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Matlock Bath: The Great Petrifying Well, 1932
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Mr. Buxton's Royal Museum & the Great Petrifying Well

Royal Museum Interior

Nineteeth century stereo

There was a time when small children and adults alike flocked to see the wonders created by water dripping onto a variety of objects and gradually giving them a stone covering. The Matlock Bath spring water contains calcium carbonate and some other salts so when the water comes into contact with a particular item, it slowly enshrouds it as the water evaporates, thus petrifying it[1]. Petrifaction had grown as a local industry in the very early nineteenth century; Pigot's Directory of 1828-9, for example, shows seven petrifaction warehouses already established in the village[2].

An early visitor to a Matlock Bath petrifying well was the eight year old Elizabeth Barrett, who later married Robert Browning. She describes her experience in one of her poems, written after the family's visit in 1814[3]. Almost sixty years later, in 1871, the Emperor and Empress of Brazil Matlock Bath stayed overnight at the New Bath. The following day they "were out a little after 5a.m." and visited the Petrifying Well near the Fishpond[4].

The top image shows the interior of the Great Petrifying Well before World War One. It was photographed by Percy Rowbottom. William Smedley and John Ogden had been the joint proprietors at the end of the nineteenth century. When Benjamin Bryan visited the well a couple of years later he noted a number of antlers and other objects on the internal roof, some having already undergone the process. Other objects may seem distasteful today, but appealed to Victorian and Edwardian visitors. The well's special features included a man-trap with a double spring and chain attached, spinning wheels, the skull of a lioness and a human skull that had been taken there from London years before[5]. These items had probably been sold before Percy Rowbottom took the photo here, although there are plenty of eggs and hats as well as a couple of bird cages and some animal heads in the picture.

The Great Petrifying Well in 1932
"The modern wells are Mr. Ogden's, near the restaurant,
the interior of which is half oval in shape..." (Bryan, 1903)[5]. There were
still three petrifying wells open in Matlock Bath in 1932 but only two by 1941[7].

The second postcard above, dated 1932, shows just some of the items that were being petrified at The Great Petrifying Well in Matlock Bath. Although they aren't easy to see, they included small mugs, teapots, jugs, pots of all shapes and sizes, plates, vases and bottles, crucifixes, leaves, nests, fruit and eggs, shoes, hats and even an umbrella. The type of thing people wanted to be petrified had changed since the nineteenth century, perhaps because the smaller the item, the more easily it could be taken home[6]. And tastes had also changed.

Some of a group from Rugby, who had travelled to Matlock Bath in a luxury coach in 1932, took the opportunity to view the petrifying well before they had lunch. "Here there is an amazing collection of objects ranging from human skulls to birds' eggs, and an ever-running stream of thermal water coming from an unknown source"[9].

The water came from a pipe or spout in the roof of the well and slowly dripped from the holes in the pipe onto the objects below, which had been arranged on stands in tiers. Whilst the photograph above looks as if the items were becoming a solid mass, they were turned at regular intervals to ensure they were properly encrusted. It was a lengthy and time consuming process. In 1892, it seems to have been quite the thing to petrify umbrellas; after twelve months they took on a stoney character but the process was not complete for a further year. Even then it was no more than a stoney crust[8].

Petrifying Well, 1938
The third postcard shows some of the artefacts in more detail.
On display were kettles and teapots, eggs in egg cups, mugs, shoes, hats, milk jugs, animal heads, models of swans, geese, heads, elephants, camels and bottles with clay pipes in them. Some of the models could be bought by the visitors and the petrifactioner would place them amongst the artefacts already there until they were they were ready for collection. The charge would vary, depending on the size of the objects.

You may like to view more onsite information

Gem of the Peak (1840) - read the section on "What to do in 1840" as there is more information about petrifying wells (scroll down). Some would have been sent in the post.
There is also more information about the process in the FAQs section.
Bemroses' Guide to Matlock ... , about 1869, p.16
Also see the transcript of Croston's "On Foot Through the Peak". Chapter 14 provides an interesting description of the petrification process (paras 5, 6 and 7)
Read a poem about a Fenland market town's request for unusual items to be petrified in 1902.
Matlock Bath's Main Attractions
Royal Visitors

1. "The Great Petrifying Well Photo." Postcard from a photograph taken by Percy Rowbottom, Matlock Bath, Copyright. Produced in Great Britain. No date, but Another was posted in 1912.
2. Postcard of "The Great Petrifying Well, Matlock Bath", copyright (1932), printed by Lilywhite's at Sowerby Bridge. Image kindly donated by Photo-Ark © 2003
3. "Great Petrifying Well, Matlock Bath". H. Coates, Wisbech, Nene Series, No.A4660. Real Photograph, British Manufacture. Not posted but dated Summer 1938 in pencil.
Images 1. and 3. © Ann Andrews collection.
All research provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.

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

[1] There is more information about the petrification process in the FAQ

[2] See Pigot's Directory, 1928-9. Other early directories provide the names of more petrifactioners.

[3] Read Elizabeth Barrett's poem and another marking the Royal visit on Matlock & Matlock Bath: Inspiration of Poets.

[4] This report was from the "Derby Daily Telegraph" of 17 September 1927, but the visit was also covered by the "Derbyshire Times", 12 August 1871.

[5] Bryan, Benjamin (1903) "Matlock Manor and Parish".

[6] See a nineteenth century stereoview

[7] Kelly's Directory, 1932 and 1941. Their proprietors did not advertise in the 1932 and only William Smith advertised in 1941.

[8] "St. James' Gazette", 18 August 1892. Short Holiday Trips. The peak.

[9] "The Rugby Advertiser", 28 June 1932. A delightful trip to Matlock and Dovedale.