Unearthing a piece of forgotten history

By Vonni Wilkins

MR DAVAID Townrow has a tankard which commemorates one of the most extraordinary incidents in Knaresborough’s long and varied history, which most people have never heard of. The tankard was issued to one of the 11 men who were jailed for three months for having taken part in the Knaresborough riot.

He said the tankard had belonged to two elderly women who lived next door to his family when he was a child in the 1950s and lived on Iles Lane.

“My sister and I used to run errands for them and my father Peter Townrow did odd jobs for them.

“One day, one of the two sisters said they wanted to give my father something and presented him with the tankard.

“The inscription on it reads: ‘Presented to Joseph Kearton by his fellow townsmen, as a token of their deep sympathy on his having suffered three months imprisonment along with ten others, for alleged riot in the Castle Yard, when asserting the right of the public against the aggression of Doctor John Simpson, Knaresborough June 26, 1866’.”

When David’s father died, the tankard came into his possession and now he has decided to try to find out about its history.

In the Knaresborough Post dated June 26, 1866, there was a long account of the celebrations when the prisoners returned home from the prison in Leeds. Unfortunately there were only nine of them, one having died in prison and another being too ill to travel home that day. (What must the prison conditions have been like?!)

They were met off the train in Harrogate by the townspeople, visitors to that ‘fashionable watering place’ and the Knaresborough brass band. After being presented with flowers, the nine were conducted to carriages for the drive to Knaresborough, with the band leading the way. Visitors lined the streets cheering as they passed, but that was nothing compared to the reception given them in Knaresborough where the road was so crowded with people they were hardly able to pass. Banners and flags were hung from windows and across the streets. The shops had all closed and the church bells were ringing. When the procession was finally allowed through to the Market Place, long speeches welcoming them home were made.

Two hundred people sat down to a ‘good substantial well-cooked and warm dinner soon after 2pm,” in the town hall. After the meal, the 11 tankards were presented, with more speeches and in the evening. An estimated 3,000 attended a gala, which was a great success as the evening was ‘beautifully fine.’ Rustic games were indulged in with great gusto and no disturbance or accident marred the proceedings.’

Next David wanted to find out what on earth had happened to cause this riot which had Knaresborians turning out with such fervour to greet the ‘heroes’ home from prison.

He then managed to obtain a copy of a pamphlet entitled the Castle Yard Disputes, which described in detail the run up to the incident which landed the 11 in jail. They ranged in age from 17 to 62.

The final straw, came after almost ten years of dispute.

Dr John Simpson, who lived in a house adjoining Castle Yard enclosed a section of Castle Yard adjoining his own property to extend his garden at the back of his house, thereby curtailing the rights enjoyed by the people of Knaresborough to use the Castle Yard for recreation blocking one of the paths down to the river. He put up strong palisades and iron gates, which he kept locked. Knaresborough people were up in arms.

Over the next few years William Johnson, a tailor, threatened to break the lock and remove the fencing if Dr Simpson didn’t take it down again. On several occasions he carried out his threats and was subsequently fined.

Dr Simspon was told on several occasions by the courts to remove the gates, but did nothing about it. He was wealthy and a Justice of the Peace.

The ordinary citizens, who had had use of the land for leisure and recreation since the castle, was sleighted on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, were understandably furious..

When the school wished to extend at the back of the girls’ school to accommodate extra pupils they were unable to reach it because of the extended garden. Dr Simpson had to reopen the access to the rear of the school.

The match which lit the flame of indignation so that the whole town was up in arms, was when it became known that Dr Simpson had put in an injunction on the vicar and churchwardens of the parish to stop the children laughing and making a noise in the school playground adjoining his house and the extended garden in question. A public meeting was held which decided to support the vicar and trustees of the school in opposing the injunction.

After the meeting ‘a large gathering of inhabitants proceeded ‘in the most resolute, but quiet and peaceable way to remove the fences, palisading, trees etc which Dr Simpson had placed on land they claimed as open space. In doing this they not only demolished the iron gates, palisading, trees and shrubs, but burnt down a summer house.’

Such was the righteous indignation of Knaresborians, the fund to support the relatives of the 11 sent to jail and to fund the celebrations when they returned home was so well supported that it was closed after six weeks, when it had been expected to keep it open until their sentences had been completed.

Now Mr Townrow would like to speak to anyone who can throw more light on this story.

Which house was the one belonging to Dr Simpson? What happened to the other ten mugs? Joseph Kearton is described as a 17-year-old musician. Does anyone know what became of him? Mr Townrow can be contacted on 01423 563521.