COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Coun Pat Jones (left) and Sylvia Grice with the new Spa Baths plaque. (S)
Coun Pat Jones (left) and Sylvia Grice with the new Spa Baths plaque. (S)

David takes a look at the flurry of Ripon Civic Society commemorative plaques which have been unveiled on buildings around the city over the past few months.

Have you noticed the new plaques? Over the last few months, Ripon Civic Society has been busy increasing the number of its familiar green plaques, which tell visitors and residents going about the city a few historical facts about Ripon’s history.

A couple of years ago the society published Ripon Revealed, a walking tour around the then 30 plaques in the city’s streets.

It has proved to be a best-seller at Ripon’s Tourist Information Centre, and visitors can often be seen following the trail (in fact two interlinking trails round the west and the east of the city) and stopping to read the carefully-researched wording on the plaques.

The publication of Ripon Revealed, though, was not the full stop in the story of the society’s green plaques. As the text carefully noted, ‘from time to time we shall add more plaques; see if you can spot one!’ In fact, there are now four new ones to spot.

The first to be unveiled was on the city’s Prison and Police Museum. As many keen television watchers will know, there are links between Ripon and the fictional Downton Abbey. Not as many know, though, that the links extend beyond occasional references to characters going to and from Ripon or the surrounding towns and villages.

The name of Lord Grantham, head of the television series family, also has at least nominal links with the city – and the museum.

The 3rd Baron Grantham of Newby Hall near Ripon and Wrest Park in Bedfordshire was an amateur architect.

He designed the red-brick cell block that now houses the museum. It was added to Ripon House of Correction in 1816. And it was not the only building that came from his Lordship’s desk; he also designed his mansion at Wrest Park.

Such was his knowledge of architecture that in 1834, the year after he became the 2nd Earl de Grey, he was asked to become the first president of the newly-founded Institute of British Architects.

He was also the uncle of the Marquess of Ripon, another great Ripon benefactor.

The second plaque to be unveiled, by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, was at the former Clergy College at the junction of North Street and Princess Road.

From 1898 to 1915 the college trained men for ordination to the ministry in the Church of England. Among its most famous students was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the First World War chaplain known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, who was famous for his habit of giving the troops the Woodbine cigarettes that earned him his nickname.

Born in Leeds, Kennedy studied at Trinity College, Dublin, before enrolling at Ripon Clergy College. He volunteered for the Army in 1914 and was often in the thick of the fighting, assisting the soldiers and offering comfort, both spiritual and in the form of his famous cigarettes.

He described his chaplain’s ministry as taking ‘a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart’, and said, ‘You can pray with them sometimes; but pray for them always’. He won the Military Cross in 1917 at Messines Ridge in Flanders after running into no man’s land to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline.

After the war he became a prominent Christian Socialist and pacifist. He died on a lecture tour in Liverpool in 1929. Ripon Clergy College later moved to Oxford and is now known as Ripon College Cuddesdon.

Ripon Civic Society had long thought that it would be good to draw special attention to the Spa Baths, as one of the city’s iconic buildings. With the agreement of, and a contribution from, Harrogate Borough Council, the plaque was put in place for unveiling by Harrogate’s Cabinet Member for Cultural Services, Coun Pat Jones and Sylvia Grice, doyenne of swimming teachers in the city.

The new plaque underlines the significance of the building, which celebrated the 300th anniversary of the charter given by James I to Ripon 1604.

Built to designs by Samuel Stead, Harrogate’s Borough Surveyor, at the height of the terracotta revival, it is an exuberant example of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles, with its bizarre terracotta masks and its exuberant tiling in the pump room, now the main entrance.

It is also the only British spa opened by royalty - by Princess Henry of Battenberg (Queen Victoria’s youngest child Beatrice) and her daughter Princess Eugenie, later Queen of Spain.

The latest addition to the growing number of plaques was put in place on one of the remaining walls of Ripon’s Theatre Royal – now Calvert’s Carpets – in Park Street.

The 320-seat Theatre Royal (somewhat larger than the still-existing Theatre Royal in Richmond) opened on August 20 1792.

Like Richmond’s theatre, it was served by Samuel Butler’s touring company, which included Edmund Kean among its actors. Another famous actor, George Bennett, was born nearby in 1800, probably while his theatrical parents were working at the theatre.

The building later became a military riding school and a drill hall, and was mostly destroyed by fire in 1918.

The opening was performed by stage and television actor Joseph Marcell, who was playing in the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre touring production at Newby Hall.

He is also known for his role as Geoffrey the Butler in the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and it was a privilege to have him to unveil the fourth of the Society’s plaques.

So, four new plaques to see in the city – but are they the last? The answer is almost certainly not; the Society has plenty of ideas (though more are welcome!) and, subject to funding, more are very likely to be ordered. Watch this wall, as you might say!