During the summer of 1887 the hugely popular Buffalo Bill,
also know as Wild Bill Cody, staged an American Exhibition
at Earl's Court in London. The spectacular included a Switchback
Railway and Toboggan Slides and the Princess of Wales was
reported to have made two round trips on the Switchback
during a Royal visit to the exhibition. It was the year
of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and the country was
Thanks to Buffalo Bill, Switchbacks became the latest craze
and they were suddenly everywhere in the United Kingdom.
Several patents were applied for.
Hart & Ripley's Patent Safety Switchbacks, for example,
were erected in Bolton, Rhyl, Blackpool, Morecambe, Redcar,
Tynemouth and Aberdeen.
Their popularity was such that large exhibitions all over
the country included a Switchback Railway as part of
the entertainment. An article published in the "The
Leeds Mercury" in 1887 said that "the toboggan
is what may be described as the elementary and the Switchback
as the advanced stage of this amusement, which has come to
us, like a few other good things, from across the Atlantic".
A year later the same newspaper commented on the phenomenal
popularity of the Switchback at the Glasgow International
Exhibition and said that Switchbacks were "now asserted
to be a Danish invention".
The first we learn of the existence
of a Switchback Railway in Matlock Bath is from an 1889
sale notice, the text of which is copied on the right.
It was being sold for the Switchback's owner, John Dennison
Bratby, who also owned a Switchback Railway in Derby,
near the the Cattle Market.
Mr. Bratby was a Bill Poster and Contractor at that
fear that others would copy the Matlock Bath design was
the reason drawings and tracings of the "particulars"
were not allowed.
The enterprise was bought by the Buxton family, who
lived in Matlock Bath,
and Matlock Bath's Local Board were not backward in
claiming their rates. In the April following the purchase,
Herbert Buxton was up before the Local Court's Petty
Sessions for non-payment of rates. Mr. Buxton argued
that although he'd purchased the property in the September
of the previous year he had not become the tenant until
Lady Day (25th March) and was not liable to pay rates
before then. The Clerk of the Local Board, a Mr. Green,
observed that "great profits were made in the
season upon the railway, and next to nothing in the
We should remember that the tourist season was very
short, running from Whitsuntide until September.
|MATLOCK BATH, DERBYSHIRE
TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION
By instructions from the Owner (Mr. J. D. Bratby)
the Devonshire Hotel, Matlock Bath on FRIDAY,
September 27th, 1889, at 6 for 7 o'clock in the Even-
All that Valuable and Desirable Investment, the
Newly-erected SWITCHBACK RAILWAY, to
be sold as a going concern, in one Lot, including Rail-
way, Three Cars, Turnstile, and all connected with it
as it now stands. Immediate possession can be had.
FREE OF ROYALTIES.
Further particulars and cars to view the same can
be obtained from the AUCTIONEERS, The Mart, Ex-
change Buildings, Derby, or of the Owner, 44, Siddals-
NO DRAWINGS OR TRACINGS of the same will be
My late father, Frank Clay, said that the Switchback had
made a great deal of profit for the owners. As a young man
Frank Knight told him that so much money was taken on any
one day that the Buxtons, or to be precise one of their employees,
had to take it to the Bank in a wheelbarrow. This has sometimes
been erroneously interpreted as meaning that the barrow was
stuffed full of paper money! This was not the case. There
were slot machines at the Switchback, and the money would
have been penny pieces. So it would have been extremely heavy
and, as my father observed, hardly material for someone to
make off with. One can only sympathise with the Bank cashier
who would have had to check it all.
In the photograph at the top of the page both slot machines
and a weighing machine can be seen on the walkway that goes
across from the road to the Switchback. They were conveniently
placed near the turnstile entrance.
The Switchback had been constructed on land known as Orchard
Holme, or Orchard Close, which was beside the river below
the Royal Hotel and below the level of the main road through
the village. These days the area is known as the Derwent
Gardens and the top picture shows the Switchback's main building.
Just behind it is a small, single storey building.
Royal Hotel, Pavilion & Holy Trinity Church for an
explanation of what this small building was used for.
The large, white building just behind the Switchback building
is, or to be more accurate was, the
Ferry House and beside it were the
Fishpond Stables. All these buildings beyond the
Derwent Gardens were to be demolished to make way for the
Grand Pavilion, built in 1910.
How did it work?
The Switchback in Matlock Bath was a gravity driven roller
coaster. From the starting point there were a series of humps,
but the height of each ridge had to be successively lower
than the one before to allow for the loss of energy in the
wheels and axles of the car as it travelled along. At the
end of the run it was lower than when it started.
An 1887 account of the Manchester Exhibition, written by
a visitor to it, could equally well describe the one in Matlock
switch-back railway consists of two narrow-gauge lines placed
on a large wooden framework some 200 yards long. Ten persons
can sit in a car, two abreast, and it is shoved off and passes
rapidly over a series of gradients so calculated that the car
is just landed on top of a little brow at the other end. The
car is then dragged a little higher and pushed off along another
series of gradients back again. The journey each way occupies
about 15 seconds".
Matlock Bath's switch-back railway was supposed to be longer
but the principal was the same as at Manchester.
Series postcard of the Switchback Railway on Orchard
Holme, or Orchard Close
This was, basically, coal truck technology which is what
they knew at the time and had its roots in the mining and
early railway industries. Each car, which was really a
type of waggon, had small wheels running on basic cast iron
track that rested on wooden sleepers. It would have given
a very bumpy ride as the waggons were unsprung; nevertheless,
combined with passengers travelling faster than most people
had ever travelled before, it would make the experience
really exhilarating. It was fun. The speed was not much
faster than walking speed, but it was fast enough to create
An attendant would accompany the passengers on every ride
as he needed to operate the simple braking system. The cabs
would have slowed down naturally at the end of the run and
the brake was needed as a safety measure to prevent
the cabs from rolling backwards. A report of an accident at
Liverpool in 1887 described the failure on the part of an attendant
to let a brake fall; the brake was devised to
catch in a wooden joist, so the failure to let it fall at Liverpool
resulted in the car suddenly returning the way it had come
and it unfortunately collided with a second car that was travelling
One man, and sometimes two, would act as catchers at the end
of the first run and grab hold of the incoming car. They would
then drag or push the car over the junction of the two tracks
to prepare it for the return trip, which was initiated by a
very firm push off. At the very end of the ride the passengers
disembarked and the empty cab was pushed back up to the start
in readiness for the next trip.
Enlargement of the above, supporting the claim that Matlock
Bath's Switchback Railway was the longest in the country.
Herbert Buxton was assisted in running the Railway by his three
sons Harold, Bernard and Edgar. Bernard, who was nicknamed "Bam" by
some of the locals, was rumoured to have gone to America
"as a youth", between 1891 and 1901.
Herbert died at the end of 1912, aged 79, and the Switchback
was passed on to Harold and Edgar, who continued
to run it until Edgar had to join the Army in 1916. Edgar
was unfortunately killed in a gas attack in 1917 and was
buried in France.
"For the first few years after the War the remaining
Buxton family still ran the Derwent Gardens but Harold Buxton
had a stroke and the management passed to Harold Barber.
... The Gardens functioned quite well in the 1920s. ... In
the Spring the rollers [of the Switchback] would be tested
and the magic of Matlock Bath would be under way again. Then
came the fire which destroyed the surviving symbol of Victorian
grandeur in Matlock Bath - the Royal Hotel [burned down
in 1929]. Trade in the Bath slumped. Then the management
of the Switchback and Gardens, which had been closed for
a couple of years, changed hands and Mr. Hackett, from Southport,
took over in about 1932. He found that the structure of the
Switchback ride was in a very poor state. No foundation posts
had been driven in the original construction and the whole
contraption had just been built on the earth. Of course,
it contained plenty of timber and had otherwise been well
constructed. Down it had to come and then experiments took
place to make new rides and entertainments. These didn't
function as had been hoped and were finally not proceeded
with and down they came, too".
The Switchback, which had entertained visitors to Matlock
Bath for over 40 years, was gone.
An early view of the Switchback Railway, from Cat Tor. About
1900, possibly slightly earlier.
The postcard above shows that the Derwent Gardens were still
undeveloped as an attraction around 1900. There were no exit
steps from the switchback complex (i.e. from where the passengers
disembarked) down to the riverbank so the steps were clearly
a later addition (see images
on the next page). Interestingly, the river level was very
high though the Derwent had not burst its banks. You can also
Fishpond Stables, which predated the Grand Pavilion,
Below is an enlargement, showing the main building; both
the outbound and inbound track were on the left
and the passengers' disembarkation area was on the right.
Other Switchback Railways
Below are a wonderful series of cards that show Switchback
Railways at the U.K. seaside resorts of Cleethorpes and Folkestone.
Although they are nothing directly to do with Matlock Bath,
the Switchbacks are of similar construction to the Matlock
Bath one and help provide an insight into how Victorian Britain
managed to make Switchbacks work. Where appropriate, comparisons
with Matlock Bath's Switchback Railway have been included.
The people in the photographs help to provide a sense of
Switchback on the beach next to the Promenade.
The postcard of the Cleethorpes switchback railway, above,
shows the turn round area at the end of the first
run, with a man waiting to catch incoming cars or
to send outgoing ones on their way. At Matlock Bath
the turn round area was roofed over.
Skegness also had a Patent Gravity Switchback Railway
and Derbyshire residents would visit it on day trips
to the seaside. The beach seems to have been a popular
choice to build the rides for many seaside resorts
as the pilings could go down into the shingle or sand,
yet it was not all plain sailing. A Switchback and
Toboggan Slide built on the sea-front at Douglas on
the Isle of Man was "annihilated
by gales" in late 1887.
2. Folkestone, Kent. Sepia postcard of the Switchback
built on the beach.
The turn round area at the far end of the track at
Folkestone, shown above, was also not covered by a
roof so was similar to the one at Cleethorpes. It
must have given the passengers on the outward run the
impression they were going on towards the horizon -
or heaven! Part of the thrill of the ride would have
been the huge fear factor that you were about to fall
off the edge of the world.
3. Folkestone, Kent.
The coloured postcard of the Switchback at the bottom
of the cliffs at Folkestone was taken from the Victoria
Pier. This was a Thompson's Patent Gravity Switchback
Railway, and in 1891 was managed by Mr. R. Pope.
The surname of the Folkestone Switchback's Patent owner,
Thompson, was never associated with Matlock Bath. Nor
were names of any other of the major Switchback developers.
The Folkestone Switchback's entrance was housed in
a wooden building similar to that at Matlock Bath,
though was less enclosed than the one at Matlock Bath.
It enables us to see inside, as demonstrated on the
post card immediately below.
4. Folkestone, Kent. Sepia postcard of the Switchback.
The Switchback seems to have been accessed from the Victoria
Pier, which was erected in 1888.
In the background is the New Pier, which forms part of Folkestone
The group who are in the car have just set out and are
reaching the top of the first rise. In the Switchback building
behind them are several people. There is a group on the right
that includes children and who must have been waiting for
a ride. At the back are more people, one of whom is possibly
one of the attendants. In addition, there seems to be another
car on the left that is waiting to go.
Interestingly, there are several cars together that,
at first glance, appear to be waiting. Closer inspection
of the image reveals a man pushing the cars up to the top
and a second person is either helping him push or perhaps
sitting in one, therefore possibly acting as the brakeman
in case they should go backwards. Whilst I (web mistress)
think he is also pushing the cars, it is hard to be precise.
The use of a pusher demonstrates the very basic technology
of these early Switchbacks. Eye witness accounts confirm
this to have also been the method used at Matlock Bath to
return the car to the top of the slope.
There was no lift built into the Matlock Bath Switchback.
As one person puts it, the mechanism was "hand-raulic
rather than hydraulic"!
Look carefully at the incoming track, below the waggon with
the people in it. Below is an enlargement.
There seem to be very pronounced foot rungs next to the
track. These would have aided the men who had to push the
waggons back up to the top.
Switchback story continues on the next page, which is about the people
who went on it.
|References (coloured links are to transcripts and information
elsewhere on this web site):
 "The Era", Saturday,
18 June, 1887. The Princess of Wales was Princess Alexandra,
the wife of Edward who later became King Edward VII
 Amongst the list of new inventions
/ applications for patents in the "Aberdeen
Weekly Journal" on Wednesday 20 June, 1888 was one
for Taylor, switchback railway. Other names also cropped
up claiming patents for Switchback railways including those
of Hart and Ripley as well as Thompson. The
"Glasgow Herald" of Monday, 17 September,
1888 carried an advertisement for
United Kingdom Switchback Railways Ltd.. Shares were being
offered for sale as the company had been formed to take over
"the highly successful Thompson's
Patent Switchback Railway Company Limited so far as the
United Kingdom is concerned and to acquire their interests
in their Switchback Railways now working in various parts of
the United Kingdom".
Still trading as Thompson's Patent Gravity Switchback Railway
Company Limited, it was eventually voluntarily wound
up in September 1950. Another person trading in the north west
in the 1880s was
Henry Thwaites, a Draper & Switchback Proprietor of Preston
who - unfortunately for him - filed for Bankruptcy on 3 August
 "The Era", Saturday,
14 July, 1888. Hart & Ripley were advertising for Speculators
to see their product for themselves before investing. The advert
didn't mention Redcar, though their Switchback in Redcar was
reported in other newspapers. Only Mr. Ripley advertised in
Leeds Mercury", Saturday,
25 June, 1887.
 Report of the Glasgow International
Exhibition in "The Leeds Mercury", Monday,
14 May, 1888.
 "The Derby Mercury",
Wednesday, September 18, 1889
 A report of an accident at the
Derby Switchback in "The Derby Mercury" of
Wednesday, 27 March, 1889 described it as being near the Cattle
Market. A year and a half later the same paper (17 June,
1891) reported a very serious fire at the Derby Switchback
Railway with the possible cause being a can of paraffin
being upset and catching fire. Reassuringly, the Switchback
was described as being fully insured!
 John Dennison Bratby was born
in Derby in 1851 and married in 1873 at Derby Greenhill Wesleyan
Methodist Chapel. The 1881 census describes him as a Bill Poster & Contractor.
After 1881 he has proved impossible to find in census returns
though his name appeared in the London
Gazette in 1901.
 Herbert Buxton is included in
all the Matlock Bath census returns between 1841 and 1901.
Harold Buxton first appeared in the
1861 census, aged 1 month. Edgar Buxton is shown as an
auctioneer in the 1901
census. The Buxton family appear in both the nineteenth
century trade directories and the twentieth
century trade directories for Matlock Bath. Edgar Buxton's
name is on Matlock
Bath's War Memorial
 "The Derby Mercury",
Wednesday, 23 April, 1890
 Recollections of the late Mr.
Frank Clay, who helped out at the Switchback Railway on
occasion. From his private papers and notes owned by the web
mistress, some of which were written in 1998 and are still
within copyright. Some stories were told to him by Frank Knight,
of Crowpie Square (now Orchard Square), who built the house
on Orchard Road for the Buxton family. My father wasn't the
only person to describe the Switchback Railway. He and others
who were alive in Matlock Bath at the time have provided Mrs.
Doreen Buxton with a great deal of information about the village
over the years.
 The Derby Mercury (Derby, England),
Wednesday, June 22, 1887
 The "London
Daily News" of
Friday, 23 September, 1887 described the cause of an accident
at Liverpool when one car ran backwards into a car that had
been travelling behind it. Fortunately, most of the occupants
escaped with a few bruises "apart from one young lady
who was more seriously injured".
 "The Cleethorpes Switchback
Limited" was wound up in May, 1920.
 "The Derby Mercury",
Wednesday, 9 November, 1887.
 Kelly's Directory of Kent,
Surrey & Sussex,
1891. Kelly's Directory of Kent, 1903.
 Kelly's Directory of Kent,
1913. Also see reference  above.