COLUMN: Looking Back with Pete Colman

A sketch of Joe Lee directing traffic in Ripon. (Picture courtesy of the Workhouse Museum)
A sketch of Joe Lee directing traffic in Ripon. (Picture courtesy of the Workhouse Museum)

Pete looks back at some old characters of Ripon, including Joe Lee who took mischievous pleasure in directing city centre traffic the wrong way down one-way streets:

“Tha’s nowt so queer as folk” is a well known Yorkshire saying, so in this month’s Looking Back I hope to rekindle memories of some of Ripon’s characters of yesteryear.

Ripon today just doesn’t seem to have the feel to it like years long gone by, in my opinion one reason being its lack of real characters.

So let’s go way back to the 17th century for our first character, Tom Crudd, real name Thomas Spence and nicknamed Old Boots. He was born around 1692 and was the boot cleaner at the Unicorn Inn.

He was blessed with a plenitude of nose and chin, and could hold a piece of money between them. Visitors would frequently give him money, on condition that he would hold it between his nose and chin.

He died in 1762 at the age of 70. He was the last man buried at the west front of the cathedral in front of the horsing block.

But that’s not the end of the Tom Crudd story; he was to return in the form of a ghost. Some years ago the Unicorn’s night porter, while mopping the kitchen floor, was distracted by some rattling at the door so after putting the mop down he went to see if there was someone there.

There was no sign of anybody there but on returning to his mop and bucket he saw the mop moving on its own with the grinning face of Tom Crudd behind it. Probably after a quick dash to the toilet he than caught the first bus back to Harrogate, where he lived, and never returned to the Unicorn again.

Also, if the Browns who ran the Unicorn some years ago ever went into the cellars and did not say, “it’s alright Tom, I’m only changing the pumps”, objects would fly about of their own accord.

The number two on my list of characters has to be Joe Lee – nicknamed Chewy or Peanut. Joe was known to everyone who visited Ripon from the 1950s to the 70s.

He stood at the top and bottom of High Skellgate, directing the traffic proudly wearing his white gloves.Joe was a vagrant who lived and worked very hard at the Workhouse on Allhallowgate.

He caused sufficient mayhem to annoy many people, including the police who he worshipped. It seems only like yesterday seeing Joe dressed with dirty cream mac, flat cap and wearing those white gloves while chewing his tobacco that dribbled down his chin. He would wait till there were no police about then move on to do his own point duty.

Joe never stopped traffic but always waved it on and on occasions would send it down High Skellgate. Upon seeing it get jammed with traffic coming up the other way, he would then walk away chuckling to himself.Joe died in 1978 and more than 20 pairs of his white gloves were found.

Number three on my list –Jim Gott, born in 1897 at 43 Allhallowgate – was not only a postman but a great entertainer and a fantastic artist. I often saw Jim doing his sketching around Ripon, and would stand behind him admiring is work.

My uncle, Walter Colman, played the piano at one of Jim’s shows at the Palladium on March 14, 1936.Jim died aged 83, after what must have been a very interesting life.

Last but not least – Jack Thompson, every boy’s hero. Jack was the owner of the model shop that was every boy’s Aladdin’s cave. Whatever you wanted, from a stink bomb to the latest Airfix model, you could always find it at Jack’s shop. Jack would just tell you to sit down and wait and say, “I’ve got it in the back lad”. You then could hear him throwing boxes aroundand muttering to him self, “I know it’s in here some where”.

He would return covered in dust saying, “I told you I had it somewhere son”. He even felt guilty when he had to close the shop for lunch, putting a sign on the door saying: “Closed for lunch, sorry but man must eat.”

Jack’s old shop front was, I think, taken to the York Castle Museum. I even asked staff about this when I visited the museum some years ago. Sadly I could not find it.

Other characters from Ripon’s past with their nicknames are Shant Hardcastle, Tag Dixon, Bunny Richardson, Legger Dixon Plumb Bob Dalton, Pike Richardson, Swillock Swiers, Debzer Cousins, and not forgetting Ripon’s character from the world of horseracing, Wiggie Webster.

Yes, Ripon used to be full of historic charm, and today it’s sadly missing its characters. I hope this month’s Looking Back has brought back memories of those so called good old days of Ripon, when the city had real characters in its midst.