History of Matlock Bath Illuminations

Long time compere Geoff Stevens MBE pictured with Crossroads star Noele Gordon when she opened the Illuminations

The Matlock Bath Illuminations have a long established history dating back to 1897, when they were first held to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It was the recollections of an earlier visit to Matlock Bath by the then Princess Victoria that inspired the Illuminations. She recalled how, when staying in Matlock Bath, she looked out of her hotel window and saw candle lights reflected in the River Derwent that flows through the centre of the village. The twinkling lights made a lasting impression on the young Princess.

To celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the village was illuminated with fairy lamps and Chinese and Japanese lanterns, with a torchlight procession through the village - followed by a procession of illuminated boats on the river. The limestone gorge rock face was decorated with coloured bonfires and it must have been a truly remarkable spectacle.

Today, the event still features the decorated and illuminated boats produced by members of the Matlock Bath Venetian Boat Builders' Association and rowed by them each Saturday and Sunday evening during the Illuminations season. The Arkwright Cup, donated by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1903, is awarded to the winning design and the Boat Parade continues to feature one 'candle-lit' boat in the traditional Victorian style.

An old Illuminations set piece

30 facts about Matlock Bath Illuminations

  • The event was first held in 1897 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was her recollections of an earlier visit to Matlock Bath as the then Princess Victoria which inspired the Illuminations. The Princess recalled looking out of her hotel window in Matlock Bath and seeing the candle lights reflected in the River Derwent.
  • The twinkling lights made a lasting impression on the Princess and so in 1897 Matlock Bath was illuminated by fairy lamps and Chinese and Japanese lanterns with a torchlight procession through the village. This was all followed with a procession of illuminated boats on the river and the illumination of the limestone gorge rock face by coloured bonfires.
  • The success of the 1897 celebrations led to the concept of the Venetian Fete in 1898. A number of Matlock Bath tradespeople donated money to buy coloured glass bucket lanterns, which were used to illuminate the Promenade Gardens, the Promenade and the Lovers' Walks during the first Saturday in September.
  • A further 2,500 lamps were bought in 1899, with the celebrations extended to cover the first two Saturdays in September.
  • The organisers called themselves the 'Lamp Committee', with the annual display continuing until 1900.
  • The event was not held in 1901 and 1902, although records do not reveal why.
  • In 1903, when a new Committee revived the event on a much grander scale, a competition was started to design decorated and illuminated boats. The Arkwright Cup, which is still used today, was donated by Sir Richard Arkwright for the best decorated boat. In 1903 the winning design was a Venetian Gondola.
  • Bad weather for three years in succession immediately before the Second World War completely wiped out the Committee's reserves and the event was suspended during the war.
  • Electricity was first used in 1950 when the event was revived by the Matlock Bath Venetian Fete Committee, who, with minimal assets, managed to stage a one-night event. A crowd of around 20,000 attended.
  • The one-night event was again staged in 1951, the A6 road being closed to traffic for the purpose. This was in effect the last staging of the Venetian Fete.
  • The Illuminations season as we know it today began in 1952, when Matlock Urban District Council made available the paths and grounds along the riverside for a six week period between 23rd August and 28th September.
  • At this time, volunteer groups worked to produce additional features throughout the Lovers' Walks and woodland areas.
  • 1953 was the Jubilee Year of the original Committee and also Coronation Year. The Committee, on behalf of the people of Matlock Bath, sent a message of Loyal Greeting to Her Majesty, to which the new Queen graciously replied, wishing the Committee continued prosperity and success.
  • During 1967/68 the A6 road improvements were undertaken, which necessitated the removal of the Promenade Gardens, the main arena for staging the event. The Committee transferred their main focal point from that area to the Derwent Gardens.
  • A temporary bridge was constructed for the 1967 event, linking Derwent Gardens with Lovers' Walks. Unfortunately, flood water covered the bridge during the event.
  • In 1968 the Committee were granted their first lease for Derwent Gardens by Matlock Urban District Council and a new permanent river bridge was completed in 1969.
  • The event was increased to ten weeks duration in 1970 and a celebrity was asked to perform the 'switch-on' ceremony each year.
  • A whole host of stars performed the switch-on in the 1970s and early 80s including Chris Tarrant, Peter Purves, Tony Hart, Keith Chegwin, actress Wendy Craig, Coronation Street's Bernard Youens, who played Stan Ogden and Julie Goodyear, who was Bet Lynch from the same soap, plus Crossroads star Noele Gordon in 1973 and former Dr Who Jon Pertwee in 1979.
  • 1971 saw the one millionth visitor to the event. The costs associated with the staging of the Illuminations were however, rising significantly, resulting in the Committee being formed into a Limited Company in 1975.
  • The 1983 season was hit by bad weather, with no fine Saturday nights at all. With no funds to stage the 1984 event, the organising company was voluntarily wound up.
  • Derbyshire Dales District Council took over the running of the event in 1984 and the focus changed to the Illuminations concentrating more on the lighting of natural features, such as rock outcrops and trees, rather than more garish set pieces. The Illuminated boats however continued to be the central feature of the event.
  • The illuminations now attracts around 100,000 visitors over their seven week season.
  • Clifftop firework displays have been reintroduced, plus family entertainment including special themed nights for young visitors - from Sci-Fi and Super Heroes to Pirates & Mermaids and Fairytales.
  • 1997 marked the centenary of this unique and much visited event.
  • Through entrance charges and donations from local businesses, Derbyshire Dales District Council aims to organise the popular festival - which boost the local economy - at no cost to local Council Tax payers.
  • Electrician David Gregory has been part of the fabulous decorated boat parade at the Illuminations since 1971, the longest of all of the 10 regular entrants. 2023 was his 52nd year and, as always at this time, the subject of his decorated boat was a closely guarded secret. He has won the Arkwright Cup 11 times.
  • David and another long-time competitor Paul Henshall have had to rescue sinking boats when the River Derwent is in flood. The pair even made it onto national TV one year when they failed to save one particular boat from sinking to the bottom of the Derwent. The theme of the boat? The Titanic!
  • The decorated boats can feature as many as 700 LED bulbs
  • Winner of the Arkwright Cup for the best decorated boat in 2023 were the Motley Bunch - Richard Wood, Christine Dence and Pete Hartshorn - with their Slinky Dog model. They were presented with the Arkwright Cup, donated in 1903 by Sir Richard Arkwright, and the Centenary Cup, plus a cash prize of £500.
  • The parade of decorated boats is led by a traditional candle-lit boat, using in excess of 90 tea lights.

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