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A Lesson in Matlock's History*
One of a series of articles published in "Reflections" more than two decades ago
A school in a castle, one with towers and battlements set high on windswept Derbyshire hillside might be an ideal make-believe setting for fantastical adventures in the Harry Potter mould. But, for 40 years, Matlock's signature building, Riber Castle was, in fact, the unlikely base of a small private school. Despite the fact that the desks and blackboards have long since vanished, Mike Fay discovers the institution left a varied and enduring mark on many who passed through its somewhat forbidding portals.
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Riber School pupils 1918

Fountain Baths, Swimmers From Riber School

Riber School,
a classroom

Riber Castle

THE SMEDLEY FAMILY were relieved when they sold Riber Castle back in 1892. Although barely 25 years old it was already being dismissed as a white elephant. The building went on the market following the death of Caroline Smedley, widow of its creator, John Smedley entrepreneur and businessman, who built it as the family home and an ostentatious symbol of his success. Rumour had it that the family gave some thought to turn it into another money-making hydro but it proved impossible to pump sufficient supplies of water eight hundred feet up Riber hillside. So, when a clergyman, the Rev John William Chippett, formerly a master at Giggleswick School in North Yorkshire, offered to buy it to open a boarding preparatory school his bid was gratefully accepted.

Riber served as a school for much longer than any other use to which it has been put - almost 40 years. The number of pupils, aged from eight to 14 years, varied from just 11 in 1911-12 to about 40 in the mid 1920s. There were a few local day boys but almost everyone was a boarder. Maybe there are still a few Matlock residents who can remember the boys in their striped blazers and matching caps of maroon and navy blue with a yellow line between, filing down the hillside twice a week to the thermal swimming bath at Matlock Bath.

There were also rugby and cricket fixtures against neighbouring schools such as Stancliffe, St Anselm's at Bakewell and Holme Lea at Buxton although archive material suggests the little hill-top community tended to keep itself to itself.

You might imagine that boys separated from their families and almost everything else might have regarded life at Riber as, a put it mildly, character forming.

Fascinating accounts
There are fascinating accounts by two former pupils which were published many years after the school closed. There are also letters and postcards home in the estate of a Richard Beaumont who was at Riber from 1917 to 1919. They give mixed accounts but agree that academic standards were high and William Chippett was a popular and able headmaster.

A distinguished Riber old boy, Sir John Summerson, one of the most eminent architectural historians of his generation, when in his eighties, wrote an intriguing and revealing essay about his time at Riber.

"Riber Castle awed us. Eleven boys in this castellar hulk planned with ludicrous optimism to fulfil a function which it never served and could not serve; decorated with the naive barbarity of a Methodist turned Caliph."

He recalled that juvenile fertile imaginations conjured up secret passages, ghosts and monsters and walled up victims. None was found but: "There was one room where for no reason except our own consent we were reluctant to go alone or in the dark while the rooms in the four towers used for nothing, continually empty and continually out of bounds were the font and origin of grotesque imagery."

Sir John felt that everything about Riber was big and comfortless with scarcely a small room in the building.

The school's dormitory
The school's dormitory

"Even the water closets were enormously high, their thrones massive. The rooms which served as dormitories and class rooms were over-windowed, flooded with light and bitterly cold so that we had to be heated not only by iron pipes behind the skirting but by the biggest cast iron stoves I have ever seen, black rococo furnaces which projected into the rooms and roared furiously behind sliding shutters. But the castle was not only gaunt and bare. No building surely was ever so lacking in elegance or grace."

Although Sir John was distinctly unimpressed by the uncomfortable surroundings and the ill-advised architecture he thought it "an admirable school with 'a headmaster of great teaching ability."

"I have never heard an old pupil speak of the headmaster but with respect or, of his castle with affection" wrote Sir John.

In recollections in the 1970s, old boy J E Wood, a boarder in the early 1920s, remembered that the classics, English, history, mathematics, music and scripture were taught to a high standard so that at 14 boys were well-prepared for entrance examinations scholarships to public schools.

He wrote fondly of his old school and the eccentricity of the architecture which so offended Sir John Summerson rather impressed the 11 year-old Wood.

Ballroom gymnasium
"It was obvious that the interior had been lavishly fitted out and decorated. There was elaborate painted and gilt ornamental cast iron everywhere - cast iron spiral staircases into the rooms in the towers, cast iron pillars and balustrades - a foundryman's paradise."

The former ballroom in the centre of the castle was used as a gymnasium and for leisure time. A promenade/balcony ran round each side of the ballroom which was adapted on one side as bedrooms and a dormitory. A large recess leading off from the balcony was the school chapel where the boys spent a good deal time. There were two short services (Anglican of course) on each week-day and two full services on Sundays. For boys prone let their attention wander during the lengthy sermons of the headmaster the chapel windows had magnificent views over Matlock towards Darley Dale.

Mealtimes were, of course, a keenly anticipated part of school life and at Riber food seems to have been good and plenty of it. There was a large dining room on the south or garden side of the castle facing towards Tansley. On the west side, J E Wood remembered a large conservatory complete with vines which was used as a locker room and bathroom.

Richard Beaumont was only seven when he arrived at Riber from his Nottingham home.

"It was an alarming experience for a timid boy and I must admit being pretty terrified and miserable for the first term. But I not do think it did me any harm," he added rather poignantly. He also recalled: " Riber was tough. At first I hated it and dreaded going back to it although when I left I remember carrying my little bag down the steep path to catch the train and being in tears."

Beaumont who attended in 1917 when there were fewer than 20 boarders with "one or two up from Matlock" thought the Rev Chippett "a marvellous teacher of boys with the knack of making things interesting."

The school matron was a Mrs Summerson, a war widow and there was one other permanent teacher, Capt L Garthorne Wilson who lived at Riber with his family. Indeed, in 1922 Capt Wilson took over the school when the Rev Chippett, then in his mid-sixties, decided to take things easier although he continued as a teacher.

Closed during the depression
It seems that Capt and Mrs Wilson ran the school successfully. Mrs Wilson, a real power behind the scenes, died young in 1929. Capt Wilson had no enthusiasm to continue and the school closed in 1930. The severe economic depression of the time found many small boarding prep schools struggling to survive and there were no takers for Riber.

The castle stayed empty even after the district council bought it in 1936 to save it from rumoured demolition. They could not find a use for it and the building staggered on through the decades as an emergency food store during the 1939-45 war followed by years of empty decline. In the early 1960s Riber became the centre of a wildlife park which closed in 2000 with the castle by then a ravaged ruin but still a much-loved landmark.

Riber School is consigned to history but what of the castle itself? There are plans to restore it to its original residential use by creating apartments in the ruined shell, restoring out-buildings and building ten new houses in the grounds behind the castle. English Heritage likes the plan, so do most Matlock people although some residents of Riber village are opposed. Leaving the castle as a ruin is not an option, say English Heritage, well aware that Riber has been drinking for so long in the last chance saloon.

If the plan succeeds perhaps there'll be a distant cheer from those schoolboys of so many years ago who wouldn't want the old place to disappear. After all, where would all the ghosts of their imaginings continue to lurk?

The Chapel - one of the many large rooms that filled Riber Castle
The Chapel - one of the many large rooms that filled Riber Castle.

*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections" in May 2004, Vol. 13 Issue 148, pp.63-65
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written consent of the author,
Michael Fay, and Bannister Publications Ltd.

There is more on site information:

About Riber
Map of Riber
Water Cures
Schools in Earlier Times
Riber School in the 1901 census
Matlock: A Peep at Riber Castle - the view from Matlock Bath
Riber Hill and Castle, Matlock