Thursday, November 08, 2012

Hawksmoor's obelisk in Ripon and the South Sea Bubble

The bus for Ripon leaves from opposite York railway station, takes you through Little Ouseburn and Boroughbridge and makes a stylish entry to the city by sweeping around the market square before dropping you at the bus station.

Ripon's market square is dominated by a stone pillar. Ripon Civic Society will tell you its history:
Pride in the city was behind the efforts of the city council, led by the MP John Aislabie, at the beginning of the 17th century, when they transformed the rough medieval Market Square into its concept of a Roman forum – the forum populi. They were led in their vision by one of England’s greatest architects, Nicholas Hawksmoor 
Hawksmoor was steeped in the architecture of classical times, so his plan to pave the Square was based on ancient and Renaissance precedents – among them public spaces like Rome’s Piazza Navona. And as they often – like Navona and St Peter’s Square – had obelisks at the centre, Hawksmoor was determined that Ripon should have the same feature. 
The result is Britain’s earliest surviving free-standing obelisk, erected in 1702 at a cost of £564 11s 9d – of which £334.3s 9d was paid by Aislabie. He was probably motivated by his political ambition; he later became Chancellor of the Exchequer, but resigned in disgrace.
John Aislabie was disgraced because - everything I know about history I learnt from Wikipedia - of the South Sea Bubble:
When in 1719 the South Sea Company proposed a deal whereby it would take over the national debt in exchange for government bonds, Aislabie was a very strong supporter of the scheme and negotiated the contract; he piloted the Bill through the House of Commons. 
The South Sea Company had been built on high expectations which it could never fulfil, and it collapsed in August 1720. An investigation by Parliament found that Aislabie had been given £20,000 of company stock in exchange for his promotion of the scheme. 
He resigned the Exchequer in January 1721, and in March was found guilty by the Commons of the "most notorious, dangerous and infamous corruption". He was expelled from the House, removed from the Privy Council, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
His son William Aislabie had the obelisk restored in 1781, but the plaque he had erected at the time misleadingly implies that he was responsible for erecting it in the first place. Perhaps his father was still too controversial a figure to celebrate so publicly?

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