 or email