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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 3rd July 2009
David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, invites everyone to mark the centenary of the death of the 1st Marquess of Ripon on Thursday 9 July in the Spa Gardens and at the Spa Hotel.

‘There were giants in the earth in those days’, says the Book of Genesis. This referred to the time of Noah, so the writer was looking back a long time into the past, when anyone of any stature or fame might be seen as heroic.

Distance, as we know, lends enchantment. Probably the people of Noah’s time complained about the failings of their leaders (and perhaps even their expenses claims!) as much as we do today. Yet looking back with the perspective of time their descendants saw them as giants.

New perspectives are always interesting. There was a chance a few days ago to have, literally, a new view of the Marquess of Ripon. Contractors for Harrogate Borough Council went along to the Spa Gardens to spray-wash the statue of the Marquess that has stood there since 1921. They brought along a ‘cherry-picker’ hoist, so it was possible to take photographs of Lord Ripon face-to-face – or even from above.

The work was in preparation for the commemoration of the centenary of the Marquess’s death. He died at Studley Royal on Friday 9 July 1909. Next Thursday, 9 July 2009, Ripon Civic Society will mark the centenary with a short ceremony at the statue, at which everyone is welcome. The list of Lord Ripon’s honours, as carved into the statue’s base, will be read, there will be a short talk on the statue itself and its sculptor, and children from St Wilfrid’s Primary school will offer Indian-style ‘garlands’ that that have made (the Marquess was Viceroy of India) to some of the dignitaries. Ripon City Band will play from the bandstand before and after the ceremonies.

After that everyone will walk to the nearby Spa Hotel, where there will be a short reception, after which Richard Compton of Newby Hall, a descendant of the Marquess, will give a talk about Lord Ripon’s life.

From the perspective of a century on, George Frederick Samuel Robinson, successively known as Earl of Ripon and de Grey (de Grey was the senior title; he held it from 1859 on the death of a cousin) and, on his elevation in 1871, Marquess of Ripon, seems to have been one of that apparently very select band, an honourable politician. This column has already given an outline of his career, which saw him sitting in every Liberal cabinet from the Prime Ministership of Lord Palmerston in 1861 to that of Asquith in 1908 – when he served in the same cabinet as Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade.

He was always a radical – though an upper-class, somewhat patrician radical – and he was certainly known as a safe pair of hands. His appointment as the chief negotiator when war threatened with the United States in 1871 over the perceived breaking of neutrality by the British during the American Civil War, shows how much he was trusted; his almost-single-handed conclusion of the Treaty of Washington, which restored harmony in Anglo-American relations, was rewarded with his Marquessate.

As Viceroy of India from 1880 to 1884 he had to pick up the pieces of unpopular policies instituted by the previous holder of the office. That he did so with skill and tact is shown by the fact that he is still regarded in India as one of the most enlightened of Viceroys, who laid the foundations for Indian independence. There are copies of the Spa Gardens statue in two Indian cities – Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta).

What is remarkable about his time as Viceroy – and indeed his political career after 1874, the year he converted to Roman Catholicism – is that he was appointed at all. The conversion was a huge scandal. Restrictions on Catholics in public life had been lifted in 1832, and the Catholic hierarchy in England had been re-established in 1850; but they were still regarded with suspicion. On Lord Ripon’s conversion ‘The Times’ thundered, ‘His sympathies have, at least in action, been given to the party of progress and enlightenment, and he would have been regarded until yesterday as a valuable member of the Liberal Party. This is the man who, in the full strength of his powers, has renounced his mental and moral freedom, and has submitted himself to the guidance of the Roman Catholic Priesthood. Such a step . . . can only be regarded as betraying an irreparable weakness of character.’ The English Independent referred to him as ‘the pervert Marquis’.

Some of his friends were horrified; Mr Gladstone wrote harshly to him. But others knew the man better. Sir Arthur Helps, friend and confidante of Queen Victoria, wrote to the Marquess, ‘My inclination is rather to have increased respect for one who, at much self-sacrifice . . . adopts and avows a change of opinion in these all-important matters’. Lord Ripon’s character overcame even the harshest of objections and his rehabilitation, first as Viceroy and later in cabinet posts, seems to have been accepted on all sides.

So please come along to the Spa Gardens on at 7.00 pm on Thursday 9 June to celebrate the life of this remarkable man, who worked as hard for Ripon as for the nation, and hear more from Richard Compton about his life and career. It is a fascinating story.

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