A tribute from Riga with love

This weekend, the descendant of a North Riding vicar is being celebrated in the capital he made into one of Europe's finest cities. John Woodcock reports from Riga

On the wall of a travel shop in the capital of Latvia is a map of Europe so detailed it shows . That's Russian for Easingwold.

Chances are that few, if any, of the citizens here in Riga have heard of the North Yorkshire market town, though their daily lives are connected to it through an inspirational family called Armitstead with origins in Easingwold vicarage.

The last of the Tsars was among the admirers of the Armitsteads, and 12 months ago the Queen came here and paid her own tribute to the Baltic city's Yorkshire connection when she unveiled a statue of the most famous family member. Today there will be yet more celebrations for George Armitstead who turned this city into "the Paris of the North" part of which, the old quarter, is now a World Heritage site.

It is, says George's great-grandson, an inspirational story of commercial enterprise, artistic vision, administrative genius, and philanthropy, yet one that is almost unknown in the home county of his ancestors.

Almost certainly it's lost too on those Britons – 85,000 visited last year – who boost Riga's modern economy, many on stag weekends courtesy of budget airlines.

As the fine Latvian beer flows, who appreciates the bond between their surroundings and a family which originated near Giggleswick and whose name evolved from the word hermitstead, the dwelling of a hermit?

In early parish registers for the area, Armitsteads appear frequently. Among their number, a local historian has traced yeomen farmers, constables, paupers, and clergymen. By 1771, the Rev John William Armitstead was Vicar of Easingwold, serving the town's spiritual needs for 41 years. There's a plaque to him in the parish church. The Rev John William died in 1812, the year his son, George arrived in Riga to work for a flax merchant, just as Napoleon was being defeated at Moscow.

George's four sons were instrumental in the making of Riga. They founded a bank, trading companies and shipping lines, chaired the city's stock exchange, funded a children's hospital, and donated paintings.

One of them, John, also established St Saviour's Anglican church and built it with stone imported from Yorkshire. It was his son, another George – great-grandson of the vicar of Easingwold – who gave

the Armitstead name the heroic status it enjoys in

Riga today.

A civil engineer, he helped to construct Riga's water, sewage and electricity systems. 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 when he became Lord Mayor of Riga in 1901.

George died in office 11 years later, having seriously enriched the city's cosmopolitan everyday life. His legacy was sumptuous boulevards. The times were politically turbulent, but this was a golden period culturally. Despite the ravages of the armies of Hitler and Stalin, Riga still boasts the largest concentration of early 20th-century Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, including some by the great Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. George Armitstead was also responsible for the building of 16 schools and two major hospitals, the National Theatre, and National Museum of Art. He oversaw the construction of covered markets, laid out nine public gardens, and created Europe's first garden suburb in which he also established Riga zoo.

He was also a successful businessman in his own right, with interests in railways, chemicals and brickworks, which brought him a lifestyle that included a town house and castle. But civic power also meant he had to surrender his British citizenship and become a Russian.

Tsar Nicholas II was so impressed during a visit to what had become the second biggest city in his Empire, he asked George to become Mayor of St Petersburg, an invitation that was politely declined.

After his death, revolution loomed and history intervened to postpone recognition of his achievements. The Armitsteads' son John was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1919, the country suffered terribly under Berlin and Moscow, lost and regained its independence, and is now a member of the EU and Nato.

Last October, 94 years after being laid to rest in a wooded cemetery within earshot of the trams he introduced, George finally received the formal acknowledgment which campaigners had strived for. The Queen unveiled a bronze statue of him and his wife Cecile, and their dog, in front of the National Opera. Not only Easingwold is linked to the city of spires and stunning ornamental facades. The Queen's speech recalled how Riga had provided waterproofing pitch and hemp rope for Royal Navy ships at the Battle of Trafalgar, and that Armitstead, "descended from a Yorkshire vicar", reflected the prosperous and civic-minded British community of a century and more ago.

One of those who commissioned the statue was his great-grandson, Rodney Radcliffe, a retired businessman who lives in London. He'll be back in Riga this weekend, with other relatives, helping Latvians to celebrate the 160th anniversary of George's birth. Events include concerts, a play dedicated to him, and an exhibition about his life and works. Riga's schools are also involved because many owe their existence to Armitstead's initiatives.

"It's an extraordinary family saga," said Rodney. "Some Rigans regard George as the most significant individual in the history of their city through what he bequeathed it. The Armitsteads became wealthy in Latvia, but also gave a great deal back.

"There was intrigue,0 too. As the Russian Revolution unfolded, Henry Armitstead is said to have played a leading role, on behalf of the British Government, in planning an escape route for the Tsar. It didn't materialise, and with tragic consequences. Another Armitstead became an MP, then a peer, and was a pallbearer at Gladstone's funeral.

"And here am I, all those generations down a line that stretches back to the Vicar of Easingwold. By all accounts he was a humble, pastoral man – not someone you'd associate with adventurers, city-building, and escapes from revolution."

The Radcliffes have a portrait of the vicar on their wall. It's not known who painted it, but the frame provides another Yorkshire strand to the saga. It was made by George Eadon, carver and gilder, of George Street, Sheffield.

Doubtless the subject he enclosed would have felt satisfaction in knowing that beyond the North Sea his offspring helped to create what Rigans call the City of Inspiration.