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Ripon History

The Unicorn Hotel

Unicorn Hotel
Unicorn Hotel

During the late Middle Ages, inns were required to show an easily recognisable sign to allow them to be distinguished by the illiterate. Many chose animal symbols derived from the Bestiary, a church publication, and it seems reasonable that the creature associated with strength and ferocity, the unicorn, would have been a desirable association. In addition, the drinking from a unicorn cup was believed to guard against the effects of poison, hence another reason the unicorn would be a good choice for an inn.

Though no inn names were shown, the Poll Tax returns for 1379 indicate that there were three "brewsters" around the market place of whom two paid 12d and one paid 24d tax. It is not unlikely that this person, Thomas de Ledes, was the innkeeper of the Unicorn.

It is certainly known that Edward Alleyn, a London actor who became "Keeper of the King's Beasts" in 1604, and founded Dulwich College in 1619, purchased a property in Yorkshire. The papers were signed "in the house of Margaret Turner at the sign of the Unicorn in Ripon" on 22nd July 1626. This also makes clear that it was in fact the Unicorn which is referred to in 1611 as "the house of Edward Turner in the Market Place" where the Corporation held its meetings at that time.

Unicorn Hotel Front Door
Unicorn Hotel Front Door

Edward Turner married Margaret Allanson in 1604, and therefore are the earliest known proprietors of the Unicorn. Although Edward died in 1624, Margaret continued to run the Unicorn for another 23 years. She must have had a difficult time, as there was a severe outbreak of plague in 1625 to 1626, and the Civil War, which resulted in an affray on the Market Place in 1642. Margaret died in 1647, the same year that Charles I spent two nights as a prisoner in Ripon. Oliver Cromwell also stopped in Ripon on 13th August 1648 and on 18th August 1651. Perhaps this was at the Unicorn. Margaret's son, Thomas Allanson, was bequeathed the Unicorn, but sold it to Richard Porter, a family friend later the same year.

The Unicorn possessed eight hearths according to the Hearth Tax returns of 1672, and the Survey of Burgages of 1675 lists Richard Porter as the proprietor of the Unicorn, though he died the following year. Richard's son, also called Richard, inherited the Unicorn, though he was to die three years later in 1679. Ellen Horner, Richard's sister, took control, but died in the early 1690s. The Corporation gave substantial rent to Ellen for part use of her parlour in 1688, probably at the Unicorn. Following Ellen's death, the Unicorn was divided between three sisters, fragmenting ownership.

During the reign of William III, Celia Fiennes visited Ripon in 1697 and noted that "some of the inns are very dear to strangers that they can impose on".

Between 1704 and 1707, Francis Cowling purchased two of the three shares in the Unicorn from the relatives of Ellen Horner. He is known to have been paid 8s 4d for five quarts of wine in 1715 on the accession of George I, and to have collected money for "a plate to be run for upon Ripon Common" in 1717. Francis retired in 1729 mortgaging his two-thirds stake to his nephew Cuthbert Cowling for the sum of 220. Cuthbert inherited the property "known by the name or sign of the Unicorn" on Francis' death in 1734, and by 1744 he had secured the other third share returning the inn to single ownership.

Cuthbert Cowling sold the Unicorn to William Haddon and his wife, Sarah, for the sum of 410 in 1745. The Haddon family were to own the Unicorn for the rest of the 18th century. Haddon was already the tenant landlord as early as 1729, but following his purchase, he acquired adjoining properties to extend the Unicorn to its current frontage. During this time, Haddon converted the Unicorn from timber to Georgian brick, a trend followed throughout the Market Place with the only exception of the Wakeman's House.

For several decades from the 1760s, the Unicorn was famous for a character known as Tom Crudd, also known as Thomas Spence and "Old Boots". Here is a description of Old Boots from 1807.

Old Boots
Old Boots

"Among the infinite variety of human countenances, perhaps none ever so much excited astonishment and popularity as that of Old Boots, whose portrait has often been engraved. This extraordinary person was favoured by nature with a nose and chin so enormously long, and so lovingly tending to embrace each other, that he acquired by habit the power of holding a piece of money between them. Being a servant of the Unicorn Inn in Rippon, Yorkshire, it was his business to wait on travellers who arrived there, to assist them in taking off their boots. He usually introduced himself in the room with a pair of slippers in one hand and a bootjack in the other, exactly in the attitude represented in his picture. The company in general were so diverted with his odd appearance that they would frequently give him a piece of money on condition that he held it between his nose and chin. This requisition he was always ready to comply with, it being no less satisfactory to himself than entertaining to them."

William Haddon died in 1769 followed by Sarah in 1774, the Unicorn passing to her son John and his wife Alice. John, however, was to die after only six years leaving the Unicorn in the hands of his widow. During the 1780's John Fairgray was known as the innkeeper, but ownership remained with Alice Haddon.

The effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War meant that by July 1801 the Ripon Loyal Volunteer Corps of Infantry provided "an elegant entertainment" for their colonel, an event repeated in October 1805 when there was "utmost conviviality and mirth". Only a few years later, innkeepers complained bitterly about having a regiment of regular infantry billeted there.

John Fairgray joined Ripon Corporation in 1798 as an Assistant Councillor, and the next year the Corporation held its meetings at the Unicorn whilst the new Town Hall was under construction. May 1799 saw Fairgray paid the sum of one pound, eleven shillings and six pence for the use of his rooms. Also using the Unicorn were the Turnpike Trustees and the local magistrates to issue alehouse licences and swear in army recruits as well as to hold their Quarter Sessions dinner.

Fairgray was elected an Alderman and became Mayor of Ripon in 1806, the first Unicorn proprietor known to hold this office. He died shortly afterwards in 1809 aged 45. His portrait hangs in the Mayor's parlour in the Town Hall.

Alice Haddon died in 1812 and passed the ownership to her nephew, John Haddon Askwith of Sleningford Hall. He was to insure the Unicorn and its contents for 3000 in June 1814. In September 1814 the local coroner's court met at the Unicorn to investigate the death as a result of official neglect of a sick beggar called William Ross being "returned" from Wakefield to Scotland via Ripon. Several parish constables were criticised for "cruelty and inhumanity".

In June of 1817, Askwith leased "that well known and accustomed Inn and Posting House called the Unicorn Inn" to Mr Haseldine Sharpin of York for seven years at an annual rent of 200. Within four years, Askwith had sold the Unicorn and other properties to Miss Elizabeth Sophia Lawrence of Studley Royal.

The early 19th century was the Golden Age of stagecoach travel and the Unicorn serviced stagecoaches and private carriages. In the 1820's, the Telegraph coach running between Newcastle and London in 36 hours called at the Unicorn, as did the Royal Mail from Glasgow to London. More locally, the Tally-Ho ran a daily service between Ripon and Leeds. Other coaches such as the Highflyer, the Courier, and The Prince Albert also used the Unicorn's services. The rooms and fittings of the Unicorn included a Breakfast Room, Coffee Room, Traveller's Room, Bow and Back Parlours, Bar and TapRoom, Kitchen and Pantry, Ale and Wine Cellars, Stables and Haylofts, and a Coach Office.

In 1832 the Great Reform Act doubled those entitled to vote for the two Ripon MPs, and the control of the Studley Royal interest was now challenged. The liberal reformers based at the Black Bull beat Miss Lawrence's conservative candidates based at the Unicorn. Three years later in 1835, the voting was reversed and celebrations abounded in "a splendid dinner" provided by "Mr Thwaites, the spirited landlord of the Unicorn Inn".

The Studley Royal family retained the ownership of the Unicorn for many years, though proprietors came and went. In 1848 the railway came to Ripon and John and Anne Cleminshaw were in charge. The first full census of 1851 shows Anne to be aged 67 and "Head of Family". Presumably John was dead. Staff included a cook, waiter, kitchen maid, two housemaids, and a "Boots" - 27 year old William Maude, later killed whilst thrown from the bus he was driving at Studley in July 1859. In 1858 Charles L Dodgson stayed at the Unicorn, he was better known as writer Lewis Carroll.

1861 sees the Unicorn run by the Hanby family, soon succeeded by the Collinsons, firstly Thomas Ellington Collinson, then his son Robert. Robert was to become a councillor, then Alderman, and finally Mayor. He was held in such high regard that he was to be Mayor for four consecutive years in 1876-80. Following the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1863, the Royal couple visited Ripon, and Collinson claimed Royal patronage for the Unicorn. In 1881 the census records Collinson and his second wife, Eliza, a former barmaid, with four children plus another three from his first marriage at the Unicorn. It was also noted as a fully staffed and successful hotel. Collinson died on Boxing Day 1889 aged 55. He was buried in the Holy Trinity churchyard following a full civic funeral.

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