The Derbyshire Dome – horses to hospital to hospitality

It is a vast structure, larger than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, wider than Rome’s Parthenon and bigger than the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It is Britain’s biggest unsupported dome and was, for over two decades, the world’s biggest such structure. This nineteenth century wonder was built to create a roof over the middle of an eighteenth century octagonal building.

So what great civic architecture warranted such a record-breaking construction? A great cathedral? A town hall or assembly rooms? Perhaps a new opera house or theatre? And which of Britain’s great cities is home to this vast dome? It is, in fact, the Derbyshire Dome in Buxton, Derbyshire. It was a late Victorian design to provide a roof over the open middle of the eighteenth century stable block, supporting the building’s transformation into the Devonshire Royal Hospital.

The building’s equine origins were as a stable for the Crescent Hotel in Buxton. Buxton was a spa town, consciously modelled after Bath and desperate to attract a similarly upmarket crowd. Central to these ambitions was the Crescent, a fine piece of Georgian architecture that echoed the simple grandeur of Bath’s Royal Crescent.

The Fifth Duke of Devonshire owned much of the land in and around Buxton, and championed the construction of the Crescent. At this time, visitors to the Crescent Hotel needed a place to keep their horses, and so a suitably grand stable was built in 1785 to provide space for up to 110 horses (along with lodgings for accompanying servants).

As time passed, so did the need for dedicated stabling facilities. As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more of Buxton’s visitors arrived by railway. By the mid-nineteenth century, the town’s charitable associations had persuaded the Duke of Devonshire to allow the vast stable complex to be used as a free hospital.

The need was acute, as the hospital was intended for the sick and wounded coming from the major cotton towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. By 1881, the Buxton Bath Charity had persuaded the Duke to allow the entire building to be used as a hospital. The stables would be converted to a major 300-bed hospital, and space maximized by creating a dome to cover the central open space.

The completed dome was a vast unsupported structure stretching over a diameter of 145ft (some sources even claim it is over 150ft in diameter). It was easily Britain’s largest unsupported dome and for two decades held the record as the world’s largest unsupported dome. It easily surpassed the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (112ft), was wider than the Parthenon (141ft) and larger than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (138ft) in Rome.

The hospital would eventually become the Devonshire Royal Hospital and would remain as one of Britain’s only centres for hydropathical treatment until its closure in 2000.

Original source: Great British Railway Journeys, Episode 16 of Series 1 – Buxton to Matlock