On Sunday – 10 September – Ripon Civic Society will mark Heritage Open Day once again. It’s part of the national Heritage Open Days scheme, which sees buildings and sites all across the country, some of them never usually open, welcome visitors free of charge.
The Civic Society will open the Gazebo off Blossomgate; this is its once-a-year opening, and gives everyone the chance to see this hidden Ripon gem – an early 18th-century garden building consisting of two towers joined by a gallery. As it’s tucked away behind the sheltered housing of Blossomgate Court, it’s worth seeking out. It’s open on Sunday from 2.00pm to 4.00pm.
The Society has also arranged for the Masonic Hall in Water Skellgate to open again this year (also Sunday, 2.00pm to 4.00pm), and for Ripon Grammar School library to be open, too (Sunday, 1.00pm to 4.00pm. Do go along and see what these interesting venues have to offer.
But September 10 2017 has another special significance – one that’s linked to another Ripon building that is opening its doors for Heritage Open Days. It’s the Workhouse Museum, which is open free on Saturday 9 September from 11.00am to 4.00pm, with a special Victorian ‘CSI’ event. And the link with September 10? Its significance is that that date will be the centenary of the birth of one of the leading lights of the Civic Society, and the founder of what became the three very successful Law and Order museums of Ripon.
He was Dr John Whitehead, and it seems appropriate that we celebrate his achievements for the city of Ripon 100 years after his birth. Born in Hull, the youngest of three children, he was the first in his family to go into higher education; he won a Royal Scholarship to study chemistry at Imperial College in London. When war broke out he remained in London, working in the reserved occupation of a government chemist, analysing black-market food for signs of adulteration – things like chalk added to bread and flour, and sawdust in sausages.
After the war John Whitehead continued his career as a research scientist, first with the Flour Millers Association, then as a research fellow at the Middlesex Hospital in London, while he, with his wife Helen and his growing family lived in Bedford. In 1963 they moved to Harrogate where he worked for the Tobacco Research Council, becoming its director in 1969 and retiring in 1977.
In 1971 the family moved to Ripon. He and Helen researched the history of their house in High St Agnesgate – and so developed a love for the history and fabric of the whole of the city. In June 1968, not long before their move, the new Ripon Civic Society had been formed, and they became deeply involved in its work; Helen and John both served as the Society’s Secretary and John was also its Chairman and then a Vice-President.
He was an ideal fit for the work of the Society. He was not just a man of intellect – happy with assessing the sometimes-dense emanations from local and central government to see how they might affect (or even help) the city – but also very practical, clearing litter or wielding a spade.
Helen and John were leading movers in calling for better museum facilities in the city and identifying the possibilities of Sharow View, the former Ripon Union Workhouse. When Helen died in 1974 (she is commemorated by the Civic Society at its Awards Ceremony with the presentation of the Helen Whitehead Salver for the best Project), the campaigning work continued.
A special and urgent impetus was the submission of a planning application to turn the former House of Correction on St Marygate into a wine bar. The Civic Society objected; but more was to follow. With the Society’s encouragement, John Whitehead formed the Ripon Museum Trust – and he persuaded Harrogate Borough Council to buy the building in 1983. The following year Ripon Prison and Police Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time; it has continued to grow and flourish, the first of Ripon’s Law and Order museums.
The 1980s were times of great achievements in the city. Many of them centred on the ‘Ripon 1100 Festival’ in 1986, marking 100 years since the 1886 Millenary celebrations. John Whitehead chaired the Environment Committee, which helped bring about several improvements from which the city still benefits.
It is not too much to say that John Whitehead was one of the leaders in the regeneration of Ripon. Working with like-minded colleagues in the Civic Society and beyond, he persuaded Harrogate Borough Council to establish the Civic Trust Ripon Project. He also worked to promote the promotion of tourism – again, to the benefit of Ripon today.
The Prison and Police Museum was part of that tourism promotion – but Dr Whitehead spearheaded more development. In the 1970s, with Helen’s encouragement, he had already been planning a Poor Law Museum at Sharow View. It took time, but their vision became reality when Ripon’s second museum opened in 1996. And since then, the closure of Ripon Magistrates Court led to its purchase by the Dean and Chapter, allowing the Georgian courtrooms to be restored and opened as the third of Ripon’s Law and Order museums.
Through all the planning and realisation of these changes John Whitehead, latterly as the President of the Ripon Museum Trust, was always there to encourage and provide wisdom. His achievement was recognised with an MBE in 1990, but in Ripon his worth was recognised wherever people interested in the welfare of the city gathered. His death at the age of 90 on 21 March 2008 was marked by generous tributes and a celebration of a man who did so much for Ripon; the latest news, of the Museum Trust’s taking over the main buildings of Sharow View, would have gladdened his heart.
So, as you visit the open properties on Heritage Open Days, remember Dr John Whitehead on his centenary. We need more people of his calibre!