Barney has its Butter Market, Richmond has its obelisk over its reservoir, Northallerton has its moving column of stone while Ripon has the tallest “market cross” in the district – so Looking Back said a couple of weeks ago, causing Justin Scully, for one, to splutter on his teacakes in dismay.

“With the greatest of respect to the other crosses, this is like comparing a Ferrari to a Mini!” said Justin, the National Trust’s general manager of Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal and Brimham Rocks. “Ripon’s 'market cross' is an obelisk which is a Grade I listed structure, and so is as significant as Fountains Abbey itself. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, is the earliest surviving free standing monumental obelisk in the country and is intimately connected to the history of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: A grand picture of Ripon Market Place in the 1930s, with the obelisk, and its weathervane, standing proud

The obelisk was erected in 1702 by John Aislabie, one of the most colourful and remarkable characters to have graced these pages. He was born in York in 1670, and lost his father in a duel when he was five – he was killed by Jonathan Jennings, the MP for Ripon, who had triggered the duel by calling his father “the scum of the county”.

Read more: The many migrations of Northallerton's market cross

John Aislabie inherited the Studley Royal estate, near Ripon, from his mother’s family in 1693 and became MP for Ripon in 1695, taking over the seat from the MP who had killed his father.

In 1700, John lost both his wife and daughter in a house fire in London and in 1702, he became mayor of Ripon – but this prevented him from also being the city’s MP.

Darlington and Stockton Times: John Aislabie, the MP and mayor of Ripon, who erected the obelisk in the Market Place

No matter, he did a deal with the MP for Northallerton, William Hustler, and the pair swapped seats.

Ripon was regarded as a “pocket borough”, because the voters and the MP were in the pocket of the area’s main landowner, which was John himself.

It was his intention to return to Ripon once his mayoralty had finished, but he needed to remind the few independent voters of his affection for the city while he was working – no doubt diligently – on behalf of the people of Northallerton.

Read more fascinating local history stories in our dedicated Looking Back section

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says he did this through “the judicious dispersal of gifts”.

Perhaps another way to remind them of his presence was by erecting the super-tall market cross in the middle of the Market Place where no one could miss it.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Ripon Market Place on April 1, 1964. If anyone wishes to identify the two old cars nearest the camera, please email with your suggestions

A market cross represents a town’s right to hold a market. It also symbolises “the sanctity of the bargain”, its presence a reminder of the need for fair dealing.

But a market cross does not need to be 82ft high, as Ripon’s is, unless it is more of a political statement than a symbolic representation.

And where most other market crosses are hewn from a simple column of stone, Ripon’s was designed by one of the leading architects of the era: Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked with Christopher Wren and John Vanburgh on St Paul’s Cathedral, Kensington Palace, Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Ripon Market Place, probably in the 1880s, when it was flagged with very neat diamond stones. Behind is John Aislabie's obelisk

When it was unveiled, it must have been one of the wonders of its age, and today Historic England hails it as “the earliest surviving free-standing monumental obelisk in Great Britain”.

It must also have been very expensive. It started as a public subscription project but Aislabie ended up paying most of the extravagant costs himself.

But if it was his way of reminding the Ripon voters of his generosity, it worked. In 1705, freed from the restrictions of being mayor, he was re-elected as the city’s MP. He rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer but he tied the country’s economy to the fortunes of the South Sea Company, which Parliament had given a monopoly on trade with South America.

However, the company was a scam. It came up with ever more lunatic schemes to relieve the rich of their money. For instance, investments poured into its bid to manufacture a gun to fire square cannon balls; £2,000 was even sunk into a dodgy scheme “for the carrying-on of an undertaking of great advantage but no one to know what it is”.

Read more: Fascinated by the Fleece, the Richmond hotel which has made national news

In 1720, the bubble burst, crashing the economy with a brutality that was not repeated until 300 years later when Covid struck (interestingly, the only times when Britain’s economy has shrunk by 14 per cent in a year was when a sometime MP for Northallerton was the Chancellor).

And then it was found that Chancellor Aislabie had been given £20,000 worth of South Sea shares to promote the company. He was found guilty of the “most notorious, dangerous and infamous corruption”, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was fined £45,000 – worth £7.6m today, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator.

However, he was able to keep his North Yorkshire estate and, having paid his fine, he was released from the Tower. His political career was over, although his son William was elected to his seat as Ripon’s MP in 1721.

Instead, John returned to Studley, and devoted his time and money to creating what is now regarded as one of the finest landscapes in Europe. He displayed exquisite taste and great skill in laying out the most fashionable geometric water gardens, using the naturally steep sides of the River Skell’s valley to strategically position viewing terraces and follies for visitors to stumble upon as they perambulated round towards the wonderful ruins of Fountains Abbey.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Looking over the Half Moon Pond and weir of Studley Royal Water Garden from the Surprise View towards Fountains Abbey. John Aislabie created the water gardens to which his son, William, added the ruins of Fountains Abbey

He died in 1740 and in 1781, William celebrated 60 years as Ripon’s MP – one of the longest tenures in the history of the House of Commons – by paying for his father’s obelisk to be restored. He added the weather vane in the shape of Ripon hornblower’s famous horn, and a thoroughly misleading plaque which suggests he paid for the whole construction.

The “market cross” isn’t the only Aislabie-related obelisk in Ripon. There’s another next to St Mary’s Church in Studley Deer Park.

Darlington and Stockton Times: St Mary's Church, Studley Royal, with Elizabeth Lawrence's obelisk to the left. Picture by Andrew Butler, courtesy of the National Trust

It was put there in the early 19th Century by Elizabeth Sophia Lawrence, the grand-daughter of John Aislabie who had inherited the estate.

There is a theory that it replaced a rotting wooden cross; there is another theory that it is her commemoration of victory at Waterloo, and there is a further theory that it is a monument to her ancestors, including the other obelisk-erectors.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A 1980s wet day in Ripon, with the sun catching John Aislabie's obelisk

Elizabeth was an extremely diligent estate manager and was noted for her generosity in the city, but, just like her grandfather, she was not above the odd political shenanigan.

She was a “violent Tory”, but the Great Reform Act of 1832 was designed to break the undemocratic stranglehold of pocket borough landowners like her. It gave the vote to any male who owned or rented a property with an annual rateable value of £10. This increased the number of voters in Ripon to 341 and attracted two Whig candidates who campaigned against Elizabeth’s “blue petticoat influence”.

By six votes, they won, throwing Elizabeth into such a fit of rage that she threatened to evict all of her tenants. Over time, this was tempered and so only those who “voted the wrong way” were booted out.

She replaced them with Tory voters, and she created new electors by splitting her properties into £10 parcels. In 1835, there were 383 voters in Ripon and they – quite correctly – returned the Tories so everything once more was right in the true blue world of the obelisks.

  • With many thanks to Katie Gisbourne, of the National Trust, for her help

From the Darlington & Stockton Times of September 29, 1873

By sad coincidence, the D&S Times of 100 years ago this week was reporting the demise of Frederick Oliver Robinson, the 2nd Marquess of Ripon, who had died while out shooting on Dallowgill Moor.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Headline from the D&S Times of September 29, 1923

Oliver, as he was known as he was descended from Oliver Cromwell, was considered the best shot of his generation and his lifetime bag of birds – 556,000, including 241,000 pheasants – has never been beaten.

That morning, he’d left his home of Studley Roger – he was four generations down from Elizabeth Sophia Lawrence to whom he was distantly related – and had downed 52 birds before complaining of a little indigestion. Then he staggered, fell and was dead.

The D&S Times told how he had become the Liberal MP for Ripon at the age of 21 in 1874 but quickly decided he “had had enough of politics” and left the Commons to devote himself to opera – he was chairman of the Covent Garden Opera Syndicate – and shooting.

Darlington and Stockton Times: George Robinson, the 1st Marquess of Ripon, inherited Studley Royal from his cousin. He had the rare distinction of being born in 10, Downing Street, as his father, Viscount Goderich, was Prime Minister, briefly, from August 1827 to January 1828. Only

“To see him on the grouse moors was a sight well worth seeing, his wonderful knack of bringing down birds was perfectly bewildering and he appeared to strangers to be unable to miss,” said the D&S of a man who once shot 28 pheasants in 60 seconds at Sandringham, who once had four dead birds in the air at the same time, who on at least four occasions killed two birds with one shot, who once killed 55 partridges with 53 shots…

“He probably took greater pride in his big game records, some 11 tigers, two rhinoceri and a dozen buffaloes having fallen victims to his unerring aim,” said the D&S. These are unlikely to have been bagged on Dallowgill Moor.

The coroner, Dr JCR Husband, said at an inquest that the marquess died of a heart attack and, at 71, his death had shocked the district.

The D&S reported that the coroner then said: “When they remembered his lordship’s life, how he was the best game shot in England – probably the best game shot the world had ever known – and when they remembered how he enjoyed the sport, they could not but feel that such a death would probably have been one he would have chosen. Could they imagine a more fitting ending?”

He was buried in St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, within sight of the obelisk.