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Matlock: Riber Castle
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1903 map of Riber

Riber Castle, Four Mid-Nineteenth Century Engravings

Pathways to Riber Castle, and Riber House Farm

Classroom, Riber School

Pupils and staff, 1918

Fountain Baths

Pic Tor and Riber Castle, 1935

Pic Tor & Riber Castle, 1928

Riber Castle reputedly cost £70,000 to build in the mid nineteenth century. It began its life as the family home of the Lea mill owner and hydropathist John Smedley and his wife Caroline and was built on land Smedley had bought; the 1848/9 tithe award indicates the land was owned by John Cotterill, George Taylor, Luke Fox and Smedley's then friend George Allen of Riber Hall (who retained the mineral rights on his plot). John Smedley then began to quarry stone on a portion of land outside the castle boundary but on the land he had bought. The small quarry can still be seen; it is on the left as you get to the top of the hill on the foot path from Lower Highfields School, next to Riber Castle. Smedley also changed the course of this foot path to allow for this which can be seen by comparing the 1850 tithe map and the later 1899 Ordnance Survey map[1].

John Bertram Marsden-Smedley, who inherited the castle through his father, was born here[2].

When the castle was auctioned in September 1892 it was described as a "notable and attractive freehold residential castellated mansion, of modern erection, eminently suitable for a gentleman's residence, or as a sanatorium, retreat, museum, public school, or other institution requiring room and healthy surroundings, and occupying a picturesque position surrounded with charming views of the richly diversified district of Matlock." In addition to the main building there were gardens, stables, a coach house and other detached residences with pleasure farm and lands. It covered an area of just over 29 acres. The lot was withdrawn as it did unfortunately not attract sufficient interest[3].

Later converted into a boys' school by Mr. Chippett, nobody wanted to buy it when it was for sale in 1936 and Matlock Urban District Council were able to purchase it at a public auction for a mere £1,150[4]. They intended to turn it into a Museum[5] but after War was declared in 1939 the castle was selected to become one of 137 "buffer" food storage depots in Derbyshire. The depots were apparently inspected weekly during the war[6]. The Ministry of Food did not return the castle to the Council until 1949 and by then the damage was done[5]. The Council received an offer of £150 for the building shortly afterwards but turned it down as they could not make up their minds what to do with it[5].

The castle is 856 feet or 261 metres above sea-level, and was built on the brow of Riber hill overlooking Matlock; the views from its windows were magnificent and in the 1930s it was considered to be one of the best landmarks in the Peak District. When it was first built there had been a problem with the water supply. Never someone to do things by halves, John Smedley sank a well several hundred feet deep. The well had its own staircase and provided the castle with "an inexhaustible supply of pure water"[7].

With a little imagination, one can almost see small boys on their way to
their swimming lessons at the Fountain Baths in Matlock Bath
rushing down the well trodden footpaths on the hillside below the castle.

Towards the end of its time as a school, when it was owned by Captain Lionel Gathorne Wilson, a thunderbolt struck one the castle's towers during a heavy storm. Falling masonry shattered glass, damaged the roof, and brought down telephone wires but fortunately nobody was injured[8]. A drama of a different kind took place in 1934 when Mr. Louis Slater, of Smedley Street, Matlock, made a flight in his glider "The Golden Wren" from the castle grounds. Mr. Slater was in the air for about half an hour, and was said to have risen to considerable height in the thermals above the castle[9]. In 1937 the Council's Pleasure Grounds Committee debated what they should do with the building now that they owned it. Over the Whitsun weekend that year several hundred people viewed the castle and the Council was pleasantly surprised to discover that the receipts for admission totalled £58 3s. 3d[10].

The Castle in 1909. Mr Chippett's school for boys.

After the war the castle remained empty for some years but eventually became a zoo that specialised in breeding lynx and in 1983 two of their animals were released into the Pyrenees[11]. There was also a miniature railway within the grounds as the zoo owner bought one of the locomotives that had been used in the Derwent Gardens and on the Hall Leys[12]. Planning permission was granted a few years ago, despite strong opposition by both locals and many much further afield, for the Castle to be converted into apartments.

A rather dark image of the castle and hillside.

There is a great deal about the Smedleys and their hydro on Matlock Bank elsewhere on this site.

1. Water Cures has a great deal about hydropathy.

2. Other pages of interest:
There is a poem, written in 1874, in memory of John Smedley
Advertisement in Hall's "Days in Derbyshire" (1863)
Advertisement for Smedley's Hydropathic Establishment, 1869
"There Was Red Tape at Smedley's Hydro Then"
Bank Road & the Steep-Gradient Tramway
About Riber
See Smedley's Hydropathic Establishment Enumeration Book in the 1891 census
And in the 1901 census
Letterheads of Local Businesses, 1900-1949 (5), S-T

3. Pages within the Images section of the website, include the following:

Smedley's Hydro,
Starting out

Baths, Boxes
and Douches

United Methodist
Free Church
at the Hydro

Lea Mills (1)

Lea Mills (2)

Famous Derbyshire
Health Resorts (1)
See p.5

Hydro, 1906-7

Drawing Room

about 1925

Brochure, 1939

Hydro Plan,

1. "Riber Castle, Matlock". No publisher, but probably Gessey. No. 24. Not posted.
2. "Riber Castle, Matlock". A. W. Gessey, Bank Road and Dale Road, Matlock, No.137. Not posted. Cards from this publisher that have a similar number were posted in the 1930s.
3. "Riber Castle, Matlock", one of Valentine's Picture Panels of Matlock & District. No. 61562. Twelve Real Photos, printed in Great Britain. First published 1909.
4. "Riber Castle, Matlock". Jackson & Son (Gy.), Ltd, Grimsby & Bradford, Jay Em Jay Series, British Manufacture. Not used, but another card was posted in 1920.
All three postcards in the collection of and provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Researched, written by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only

References (coloured links are to transcripts or more information elsewhere on this web site):

[1] The castle complex, consisting of the lodge, drive and castle, was built on a number of plots of land that can be identified on the 1848/9 tithe awards and 1850 map. The castle itself was built on two fields then owned by John Cotterell; numbers 1992 (Big Close) and 1993 (Pasture Close). The drive area to the castle was on part of land owned by George Allen (lot 1991, croft behind barn). But the actual land the lodge is on was a small part of another plot of land (lot 1990, Town End Croft), which in 1848/9 was owned by George Taylor. Whilst it is only a small triangle of land, when it was added to a small part of another field that was owned by Luke Fox in 1848/9 (lot 1989, Far Broomy Croft), the various acquisitions formed the nice neat lines of two of the boundaries of the development. The junction of the roads from Tansley, Wards End and the Hall are on both the 1850 and the 1880 O.S. maps and makes this quite clear. John Smedley almost certainly had to go over Allen land to get to the castle before he bought it so if there were any disputes afterwards he would have another route into the castle grounds if needed. It also seems as if the land bought from the Allens was to give Smedley more land for the castle by moving the right of way further over. He then began quarrying some remaining land for stone.

[2] "Derbyshire Times", 6 October 1939. Golden wedding of the Marsden-Smedleys. Mr. Marsden-Smedley was not a direct descendant of John and Caroline. The couple had no children themselves and the Castle passed down through the children of John Smedley's sister.

[3] "Derby Mercury", 24 August 1892 (sale notice). "Derby Mercury", 14 September 1892 (report of the auction - there were some low bids, so the property was withdrawn from the sale).

[4] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 11 November 1936. The Council bought it the previous evening.

[5] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 19 January 1949. £150 offer for Riber Castle.

[6] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 18 January 1946. Derbyshire's Food Hoard Was Stored In 137 Depots.

[7] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 14 August 1930.

[8] "Hull Daily Mail", 6 July 1927. Thunderbolt at Matlock.

[9] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 16 October 1934

[10] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 20 May and 14 August 1937.

[11] "The Times", 17 Aug 1983.

[12] See : The Miniature Railway on the Hall Leys and Matlock Bath: Derwent Gardens - Miniature Railway, early 1950s