During the past year or so I have been guiding walks around Buxton with ‘Discover Buxton Tours’, best known for its little red tram. People surprisingly book in for a Robert Rippon Duke walk which I lead. I am surprised because at the start of each walk I ask who has heard of RRD. Usually no-one has. I then say that in my view RRD is the creator of Victorian Buxton and I give notice that there will be a vote at the end of the walk to see who agrees.
RRD came to Buxton in 1849 trying to recover from a family tragedy which only he and one daughter survived. The prospect of being responsible for building the Royal Hotel in Spring Gardens (now Track & Trail) attracted him to the town. RRD’s doctor was worried that he would not live longer than a month in such a cold place but RRD in fact lived here until the age of 92.
Royal Hotel 1849-51
RRD set up a business at 31 Spring Gardens and at one stage employed105 people. He was an architect, builder and valuer. He also became the architectural advisor to the Duke of Devonshire at a time when the Duke was expanding the town. When RRD arrived there were just eleven streets in town and he laid out a further thirty-four.
Burlington Hotel by R.R. Duke – 1874
RRD either designed houses for these streets himself or ensured that plans presented to him for approval met his idea of a Victorian house. His houses have ornate brickwork, large overhanging eaves and tall chimneys. The home he designed for himself, Park View at 8 Manchester Road typifies his concept of a house. You see the idea too at the Buckingham and Derby House.
Pavilion Gardens Large Concert Hall by R.R. Duke 1875-76
The instant success of the Pavilion Gardens in 1870 required a larger concert hall. RRD responded with a radical eight -sided and domed ballroom, our ‘Octagon’. Many people have happy memories of the place – maybe that famous Beatles Concert in 1963 or roller skating on Saturday mornings or maybe going to Uncle Enoch’s disco! I am so looking forward to the completion of the current restoration.
The conversion of the Duke’s grand stables from 1878 onwards was undoubtedly his master piece. This was a lavish and bold solution by this self-taught draughtsman to create a unique hospital. When Derby University risk- assessed the dome using computer technology I understand that RRD’s design was deemed to be pretty near to perfection. This once largest unsupported dome in the world still remains the largest in Europe and it sits snuggly in our own town. Amazing.
Devonshire Hospital after conversion of 1879-82
The town is peppered with buildings designed or built by RRD – the Quadrant; the Old Post Office and shops opposite the Quadrant; the Palace Hotel; St Anne’s RC Church and the former charity mineral and hot baths, to name but a few. He made his contribution too to the Old Hall Hotel and the Crescent back in the day.
Palace Hotel C. 1880
RRD was a model of Victorian ‘self-help’, raising himself from poverty. ‘Self-help’ should not be confused with ‘selfish help’ either. He was a great believer in education, running adult education classes himself, promoting libraries and supporting schools’ opportunities.
His strong Christian values were demonstrated by a concern for the poor – especially by trying to ensure that ability to pay should not block access to health care. He was a member of the Buxton Bath Charity for over fifty years. He seems to have been a tough businessman but as a family man his love for his beloved daughter ‘Sally’ and for his grandchildren shines through in letters he wrote, which are now archived at Matlock.
There are no memorials to RRD, just his name on the wall tablet on the left as you enter the Dome and of course his work is still strongly featured in the Buxton skyline. Local historians Mike Langham and Colin Wells have made a great contribution in uncovering the hidden histories of people like RRD and I trust that Discover Buxton Tours is playing its part in keeping such history alive as well.
Is Robert Rippon Duke the creator of Victorian Buxton? The vote taken at the end of every walk I have led so far has always given a unanimous ‘yes’.
Steve Phillips, Discover Buxton Tours
With thanks to the work and contributions of Mike Langham