THE county records office is a home from home for Ralph Waggett, whose passion for local history has led him to pen a comprehensive account of one of North Yorkshire's oldest organisations.

Richmond's Company of Mercers, Grocers and Haberdashers dates back to the late fourteenth century and is one of only a handful of such trades guilds in the UK to boast more than six centuries of unbroken existence.

Retirement from his job as a solicitor in Richmond allowed Swaledale-born Mr Waggett the time to indulge his passion and thoroughly research the history of the company, of which he became a member more than 20 years ago.

The result was A History of the Company of Mercers, Grocers and Haberdashers of Richmond, published in hardback at the end of last year.

"I have always been interested in history, particularly local history," says Mr Waggett, whose residence at Hill House Cottage commands one of the finest views of the town and became his home at the age of seven.

"Before I retired, I used to manage a little research, but since I finished work, I have done much more and travelled around quite a lot to look at records and documents."

His enthusiasm for local history was heightened with the publication in the early Seventies of Roger Fieldhouse's history of Richmond and Swaledale.

"I owe a great debt to that chap," he says. "My interest in the history of the area was there, but he stimulated it and really got me going."

Research turned Mr Waggett, who hails originally from the tiny hamlet of Satron, between Gunnerside and Muker, into a frequent visitor to the North Yorkshire county records office at Northallerton, where he spent many hours searching through the archives.

"I came to regard the office as a sort of home from home," he says.

"I also spent a lot of time at Leeds district archives, where they hold all the old church records and where I was able to look at old inventories and wills. I spent many hours there transcribing them."

An interest in antiquarian books - "possibly the most important thing in my life" - led to a couple of lucky breaks for the author.

He bought an old minute book of the then defunct Richmond Company of Fellmongers from Sotheby's and, in 1991, decided to re-found the guild, which was originally linked to the leather-tanning industry and had closed in the nineteenth century.

"As a result of that, I met a man who was a Freeman of the City of London and, through him, I also became a Freeman of London," he recalls.

That led to Mr Waggett joining the capital's Worshipful Company of Glovers and penning a history of the guild.

"I became more and more interested in all kinds of guilds and companies.

"Richmond is very fortunate, particularly as a small market town, to have a company that has survived for more than 700 years," he says.

Although membership of the guilds no longer allows certain privileges - such as electing the mayor of Richmond - membership is still an honour, he says.

"The loss of these privileges, as the result of nineteenth century reforms, meant many of the companies disappeared," says Mr Waggett.

"Some survived, mainly in the bigger cities such as Newcastle, Chester and York, but it is quite exceptional for a little town like Richmond to still have one."

At its height as a trading centre in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Richmond had 13 guilds, the emblems of which survive on the civic crest at the town hall.

Records show that Richmond business people traded across Europe, particularly in woollen goods, which were especially popular with the Dutch.

The liaison of mercers, who sold high-quality cloth such as silk and satin, and haberdashers seems natural, but many people have questioned the inclusion of grocers in the same company.

"When I looked at very early inventories, I discovered that the shopkeepers would sell cloth and haberdashery items alongside groceries.

"It was quite usual in those days, particularly in Richmond, it seems," says Mr Waggett.

The guild's records go back to 1580, but that first document is quite clearly a continuation page and research suggests that the guild was formed about 200 years before.

Meetings continued through the plague and the Second World War, although records show activities were suspended for the duration of the First World War.

"The company is something which, perhaps, not many people in Richmond know a lot about, but it is something the town should be proud of," he says.

Mr Waggett attended Gunnerside primary and Richmond grammar schools before working for a firm of solicitors in Darlington.

He then lived at Middleton Tyas, finally moving to Richmond about 20 years ago.

* The History of the Company of Mercers, Grocers and Haberdashers (ISBN 1-903824-00-2) is published by PBK, of Keighley, contact 01535 681484, and is available at Castle Hill bookshop, Richmond