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Historical Richmond

Packed full of history, Richmond's past is there for all to see.

Richmond grew up around the castle in the 11th century and its impressive Norman keep still dominates the townscape. Indeed Richmond's name derives from the old French, 'Riche-mont' meaning a strong hill. The true sense of that description can be fully appreciated if you stand on Castle Walk and see the precipice on which the castle is built, or gaze across the landscape from the towering heights of the 100ft-tall keep.

Our town is also the original Richmond. At the last count there were 105 Richmonds across the globe named after this one - the mother of them all.

The best way to discover Richmond’s history is to visit one of the many attractions or take a guided walk or self-guided trail. You will see many fine Georgian and Victorian buildings clustered around the cobbled market place but delve a little further and you will find many hidden corners and fascinating landmarks.


A Short History Of The Town

Early history

The building of the town's impressive castle in the years following the Norman conquest in 1066 marks the founding of the Richmond we see today, but people have lived in the area since the earliest times and there have been local finds from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period. Of the most famous finds are a Bronze Age sword found near Catterick Bridge; the Easby Cross (Christian) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum; and a Viking sword that was pulled out of Gilling beck that is a key exhibit in the Castle Museum at York. Another early building is the ruined remains of 12th century Easby Abbey that can be reached by a short riverside walk. Within the abbey’s precinct is the still-active parish church of St Agatha with its well-preserved 13th century wall paintings.

Also of note in the centre of town is the 15th century Friary Tower – a striking Franciscan bell tower that looks out over the public Friary Gardens.

The Civil War and 17th century

During the English Civil War, Richmond became the Headquarters of the Parliamentarians who occupied St Nicholas – the oldest dwelling in Richmond that can still be seen on the approach to Richmond along Maison Dieu from Brompton on Swale.

During the late 17th century, Richmond gradually prospered and the two main industries that expanded in the outlying Dale were lead mining and knitting. The wool, which came from the Swaledale sheep (still a feature of the farming landscape today), was rough but waterproof. The wool was brought into Richmond, the market town of the Dale, and sold to buyers who passed it onto local knitters. Caps and stockings were made in the town which were then largely exported to Holland and Belgium.

The Georgian era

For many, Richmond’s heyday was the Georgian era, spanning from 1714 to 1837. During this period, Richmond flourished and became an important regional hub for social activities, bringing with it prosperity and status. Fine buildings sprang up and the town gained a reputation for beauty and elegance. Georgian architecture is still dominant in the town today. The imposing King’s Head Hotel opened in 1725; the Town Hall was built in 1756 to provide a facility for balls and other assemblies; and in 1788 Samuel Butler built his now famous Theatre – The Georgian Theatre Royal.

Other key Georgian landmarks include the impressive folly of Culloden Tower and the obelisk in the Market Place. Large numbers of private houses were either rebuilt or ‘Georgianised’ during this time and they can still be seen in the town centre, particularly around the Market Place, Newbiggin and Fenchgate.

The Victorian period

The other dominant style of architecture in the centre of the town dates from Victorian times with buildings like The Fleece Hotel on Victoria Road and the 19th-century former Grammar School on Station Road. One of Richmond’s key attractions The Station – which now houses a cinema, art galleries, café bar and artisan food outlets – celebrates the early days of rail.

The First and Second World Wars

During the First World War, Richmond's own Green Howards Regiment raised 24 battalions for the war effort and the Castle assumed a role as a barracks and training camp for new recruits and members of the Non-Combatant Corps. In 1915, the first troops occupied the area south of Richmond in what was to become Catterick Camp.

In 1916, a group of "absolutist" conscientious objectors known as the Richmond Sixteen were held at the Castle. After being transported to France, they were court-martialled and formally sentenced to be executed by firing squad, but this sentence was immediately commuted to ten years' penal servitude, and the men were eventually released in 1919. Their stories are told today in a special exhibition and you can see first-hand the 19th-century cell block that continued to be used to house prisoners into the Second World War.

Richmond has had more than its fair share of famous and influential people over the centuries. The following are just a few that have associations with the town.

  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) – more commonly known as the writer Lewis Carroll
  • John Wycliffe (1338-1384), the theologian who translated the Bible into English
  • JMW Turner (1775-1851), the famous watercolourist
  • Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), the founder of the scouting movement
  • John Fenwick (1846-1905), the man behind the famous department store based in Newcastle
  • Henry Greathead (1757-1818), the inventor of the lifeboat
  • George Cuit (1743-1818), the artist
  • John Carr (1723-1807), the renowned Georgian architect
  • William Herschel (1738-1822), the German-born astronomer and musician
  • Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond (b.1945), one of the UK's leading legal figures who served as President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom until her retirement in 2020.
  • Amanda Berry, OBE (b. 1961), Chief Executive of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

The Story of Robert Willance

Robert Willance was a successful Richmond merchant who is remembered for his famous riding accident in 1606 that is now commemorated at a local beauty spot - Willance’s Leap.

On a chilly November day, Robert Willance was out hunting, riding an inexperienced and nervous young horse, when a thick mist suddenly came down. The horse bolted and fell 212ft over the edge of Whitcliffe Scar and was killed. Willance himself survived the fall but severely injured his leg. Realising he would not be rescued until the fog lifted, he used his hunting knife to slit open the horse's belly and inserted his fractured leg into the warm belly of the unfortunate horse.

It is said that this act probably saved his life, as the extra warmth would delay the onset of gangrene and protect him from the cruel cold weather on Whitcliffe Scar.

When he was found many hours later he was taken back to his house in Richmond, now Willance House (24 Frenchgate), where his injured leg was amputated. He made such a good recovery that he was able to serve as the first Alderman of Richmond in 1608.

To thank God for his miraculous deliverance from the jaws of death, he set up three stones marking the last strides of his horse with the inscription:

"Hear Us - Glory be to our Merciful God who Miraculously Preserved me from the Danger so Great"

He died ten years later in 1616 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's parish church, close to the garden wall of Willance House on 12 February. According to tradition, he was reunited with his leg which had been buried there ten years earlier. His grave is marked by a flat stone near a door in the garden wall, but the inscription is no longer legible.

The Tale of the Little Drummer Boy

Legend has it that, many years ago, probably at the end of the eighteenth century, a previously undiscovered tunnel was found to lead away from Richmond Castle and towards the neighboroughing hamlet of Easby.

Eager to discover the exact route and destination of the tunnel, but too big (or scared) to fit down it themselves, soldiers persuaded one of the regimental drummer boys to go down, with instructions to walk along the tunnel whilst continually beating his drum, so that the route could be followed above ground.

The drum’s beat could be plainly heard leaving the enclave of the castle, heading across the Market Place and along Frenchgate, to the banks of the River Swale and heading towards Easby.

However, about half a mile from Easby Wood, the drumming ceased – and was never heard again. Did the tunnel end there? Had the roof collapsed? What happened to the Drummer Boy?

The answers to these questions have never been discovered and the only marker of the tunnel above ground is the Drummer Boy’s Stone, pinpointing the spot where the drumbeats of this poor unfortunate lad were last heard.

Download the Drummer Boy Walk and follow in his footsteps.

The Tale of Potter Thompson

One day, Potter Thompson was walking past the castle bank when he noticed an opening which on further investigation turned out to be a cave. Although fearful, he pushed on into the darkness and became increasingly alarmed when he heard snoring. Just a few feet on, he saw a sleeping King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Legend has it that whenever England is in danger they will awake and come to its rescue.

Potter Thompson dashed off to tell his friends but when they returned they could not find the opening and the apparition was put down to the 'demon drink'. But you never know...

The Eclipse Box of 1927

This sealed lead box was discovered in 1972 during alterations to the 12th century Trinity Church tower. The inscription scratched on the box declared that it contained documents relating to the solar eclipse of 1927 and the Richmond Pageant of 1929 and was to be opened in the year of 1999.

The box was opened on Saturday 4 December 1999 by the then Mayor Cllr, Anne Frizell and it can now be seen in the Richmondshire Museum

The Eclipse Box of 2090

In February 2002, a new box was put in the same place as the old – a niche inside Trinity Church Tower, now part of the Green Howards Museum – with a plaque indicating that the box is to be opened on 23 September 2090.

The box contains a wide range of printed information about Richmond, including a picture of the then current Town Councillors, tourist information, details of Richmond traditions and a set of the Mayor's Audit Money, a CD made by Richmond School on its Millennium tour of the United States, and material from the two ancient Guilds of Richmond – the Fellmongers and the Grocers, Haberdashers and Mercers. There is also some information from the 1929 box about the 1927 eclipse and details of the 1999 eclipse.

Richmondshire Landscape Trust Time Capsule 2009

Another time capsule was incorporated into a stone seat on the western edge of town that was part of a section of stonewall re-built by Richmondshire Landscape Trust.

The wall borders three pieces of the land owned by the charity – Westfields, Jack Kings Wood and the Nine Acre Field. Easily accessible by foot, and just to the side of the popular Coast to Coast footpath, the seat provides spectacular views of the Castle and other Richmond landmarks.

The time capsule itself was presented by children from Richmond Methodist School who chose items such as drawings, photographs, maps, toys and a school sweatshirt representing life in 2009.