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Matlock Bath: Derwent Gardens - The Switchback, (1) Rise & Fall
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Matlock Bath's Switchback Railway. The main building, from the A6 roadway
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Derwent Gardens
Café (1)

Derwent Gardens
Café (2)

From the river


The Riverbank,
about 1880

Holy Trinity & the Switchback

Royal Hotel, Pavilion & Holy Trinity Church

Views from Cat Tor

The Pavilion, Church and Royal Hotel, before 1905

Rare view of below the main building

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[1]. It was the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and the country was celebrating.

Thanks to Buffalo Bill, Switchbacks became the latest craze and they were suddenly everywhere in the United Kingdom. Several patents were applied for[2]. Hart & Ripley's Patent Safety Switchbacks, for example, were erected in Bolton, Rhyl, Blackpool, Morecambe, Redcar, Tynemouth and Aberdeen[3]. 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[4]". 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[5]".

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[6]. It was being sold for the Switchback's owner, John Dennison Bratby, who also owned a Switchback Railway in Derby, near the Cattle Market[7]. Mr. Bratby was a Bill Poster and Contractor at that time[8]. The 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[9], 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 winter[10]". We should remember that the tourist season was very short, running from Whitsuntide until September.

By instructions from the Owner (Mr. J. D. Bratby) at
the Devonshire Hotel, Matlock Bath on FRIDAY,
September 27th, 1889, at 6 for 7 o'clock in the Even-
ing prompt,
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.
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-
road, Derby.
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[11]. 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.
See Royal Hotel, Pavilion & Holy Trinity Church for an explanation of what this small building was used for.
There is a sepia card, called "Matlock", that was published before the Derwent Gardens were developed. It is the "Just images" section of the site.

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 Bath. "The 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[12]". Matlock Bath's switch-back railway was supposed to be longer but the principal was the same as at Manchester.

Matlock Bath's Switchback Railway built on Orchard Holme
Valentine's 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 a thrill.

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 behind it[13].

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[11]. 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. Some have suggested that Edgar features in the photograph at the top of the page, leaning on the dividing panel between the return track and the exit. Whilst the young man is difficult to see he does not have the same build as Edgar. He is probably Harold Bradbury.

"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[11]". The Switchback, which had entertained visitors to Matlock Bath for over 40 years, was gone.

About 1900, possibly slightly earlier.
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 see the Fishpond Stables, which predated the Grand Pavilion, and the Mud Heap.

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 scale.

Switchback Railway, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire
1. Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire[14]. 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[15].

Switchback Railway, Folkestone, Kent - sepia
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.

Switchback Railway, Folkestone
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[16]. 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.

Switchback Railway, Folkestone, Kent - coloured postcard
4. Folkestone, Kent. Sepia postcard of the Switchback.

The Switchback seems to have been accessed from the Victoria Pier, which was erected in 1888[17]. In the background is the New Pier, which forms part of Folkestone Harbour.

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[11]. 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.

Foot rungs

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.

The Switchback story continues on the next page, which is about the people who went on it.

All but one of the original postcards in the collection of and provided by and © Ken Smith.
Fourth and fifth image down: "Matlock Bath". The "Wyndham" Series, W2091. Posted 10 Aug 1905 but believed to have been taken some years before. In the collection of and provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Images scanned for this website and information research, including material from previously unpublished family papers, by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.
References (coloured links are to transcripts and information elsewhere on this web site):

[1] "The Era", Saturday, 18 June, 1887. The Princess of Wales was Princess Alexandra, the wife of Edward who later became King Edward VII

[2] 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 1888.

[3] "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 Aberdeen.

[4] "The Leeds Mercury", Saturday, 25 June, 1887.

[5] Report of the Glasgow International Exhibition in "The Leeds Mercury", Monday, 14 May, 1888.

[6] "The Derby Mercury", Wednesday, September 18, 1889

[7] 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!

[8] 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.

[9] 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

[10] "The Derby Mercury", Wednesday, 23 April, 1890

[11] 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.

[12] The Derby Mercury (Derby, England), Wednesday, June 22, 1887

[13] 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".

[14] "The Cleethorpes Switchback Limited" was wound up in May, 1920.

[15] "The Derby Mercury", Wednesday, 9 November, 1887.

[16] Kelly's Directory of Kent, Surrey & Sussex, 1891. Kelly's Directory of Kent, 1903.

[17] Kelly's Directory of Kent, 1913. Also see reference [2] above.