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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 25th June 2010
David Winpenny looks at how history could help to find a role for Ripon

A couple of years ago this column applied the famous words of Dean Acheson, one-time Secretary of State for the United States, ‘Britain has lost an Empire, but has not yet found a role’ to the Wakeman’s House. At that time it was empty – today it is a thriving café.

It is good that the Wakeman’s House has found its role. But Acheson’s words might be seen as having a wider context for Ripon. Last week’s column asked the question ‘What is Ripon for?’ If we can answer this question, we can define the role of the city in the future.

Throughout history, the role of cities has been debated. The Greek city-states each had their own character, and there were no doubt great debates in the ‘agora’ – the public open space, not dissimilar to Ripon’s Market Square in its intended purpose – about the virtues of each system. The cities of the Roman empire were more uniform, perhaps, though the differences between, say Eboracum (York) in the far north west of the empire and Alexandria in Egypt were no doubt significant.

By the Middle Ages cities had once again diversified, not only in their trades but in the way they were ruled. By the early 16th century the Italian theorist Niccoló Machiavelli was in no doubt that cities flourished most where the citizens were in charge of their own fate; ‘The cities where the people are masters make the greatest progress in the least possible time, and much greater than such as have always been governed by princes,’ he wrote. But there was also a warning that even if a city ‘has no foreign foes, she will find domestic enemies amongst her own citizens, for such seems to be the inevitable fate of all large cities.’

In the 17th and 18th centuries cities – certainly smaller ones like Ripon – often came under the influence of local landowners. Ripon’s Market Square obelisk is a symbol of such influence; it was erected at the instance of John Aislabie of Studley, and was later used to commemorate the long-lasting representation of the city in parliament by his son William. By the 19th century the large industrial cities were often the preserve of the wealthy middle classes, whose elected representative on the councils worked for the civic good and the advancement of the prestige of their city.

Some of this led to what many saw as a decline in proper planning and in social care – as early as the 1840s the architect Pugin was using his artistic skill to contrast a small, ordered, Christian town of 1440 with the same town in 1840 – much to the latter’s disadvantage. Other social commentators – among them John Ruskin and William Morris – weighed in against what they saw as the awful spread and industrial darkening of cities. Some enlightened employers, like Sir Titus Salt at Saltaire near Bradford and later Lord Leverhulme at Port Sunlight and the Rowntrees at New Earswick, York, tried to alleviate the worst of the social and health problems cities caused. In the 20th century councils made more determined efforts to improve cities – vast slum clearance schemes brought in new housing, though this often proved to be little better in the long term.

Lewis Mumford, author of the seminal work ‘The City in History’ was particularly critical of mid-20th-century planning, which he believed was responsible for too many social problems. He criticised the way in which cities were being given over to the car at the expense of people (even back in the 1930s and 40s!), and of the way in which cities were being allowed to sprawl. Nevertheless, he believed in the concept of the city as a force for good; ‘the city multiplies power to think, to remember, to educate, to communicate, and so to make possible associations which build our nature, culture and beliefs.’

We are fortunate that Ripon escaped the worst excesses of the 19th and 20th century industrial and social experiments. But some of the criticisms these commentators made ring true here – perhaps especially Machiavelli’s warning of internal dispute and Mumford’s against giving the city over to traffic.

The past can help us to form a philosophical basis from which to formulate our ideas about the future. But history also tells us that it is the cities that grasp the opportunities that survive the best. So it may well be time for us to agree that the city may need to expand a little, in a well-controlled, and well-designed way, so that it is more economically sustainable and can attract a more diverse retail base.

This needs a determined effort from everyone involved – whether they are our elected representatives, members of interested local groups like Ripon Civic Society or concerned individuals. The value of the Greater Ripon Improvement Partnership (GRIP) lies not in its renaming but in its repositioning to bring together all these parties – from inside and around the city – into one single group that makes and takes forward plans that all can support. This is what Ripon needs – and now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we have a chance to prove Machiavelli’s pessimism wrong.

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