The descendant of an Easingwold vicar helped turn the capital of Latvia into one of Europe’s finest cities. STEPHEN LEWIS reports, ahead of York’s first Latvian Festival.

ON THE coffee table in Issy Sanderson’s sitting room in Poppleton, jostling for space with ethnic art and statuary she has picked up during a lifetime of travel, is a book of sumptuous photographs of the Latvian capital, Riga.

It’s a memento of the time in the mid-1990s when Issy lived there with her husband, Arthur, who was director of the British Council in Riga.

One stunning photo shows the Riga riverfront.

Sandwiched between two magnificent baroque churches is a slighter, smaller church in red brick. It’s the Anglican church of St Saviours – and it is the physical embodiment of an extraordinary link between this distant Baltic capital and the North Yorkshire market town of Easingwold.

The church was founded in 1857 by a small group of British traders. One of them was the grandson of a former Vicar of Easingwold, the Rev John William Armistead.

The Armisteads were a well-known family in North Yorkshire. Early parish records reveal Armisteads who were yeomen farmers, constables and paupers, as well as clergymen. John William became Vicar of Easingwold in 1771, a post he held until he died 41 years later, in 1812.

To this very day, says the present-day Vicar of Easingwold, Canon John Harrison, there is a panel in the east window of the parish church of St John & All Saints dedicated to his memory.

But it was John Armistead’s son, George, who first forged the Riga link. In 1812, just as Napoleon was being defeated in Moscow, George arrived in Riga to work for a flax merchant.

Riga then was an important Baltic trading city: a legacy of its past as part of the Hanseatic League which, for centuries, had dominated trade along the coast of northern Europe. The league traded timber, furs, tar, flax, honey, wheat and rye from the east to England and Flanders – with cloth and manufactured goods going in the opposite direction.

York’s own Merchant Adventurer’s Hall has in its archives letters dating from the mid-1600s written by James Hutchinson, a York merchant in Danzig, to Joseph Oley, a merchant in Koenigsberg, which refer to business in Riga – and in fact the Hanseatic League at one point probably had a representative and even a warehouse right here in York.

There is nothing surprising about that, says Canon Harrison. “York being a big trading centre, it was a major, major trading partner with the Baltic.”

There was nothing surprising, either, about the son of an Easingwold vicar becoming a trader himself and going off to live in a trading port such as Riga.

George seems to have settled there, as part of an ex-pat community of British merchants. And his four sons went on to be instrumental in the development of the Baltic city.

“They founded a bank, trading companies and shipping lines, chaired the city’s stock exchange, funded a children’s hospital, and donated paintings,” says York journalist John Woodcock, who once visited Riga to find out for himself more about the city’s links to North Yorkshire.

It was one of George’s sons, John – the grandson of the former Vicar of Easingwold – who founded St Saviour’s Church, building it with stone imported from Yorkshire.

Legend has it, says Issy Sanderson, that the church was actually built on “30 feet of British soil taken over as ballast on a ship”.

Important as the contribution made by John Armistead was to Riga, it was his own son, another George – the great-grandson of the Vicar of Easingwold – who had the most lasting impact on Riga. He became, in 1901, the Baltic city’s Lord Mayor: one of the most dynamic in its history.

John Woodcock takes up the story. “A civil engineer, he helped to construct Riga’s water, sewage and electricity systems,” he says. “He also built the city’s first tram line, a ride on which takes you past some of the architectural masterpieces he brought into being.”

He did more. By the time he died in office 11 years after becoming Lord Mayor, George Armistead had been responsible for the building of 16 schools, two major hospitals, the National Theatre, the National Museum of Art, and a number of sumptuous boulevards. And he oversaw the construction of covered markets, laid out nine public gardens, and created Europe’s first garden suburb.

Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, was apparently so impressed during a visit to what had become the second biggest city in his empire, that he actually asked George to become mayor of St Petersburg – an invitation George politely declined.

With revolution looming, rumour even has it that Mayor George’s family was involved in a plot to try to smuggle the Tsar out of Russia, if the worst came to the worst.

“There was quite a lot of intrigue around trying to find an escape route for the Tsar,” Issy Sanderson says. “Mayor George’s son was delegated to try to find it.” Clearly, for whatever reason, the attempt failed.

Under the Soviets, Latvia suffered terribly, Issy said. Many of its churches and great buildings – including St Saviours – were desecrated, it’s people ground down by poverty and repression.

By the mid 1990s, when she and her husband arrived in the city, the signs of those long decades of repression were still very evident. It was just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Riga was unquestionably still a beautiful city, with its boulevards and parks, and the largest concentration of early 20th century Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. But it was also poor.

“Things were in pretty dire straits,” Issy recalls. “Every day I would find little old babushkas [elderly women] on corners selling teaspoons. A lot of the people had been just completely dispossessed. I found little old ladies and men living in crumbling apartments with no heating or cooking, queuing with 20 others for the loo.”

St Saviours Church was in a pretty bad way, too. It had been devastated under the Soviets, and was struggling by as little more than a club and disco for students.

Issy promptly set about fundraising, and managed to secure a donation from Sir Tim Sainsbury to renovate the undercroft.

Today, thanks partly to her efforts, St Saviours is a thriving Anglican church again. A day centre for the elderly founded by Issy runs in the undercroft, and the church also operates a soup kitchen for homeless people and a centre for abused and neglected children.

Now the woman who is largely responsible for its rebirth has retired to Nether Poppleton with her husband. And, in honour of York and North Yorkshire’s own links with Riga, and of the vibrant church and community centre founded so long ago by the grandson of an Easingwold vicar, she is organising York’s first Latvian Festival.

The festival, from June 1 to 5, will feature a series of concert performances in York and Easingwold by two internationally-known Latvian classical musicians, soprano Evita Zalite and organist Kristine Ademaite. There will also be a ‘Latvian Event’ at the Tithe Barn in Nether Poppleton, that will feature a Latvian supper and a visit by the Latvian ambassador, Eduards Stiprais.

It promises to be a great chance to find out about a country and a city few will be familiar with – as well as an opportunity to celebrate a unique part of North Yorkshire’s history. Mayor George would have been delighted.

Events at York’s first Latvian festival will include:

• Opening concert at St Columba’s United reformed Church, Priory Street, York: 7.30pm, June 1.

• ‘Historic Link’ concert at St John the Baptist and All saint’s Church, Easingwold: 7.30pm, June 3.

• Latvian Event at the Tith barn, Nether Poppleton: 7pm, June 4.

• Final concert, All saints Church, upper Poppleton, York: 7.30pm, June 5.

The festival is supported by the Rotary Club of York Ainsty. Everyone involved is giving their services free of charge, so that money raised can go to the day centre for the elderly at St Saviours in Riga.

Riga fact file

RIGA is the capital of Latvia, one of the three Baltic states that face Sweden across the Baltic sea. With a population of 800,000, it is the largest city in the Baltic states.

Officially founded in 1201 by German merchants, Riga was admitted into the Hanseatic League, a confederation of powerful trading cities, in 1282, and flourished as a trading port.

It was a free town for a while, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, and was then absorbed into first the Swedish Empire then the Russian Empire.

More recently, Latvia was swallowed up by the Soviet Union, achieving independence only following the collapse of the Soviet state.

Riga has a large old town, stretching along the Daugava River, while the area referred to as locals simply as ‘the centre’ is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture. The historic centre of Riga is a World Heritage site.

The part played in Riga’s modern history by George Armistead, Lord Mayor of Riga from 1901 to 1912, was officially recognised, after years of Soviet occupation, when The Queen unveiled a bronze statue of him and his wife Cecile during a visit to Riga a few years ago.