This year Ripon Civic Society is celebrating the life and career of a remarkable man. Here, David Winpenny, Chairman of the Society, explains why.
Here’s a date for your diary – Thursday 9 July 2009. Make a note of it now. It’s the day when the people of Ripon are going to celebrate the life of one of Ripon’s most prominent former citizens – George Frederick Robinson.
Some of you may be wondering who Mr Robinson was. You are more likely to know him as the Marquess of Ripon. George Frederick was born in No 10 Downing Street when his father, Viscount Goderich, was briefly and unsuccessfully Prime Minister, from September 1827 to January 1828. He was educated at home on the family’s estate at Nocton in Lincolnshire, and did not attend a university. On his father’s death in 1859 he became Earl of Ripon (his father’s title from 1853), but for most of his adult life he was known as Earl de Grey – a more senior title he inherited from his uncle.
Earl de Grey was by nature a Christian socialist. He pioneered and championed the educational ideals and the principles of the co-operative movement. He believed that every man in the country should be given the vote (cast by secret ballot) to promote good and stable government. Unsurprisingly, he was viewed as a dangerous radical – a title in which he gloried even in old age.
He became an MP in 1852 and led a group of radicals in the Commons – they argued for, among other policies, a legacy tax on the rich and strong civil service reform. He succeeded his father in the Lords in 1859 and two years later became a minister in the War Office under Palmerston. He worked closely with Florence Nightingale to improve the conditions of the common soldier. He was Secretary of State for India in 1866 and in 1868 he became Lord President of the Council.
In 1871 he averted a war with the United States over the Alabama affair. The Alabama was one of a number of Confederate warships built and given hospitality in British ports during the American Civil War. The Americans believed that this breached guarantees of neutrality, and held Britain responsible for the loss of life that these ships caused. War was averted only when Earl de Grey personally persuaded the American negotiator of Britain’s good standing. As a result of his work, his lordship was created the 1st Marquess of Ripon.
In 1873 he resigned from the government. The following year he converted to Roman Catholicism – it was a national scandal at a time when ‘popery’ was still feared. He was instrumental in having John Henry Newman made a cardinal, and from 1890 was President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Despite the outcry at his conversion, the Marquess was highly-respected, and in 1880 Gladstone made him Viceroy of India. There he had to deal with problems caused by his predecessor, especially those of Afghanistan. He reformed the local government structure of almost all the Indian provinces, and, although he was not successful in all his aims, he is still respected as one of the men who laid the foundations of Indian independence.
His later career – which included time working (often at Studley Royal) on the Irish problem, and serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1905, when he was 75, he became Lord Privy Seal and leader of the Liberals in the Lords. He finally retired in 1908, and died on 9 July 1909.
Ripon Civic Society, along with Ripon Museum Trust, Ripon Historical Society and the Local Studies centre, as well as other interested parties, will celebrate his life on 9 July. There will be a short ceremony at the Marquess’s statue in the Spa Gardens, followed by a talk in the Spa Hotel by Richard Compton of Newby Hall, who is related to the Marquess. The Society has invited representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the High Commissioner for India to the occasion.
As well as all his high politics, Lord Ripon had a great deal of time for the city that provided his title. He had the lime trees on North Road and Studley Road planted, for example; he opened the Studley estate to visitors, and he served several times as Mayor of Ripon; he also presented the Town Hall (which he owned) to the city (so that he didn’t have repair it, the rumour said).
Please come along to mark the life and career of the 1st Marquess of Ripon on 9 July and hear more of his story; there is a great deal to add!
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