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Venetian Fete

Decorated boats have been an integral part of the Venetian Fête, later the Venetian Nights, since the beginning but they were part of the village's entertainment before then. For example, Matlock Bath hillsides were illuminated in August 1869 when there was a large firework display in front of 10,000 people. Mr. Woodfield, a spar and marble turner who also kept boats, lit his boats with Chinese lanterns "which had a grand effect on the river"[1].

Between 1875 and 1896 a series of regattas were held in early September on the River Derwent in Matlock Bath. Whilst they were billed as annual events, there were some years when nothing seems to have taken place or the planned event was cancelled because of poor weather. The regattas were more than just afternoons of rowing races as the entertainments extended into the evening, with firework displays and the illumination of the rocks. At the second regatta, in 1876, the hillside extending from the Station to weir and the Heights of Abraham were lit up with different coloured fires, with the lights changing colour[2]. By 1882, as well as the evening display of fireworks, there were also several boats on the river that were reported as being brilliantly lit by chinese lanterns of diverse colours[3]. Part of the celebrations for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee included "a procession of illuminated boats on the river and simultaneous illumination of the walks by coloured fires[4]". These events, using the river as part of the entertainment, were the forerunners of what became the parade of boats of the Venetian Fête, later the Venetian Nights, of today.
There is more information about the Venetian Fête, later the Venetian Nights, on the previous page.

Just a few months after Queen Victoria's Jubilee, on 14 September 1897, the "Annual Regatta and Fête" included an "exquisite representation of Venetian illuminated boats on the River Derwent". The display, including fireworks, was reported as being the finest seen in Matlock Bath for many years[5]. This was the first Venetian Fête and prizes were awarded for the illuminated boats (see list of winners lower down the page). On Fête night in 1899, when the festivities continued until eleven o'clock in the evening, the river was described as becoming alive at dusk with the decorated and illuminated boats. The organising committee again offered cash prizes for the best boat design, and there was strong competition[6]. The Arkwright Cup was donated by Frederic Arkwright in 1903 and has been awarded for the best decorated boat since then, although cash prizes continued to be presented too. The list of winners lower down the page shows that all the entrants before the Second World War were local men, from Matlock Bath, Scarthin and Cromford.

There have always been individual entrants along with family groups, friends and even the Matlock Bath Scouts and Rovers in the inter War years. Some entrants have competed year after year, with the Smith family involved for more years than any other family or individual. David Gregory must hold the record, though, for the number of boats entered by any one person since the Venetian Nights moved to the Derwent Gardens[7]. Today the competition is open to all comers, with the judging taking place on the first Saturday in September. The judging has always been done by a small group of people who were independent of the committee.

The 1933 Fête was reported as being one of the most brilliant on record with attendances the highest ever. Crowds of spectators were packed tightly on the Lovers' Walks watching the parade of boats.

The winner of the first prize was the Gondola of Arthur Smith, shown right, who lived on South Parade at the time.

Unfortunately, disaster struck as the Gondola passed beneath the Jubilee Bridge. A rain of silver light, part of the firework display, was cascading from the bridge. Some of the silver fire landed on the gondola's cabin and the structure caught fire. Despite the efforts of Arthur, who was rowing, and two mandolin players who were in the boat, the fire got worse. All three men went into the river and the boat turned on its side and became waterlogged[8].

Gondola, First Prize 1933

Decorating a boat, with the superstructures taking weeks to build, has always been shrouded in secrecy although it must have been difficult to maintain over the years. The designers often tackled quite difficult subjects, including the switchback railway and the Eddystone Lighthouse.


Jubilee State Barge, 1935.

Also designed by Mr Smith, who was rowing the boat, this design was in honour of King George V's Silver Jubilee which was celebrated in 1935. It is believed that the lady in the boat, who is wearing a crown, was Flossie Smith.

Until 1952 the boats had only been required for one night but in that year were extended and there was a parade of boats on the river every Saturday from the beginning of September to the beginning of October. It was then that the Venetian Fête became the Venetian Nights. Ultimately, this meant that the structures had to be stronger to withstand variants in the weather.

If you were amongst the crowd on the night of the Fête in the early 1950s you can't have failed to be impressed by the mermaid in the oyster shell, being pulled along by a huge fish. The stunning design, shown from a different angle at the top of the page, won the first prize in the decorated boats competition for that year and the team in the boat was a father and daughter from Matlock Bath, Mr. Arthur Smith rowing the boat and Miss Patricia Smith as the Mermaid.  

As the black and white photographs here show, they were traditionally illuminated by small glass "bucket" lamps with candles in them, all of which had to be individually lit before the boats set out upstream from the landing stage behind the Pavilion[9]. This method of lighting was wonderfully effective when the weather was good, but could be problematic when it rained or was windy. The boats of today are lit by bulbs powered by batteries.


First prize again for Mr Smith.

Mr. Arthur Smith is rowing the boat and Miss Beverley Smith is holding a wand in one hand and the Arkwright Cup in her other hand. Although the photograph was taken during the day, at night the reflections of the flickering candles in the water was a wonderful sight.

In post war Britain, emerging from austerity, the boats were a truly magical sight for any child (or adult). There was huge creativity and also some humour; sometimes there were minor glitches. The late Mrs. Inez Boden told the web mistress that her brother Remo Tinti erected a miniature Eiffel Tower on his boat one year. Everything had to be carefully measured to ensure it would pass under Jubilee Bridge. Unfortunately for Remo, the river levels rose so his Eiffel Tower seems to have turned into more of a Leaning Tower as it struck the Bridge.

Arthur Smith, whose family had entered the competition from the outset, first won the Arkwright Cup as a 16 year old in 1933 (see list of winners). He was a regular entrant, competing for many years. As his children grew up they all helped decorate the boats.
Dudley Smith, Arthur's son, also won the cup as a teenager. He is seen here being presented with the cup by Miss Derbyshire.

Another first prize, this time of the Rocket.

The photograph was published in the 1669 programme. Unfortunately, the caption reads "One of the Past Illuminated Boats" without divulging the year it was in the competition.

Look carefully and you can see crowds of people standing in front of the old bandstand on the Lovers' Walks.



Boats moored up
Boats moored at the landing stage behind the Pavilion. Undated, but possibly 1960s.
Wizards, witches on broomsticks, reindeer, swans, frigates.

Decorated Boats, 1897 - 1938. Past Prizewinners and/or Subjects

Some individuals (up to 1907) have been identified in the 1901 census

1897 1. James Allen, Cromford
2. Wm. Smith, Matlock Bath
3. W. Walthall, Matlock Bath
1899 1. B.Buxton and W. Smith
3. Messrs. Tissington
1900 1. Messrs. Coates and Sprinthall
2. Mr. Frost
3. Mr. Barker
1901 1. Mr. Sprinthall
2. Mr. F. Buxton
3. Waring Brothers
1902 1. Messrs. T. Coates and E. Sprinthall
1. Messrs. T. Coates and E. M. Sprinthall: the King's motor car
2. Messrs. J. L. Stafford and Mr. W. E. Smith: Log cabin
3. Messrs. T. Shaw and Farnsworth: Coach
1. W. Frost: Dale Road Suspension Bridge
2. S. Smith: Liverpool to Isle of Man Ferry
3. Messrs. Farnsworth, Barber and Shaw: The World's Fair
1. Mr. T. Coates: Indian birch bark canoe
2. Mr. E. M. Sprinthall: Swan
3. Derwent Rowing Club: torpedo boat
4. Messrs. Warren, Boden and Barber: Lighthouse
5. Mr. E. Huddard: Lighthouse
1. T. Coates and Son: Chinese junk
2. Ernest Sprinthall: gunboat
3. A. Coates
1. W. Frost: Clock tower
2. E. M. Sprinthall: Chinese pagoda
3. T. Coates: Willow pattern boat
1. T. Coates: gondola (Harmony)
2. E. Huddart: May Queen
3. W. Frost: Switchback
1. Harry Higton: ship
2. } = Samuel Smith: South Pole Steamship
    } Discoverer
3. } = W. Barber: World's Fair
4. J. Oliver: gondola
5. } = Percy White: illuminated Thames launch
6. } = Ernest Huddart: Britannia
1. Mr. T. Coates
2. Mr. Sullivan (London)
3. Mr. J. Gregory
1. Mr. Higton: Tower House, Heights of Abraham
2. Mr. Walker-Hall: Neptune device
3. Mr. Coates: Flip-Flap
Winners not known, but ten entries including a model of the Kursaal that was then being built, a seahorse, a replica of the Laxey Wheel, two crocodiles, a ship, clock towers, sledge and horses, decorated boats, triumphal cars
1. Mr. White: Silver State barge
2. Mr. Coates: Elizabethan State barge
3. Mr. Barber: Diver
4. Mr. Walthall: Diver
5. Mr. Holmes: Gondola
1. W. Hall: Lighthouse
2. R. Coates: Coronation state coach
3. H. Walthall: Grace Darling Monument
1. P. White: Battleship Dreadnought
2. Misses Edwards and Lanchland: White Coons
3. Mr. H. Walthall: Lighthouse and Monument to Grace Darling
1. Mr Walker Hall: Queen of the Ocean
2. Mr. L. Parker: London Tower Bridge
3. Mr. T. M. Henshall: House-boat
1. Messrs. Parker: S.S. Mauretania
2. E. Frost and M. Close: S.S. Olympic
3. P. White: Gondola
1. H. Parker: Express engine
2. A. Locke: Indian camp
3. W. Barber: Zeppelin airship
4. R. Holmes: Blondon [sic]
1914-18 No Fete held during the First World War
1919 1. Mr. Walther: Willersley Castle
2. Mr. Walters: Destroyer
3. Mr. Parker: Motor bus
1920 Boats included Nelson's "Victory", Lipton's yacht "Shamrock", a lifeboat and a houseboat
1921 1. P. Pearson: paddle steamer
2. Mr. Walker Hall: tramcar
3. H. Walters: Jubilee Bridge
1922 1. No name: Crich Stand.
On the side, beneath the Stand, were the words: "In fond remembrance of those who died that we might live".
1924 1. Mr W Barber: Tower Bridge and steamer
2. Mr. R. Coates: Swan and family
3. Mr. H. Pidcock: London Tower Bridge
1925 1. W. Barber
2. C. Smith
3. Tom Coates
1926 1. No Name: Switchback, with cars
2. No name: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
3. No name: Motor car
1927 1. W. Barber: Jubilee Bridge
2. C. Smith: H.M.S. Renown
3. J. Bond: Conway Bridge
1928 1. No Name: Willersley Castle
2. No name: Menin Gate
3. No name: Willow pattern bridge
1929 1. W. Henshall: French Chateau
2. W. Oliver: Suspension Bridge
3. C. Frost: Submarine
1930 Torrential rain made the boats waterlogged, so all entrants awarded £2. The entries were Riber Castle, Clock Tower, Miss England II, Loughboro' Carillon Tower, Gondola, Tower Bridge, Liner, Monsal Dale Viaduct, Swiss Chalet, "One __ Thing After Another" and "Labour in Vain".
1932 1. Mr. Henshall: The House that Jack Built
2. Mr. Pidcock: Cinderella's coach & horses
3. Mr. W. Frost, junior: Submarine
1933 1. Arthur Smith: Gondola
2. Mr. Lawton: Taj Mahal
3. Matlock Bath Boy Scouts: Viking Ship
(Leslie Sewell, Les Mosely and Rueben Smedley, assisted by Frank Clay)
4. Mr. T. Hensaw: Turkish Palace
1934 1. Matlock Bath Rovers: Roman Naval Galley
2. W. Hall: Neptune
3. W. Smith: Noah's Ark
1935 1 Mr. Walker Hall: Queen of the Derwent
2. Mr. Arthur Smith: Jubilee State barge
3. Mr. T. Henshaw : Eastern Temple
4. Matlock Bath Scouts: Santa Maria
1936 1. Matlock Bath Scouts: Spirit of Carnival
2. Mr. Thomas Britland: Jubilee Bridge
3. Mr. Aubrey Elsmore: Girl Pat, alias Kia Ora
4. Mr. W. Barber: Travelling Cafe
1938 1. No name: Windjammer
2. No name: Noah's Ark
1939-49 No Fete held during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath
and BAND CONTEST arranged for

("Derby Daily Telegraph", 1 September 1939)

The above information has been extracted from "The Derby Mercury",the "Derbyshire Courier", the "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald" , the "Derby Daily Telegraph", the "Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal", the "Sheffield Independent", the "Sheffield Daily Telegraph"and the "Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser".

More recent designs

The boats are brightly coloured for maximum impact.
They are designed to be shown at night and lit up, of course, with their image mirrored in the dark water.
These photos provide a sense of that, but they are daytime pictures so are missing the additional magic created by the lights.

A coach and horses and a train.

A dragonfly and the Red Arrows.

Sea horses.

Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men.
The children's cartoon characters, first seen on BBC TV in the 1950s, made a comeback in 2000.
The boat design doesn't include Weed, or Wee-eed as she always called herself.

Car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Decorated boats moored at the Pavilion landing stage.
Whilst the postcard has no date, from the colour quality the image could date from the 1960s.

From the left: Thomas the Tank Engine | Walt Disney's Herbie | a WW1 tank (a man waving a Union Jack popped up from the centre at night) |
Dam Busters tribute - flying over the dam wall in 1943 | Unsure of this design

From left to right: The Red Arrows (looked spectacular at night) | Derbyshire Fire Brigade engine | Coffin (with Frakenstein's monster emerging from the box) |
LNER's Class A4 4468 Mallard - a classic Gresley steam engine built in 1938

Related pages:

  Matlock Bath Venetian Nights

  Matlock Bath: The Royal Museum (Smith's), South Parade

  Matlock Bath: Royal Museum Petrifying Well

Travelling to the Venetian Fête or Venetian Nights - view some railway posters.
See 1960's letter from the renamed committee elsewhere on this website (linked at the bottom of that page).
Matlock Bath: Charlotte Farnsworth, Poetess - Charlotte wrote a poem about the Venetian Fête.
Celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897

1. Photographs of Smith family decorated boats and Smith family members in the collection of, provided by and © Jeremy Smith, son of Arthur Smith.
2. "The Matlocks, Derbyshire", guide book published in the 1950s. Geo. Hodgkinson, Printer, Matlock. In the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews.
3. "The Rocket", 1969 programme. This programme was generously given to the web mistress.
4. Coloured photographs and the black and white "Wizards, witches on broomsticks, reindeer, swans, frigates" in the collection of, provided by and © Kenneth Smith (not related).
5. Postcard "Decorated Boats at the Venetian Fete, Matlock Bath". No publisher, but no.D.V.P. 807. British Manufacture. Not posted. In the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews.
6. Two colour photos of the 2018 boats moored up © Susan Tomlinson.
Written and researched by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only


[1] "Derbyshire Times",14 August 1869. Display of fireworks and illumination. Mr. Woodfield had moved to Matlock Bath before 1851 and was just along the Parade from Hodgkinson's Hotel in 1861 | 1871. By 1881 he was living on Derwent Terrace. He can be found in trade directories such as Whites 1857 Directory (under Artists) and Kelly's 1876 Directory.

[2] "The Derby Mercury", 13 September, 1876.

[3] "Derbyshire Times",16 September 1882. Matlock Bath Annual Regatta and Swimming Races.

[4] Benjamin Bryan, (1903), "Matlock, Manor and Parish". Bryan, unfortunately, does not mention Venetian Fêtes.

[5] Several reports including in "The Derby Mercury" 22 September, 1897 and the "Derbyshire Times" of 18 September 1897. The event should have taken place earlier in the month, but was rained off.

[6] "The Derby Mercury", 6 September, 1899. Venetian Fête at Matlock Bath. The Fête was organised by a committee made up of residents.

[7] On 2 Sep 2010 the "Matlock Mercury" reported that David Gregory, a local electrician, had entered the decorated boat competition 40 times, with his boat designs featuring in the parade every year since 1971. His first win was as a nineteen year old in 1973 when he designed a Viking longboat.

[8] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 1 September 1933. Venetian Fête Thrill. Gondola Catches Fire.

[9] Until the Venetian Nights re-located to the Derwent Gardens in 1967 the boats used to set out from the landing stage and were rowed upstream, passing beneath Jubilee Bridge to the North Parade section of the river and turning round just above the bandstand. These days slightly more of the river is used.