The following is a guest blog by the recent addition to the Discover Buxton team, Steve Phillips, who will be promenading in the character of Robert Rippon Duke, the architect and builder who was the architectural advisor to the Duke of Devonshire.
Mr. Duke’s commitment to the town evidently went far beyond buildings though.
Visitors to Buxton and even resident Buxtonians seem largely unaware of Mr Duke’s role in transforming Buxton from a village into a buzzing, fashionable Victorian spa town. There are no statues to the man but his work stands as testament to a great talent. In many parts of Buxton his hidden heritage can be uncovered and viewed in many directions once his legacy is understood.
At the end of the promenade we ask you to vote to decide if Mr Duke merits the accolade of ‘Creator of Victorian Buxton’. Steve, who is a great fan of the man, will be after your vote!
Robert Rippon Duke’s life journey from son of a whaler in Hull to a highly respected member of Buxton society is peppered by several twists of fate – waking the household up early with his attempts at violin playing; an odd choice of a book; family tragedy and ignoring medical advice. These events, combined together with a keen appetite for self-education brought Mr Duke to Buxton where he devoted his life to the community in so many ways.
Mr Duke’s life was a classic Victorian story of success by ‘pulling himself up by his bootstraps’. He practiced the Victorian ethic of self-help and worked hard throughout his life, habitually beginning his day at 4am or thereabouts. Even after selling his building business retirement meant more time for architectural design and work for the community. He developed a relationship with the Devonshire Hospital (now the Derby University Dome) which lasted over 50 years until his death at the age of 92. His devotion to the hospital was part of his concern that poor people should have access to medical care. He was also a great supporter of Mechanics Institutes which people could attend in order to ‘better’ themselves.
The debates in the local press show that Mr Duke’s work was sometimes controversial. Probably this is to be expected for someone who in his time was quite radical in his design. One commentator expressed the concern that iron pillars supporting one building he designed – the Octagon in the Pavilion Gardens – would be ‘split’ by sound. Mr Duke was having lunch one day with an engineer familiar with the design of the Tay railway bridge and the reason for its collapse. Mr Duke may well have suffered a bout of indigestion on that occasion as he hurried back to his current major project – construction of a Dome larger than St Pauls Cathedral – to find too many similarities with the Tay Bridge for comfort. Happily he took appropriate action.
Our promenade of about half a mile will take you (perfectly safely!) to see that all remains well in Mr Duke’s creations. It becomes apparent though during this tour that technical problems are not the biggest challenge to heritage of the built environment. Some examples of Mr Duke’s excellent work have now gone and it is difficult to see how what has replaced them could ever be deemed to be an improvement. Other examples which still stand only do so because poor decisions have been successfully challenged by ordinary local people – a reminder that proud heritage can easily and irrevocably be lost.
Inevitably Mr Duke’s building work and prominent position in Buxton Society involved him in the Buxton Cure – the taking of spa waters to relieve symptoms of various illnesses such as gout and rheumatism. This has been happening at least since Roman times. A major theme of his life was to improve access to treatment for the poor. During the promenade you will become aware of his creation of mineral baths and hot baths for the poor. Above all you will see how he played his part as a member of the Buxton Bath Charity in transforming the Great Stables of the Duke of Devonshire into a magnificent 300 bed hospital capped by its famous Dome.
Your guide Steve will offer reflections of life of Buxton people as they benefit from the legacy of Mr Duke. There are plenty of childhood confessions to be heard. Steve was lucky to work at the Dome when it was a prestigious hospital where patients were helped to regain their health, often needing many months to do so. Do not forget to ask about the strange contents of the equipment cupboard too!
Mr Duke launches with a free event at 2pm on the 12th September from The Promenade outside The Octagon in the beautiful Pavilion Gardens. Just turn up, Mr Duke would welcome you.
In future this tour will be by special arrangement, £8 pp.