Matlock Before the Railway Age

Early Routes from Matlock Bridge

A mile or so directly north of Matlock Bath railway station , a bridge across the Derwent – the ‘Pontem de Matelocke’ – had existed since ca.1250. The bridge was approximately half a mile upstream from the presumed fording point at Mestesforde, and about the same distance north-west of Old Matlock. No doubt this early bridge would be of a simple design, possibly consisting ‘of stone pillars, with a wooden decking, vulnerable to destruction by winter floods’. In the 1400s, it was replaced by the present bridge, a much stronger arched structure, which was an important focal point for various routes, including a salt way from Nantwich via Grangemill and Salters Lane. Some of these routes were later (c. 1756–1759) to become turnpikes to Newhaven (for Buxton and Manchester), Nottingham, Chesterfield (via Steep Turnpike) and Rowsley (via Dimple Road, Old Hackney Lane and Darley Bridge). Additionally, by 1771, the carriageway from Cromford to Matlock Bath had ‘almost certainly’ been extended through the splendid gorge of Matlock Dale to Matlock Bridge, although the actual route of the current A6 from Cromford, through the Derwent Valley to Matlock Bridge and Rowsley, does not appear to have been established until the early 1800s. A cluster of buildings – possibly including a 17th C hostelry later known as the Queen’s Head* – grew up by the western end of the bridge; together with a smithy etc (demolished in the 1920s) at the eastern end, thus creating the small settlement known as Matlock Bridge.

*The present building (now retail) dates from 1868.

Matlock Bridge and Matlock Bank in 1848

The Tithes Maps of 1848 clearly indicate that, in contrast to the flourishing township of Matlock Bath, its neighbour, Matlock – as we know it – did not exist when the railway from the south opened in 1849* . The main station building (1850) and the station master’s house (c. 1853/54), both to the design of Sir Joseph Paxton (1801-1865)** of Crystal Palace fame, added to the very small settlement at Matlock Bridge. That apart, there was little or no development along the roads radiating from the bridge: Dale Road, Bakewell Road and Causeway Lane. Likewise, lower Bank Road was equally free of any building, except for Bridge House, later to become a hydro and now incorporated into the Town Hall (See link). Rising behind Bridge House was Matlock Bank (roughly defined as the area of steep hillside between & including Dimple Road/Sycamore Road and Lime Tree Road/Chesterfield Road) from where there are stunning views of High Tor and the Matlock Dale gorge, flanked by the lovely Riber and Masson Hills. In the mid-19th century, this area was sparsely populated, with one or two smallholdings and other single properties situated along the main tracks and paths, hamlets at The Dimple and Lime Tree, and a larger cluster of cottages in the vicinity of Far Green and Jackson Road. These were the homes of agricultural workers, cotton mill hands and framework knitters.

One of Matlock Bank’s oldest surviving buildings, located near the junction of Megdale with Hurds Hollow, is the former Dimple Farm, which is said to have roof beams going back to 1580. In the 1700s, Dimple Farm was owned by Peter Nightingale whose son, also Peter, founded Lea cotton spinning mill, which was subsequently leased by John Smedley senior (See ‘The Nightingale-Smedley Connection’).

Another ancient property, hidden at the heart of the Bank, is Wellfield Cottage, Wellfield, whose lintel is inscribed ‘B R F 1667’; although dating of the timbers suggests that it is much older. The ‘B’ is thought to indicate that the property was once connected with the Bown family, one of whose members was destined to become a high-profile figure in American society. The full story of John Bowne in America can be found here. Nowadays, of course, the rural image of 17thC Matlock Bank – as a hillside of fields surrounding the Bown’s Lime Tree Farm – has been lost in the mists of time. The change has come about largely as a result of the enterprise and enthusiasm of one man, the local textile manufacturer John Smedley, combined with the popularity of hydropathy during the latter half of the 18th century.

* The railway from the south (Ambergate junction) initially terminated at Rowsley, where the original station is now incorporated into the Peak Village shopping centre. The rail connection with Manchester was completed in 1867.

** Joseph Paxton, the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s agent & manager of the Chatsworth estate, as well as serving as a director of the Midland Railway, went on to become a distinguished self-taught architect. He married a local girl, Sarah Bown (the same family as John Bowne (though with a different spelling!), whose memorial was installed by MCA on Lime Tree Road/Hurst Rise corner.