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 eIse might have regarded life at Riber as, a put it mildly,
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
Richard Beaumont was only seven when he arrived at Riber from his
"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
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
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
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.