Revealed: The 'unknown' story behind one of Ripon's oldest traditions

Ripon Bellman Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.
Ripon Bellman Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.

It’s one of Ripon’s oldest and most established traditions that dates back as far as the 1300s, and yet the highly respected and important role of the city’s bellman is often one that a lot of people don’t know much about - possessing a relative obscurity when compared to the significant global profile of the hornblower.

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The tradition dates back to the 1300s. Pictured is Ripon's current Bellman, Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.

The tradition dates back to the 1300s. Pictured is Ripon's current Bellman, Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.

But when you take the time to delve into the rich history and origins of the bellman, you uncover a treasure trove of information that highlights the fascinating versatility of the role over the years.

But much to the relief of the current bellman, though, some of the tasks that would have fallen under his job description centuries ago are now firmly dead and buried - such as having to make announcements to help husbands sell their wives in the Market Square.

Nowadays, it’s a far more symbolic role - 72-year-old Geoffrey Johnson rings the bell once a week to open Ripon market, at 11am on Thursdays, bringing a sense of occasion that’s enjoyed and appreciated by both residents and visitors alike.

And whilst opening the market is a key foundation of the job, the bellman is also known for ringing the bell at some civic occasions and stepping up to be a town crier when appropriate - Mr Johnson announced Jack Laugher’s golden success in the Rio Olympics, for example.

Keeping a great Ripon tradition going: bellman Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.

Keeping a great Ripon tradition going: bellman Geoffrey Johnson. Picture: Gerard Binks.

But where does the bellman role stem from? Mr Johnson said it all goes back to the days of when Ripon market sold corn.

He said: “We think it goes back to 1367, that was the first recorded mention of it. It was the corn bell - the market used to be selling farm produce, including animals, sheep and cattle, and they used to sell a lot of corn. And the rule was, the farmers from inside Ripon could sell their corn as soon as they got to the market, and that might have been six o’clock, seven o’clock in the morning.

“The farmers from outside had to wait until the bell had been rung - they rang the bell at 12 o’clock. And I think the idea of that was that in times past some people would have been coming in by coach from York or Leeds, and there’d be some corn left for them when they got there at about midday.

“But now the bell is symbolic, it’s rung at 11am on market day now, but no corn is sold at the moment. At one time, there was a thing called market sweepings, when traders sold corn. They had to give a handful of corn from each sack that they were selling to the councillors - a sort of duty or a levy, and so the bellman had to collect those. They used to like a bellman with big hands because if he put his hand in, he’d get more corn out of the sack.”

It's a treasured tradition that a lot of people don't know much about - the Ripon Bellman plays an important role in civic life. Picture: Gerard Binks.

It's a treasured tradition that a lot of people don't know much about - the Ripon Bellman plays an important role in civic life. Picture: Gerard Binks.

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Some of the other antiquated and long-gone tasks that bellmen used to do at one time or another, included keeping the Market Square tidy, making fires for when the city council had meetings, taking messages for the council, and calling out cautions if a bylaw had been infringed.

As well as opening the market and stepping up to be a town crier when appropriate, Mr Johnson also rings the bell at Ripon events on occasion - one prominent one being the Ripon Racecourse Bell-Ringer Handicap race, where Mr Johnson rings the bell at the start of the race, judges the best turned-out horse, and presents the prize to the winning trainer or jockey.

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Geoffrey Johnson has been the bellman for four years, and has also been the city’s Deputy Mace-Bearer and Mayor’s Serjeant for 14 years, as well as a bell-ringer at Ripon Cathedral.
Hard-working and trusty deputy bellman David Coates has also been a great ambassador for Ripon, and thoroughly enjoys his role.

Mr Johnson said: “I think you need to have a wide interest in all things going on in Ripon to be a bellman, and also there’s the need to turn out smartly, be punctual and reliable, and be interested enough to talk to people about the bellman role and its traditions.

“Visitors come up and talk to you about the role, and say that they like to see these traditions being kept going. I suppose it reminds us of Ripon’s heritage and of the past. Tradition gives us something to focus on, and gives a continuity to things. Without these traditions in Ripon, there would be something missing.

“I am really proud to be a bellman, like the other jobs I do. It’s good to keep these things going that have gone on in Ripon for so many years."