History of Matlock

This brief history of Matlock was prepared by June Lait, a former MCA chairman, who sadly died a few years ago.

A new version, using more recent evidence, is currently being prepared by Peter Wild

Until the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Matlock was a hamlet whose principal activity was farming with lead mining and quarrying as subsidiary activities. Historians now question whether the Romans mined lead here, but Derbyshire lead mining is undoubtedly of great antiquity. For centuries it provided work for those enterprising enough to stake claims and strong enough to tunnel into the hostile earth. In the Great Masson Cavern dramatic illustrations of the hardship and danger miners encountered can still be seen, and the whole of Masson hillside and much of Starkholmes is riddled with evidence of their efforts. Most of the mines have been safely capped, but it is prudent to keep exploratory dogs on leads and to supervise adventurous children.

In the late eighteenth century Sir Richard Arkwright’s mould breaking experiments at Cromford provided factory jobs for a few Matlock people, but it was not until the 1840’s that Matlock began its spectacular growth as a Spa Town.

John Smedley was not the first to recognise and exploit the effects of water treatment on various illnesses. Matlock Bath, endowed with natural thermal water, was a Spa Town of some elegance two centuries before he was born in 1803, but it was Smedley whose conviction and enterprise established Hydrotherapy firmly in Matlock, and for a century made it one of the most celebrated centres of the “water cure”. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Smedley’s Hydro was world famous, its guests having included Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Beecham, Ivor Novello, Jimmy Wilde and Gilbert Jessop, to name but a few. The building that still dominates Matlock Bank was completed in 1886 on the core of Smedley’s more modest establishment, founded in 1853. Riber Hillside is crowed by the castle that Smedley built as his private residence in 1862. It is said to have been “planned, reared, finished and occupied in four months and one week”. If correct, this is a stunning achievement, given the need to transport huge blocks of stone up a one in five gradient on roads little more than farm tracks. Riber once housed a wildlife centre, having been a school, and during the war a food store. It is currently in the process of conversion to residences.

Hydropathy was given a boost by the arrival of the railway in Matlock, in 1849, enabling patients to travel from London in speed and comfort. By 1867 the line was through to Manchester, and in the heyday of cotton, wealthy mill owners from the North had easy access to the then universally accepted benefits of the water cure and to the many accompanying treatments pioneered by John Smedley. Matlock Station remains largely unaltered from the time that Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth and architect of Crystal Palace, had a hand in its design. All that is missing are the through trains to London and Manchester!

Once alighted from the trains, visitors were taken up the steep hill by horse-drawn vehicles. The façade of the building in which the horses were stabled remains on the Bakewell Road, now rebuilt as The Crown Public House.

It was not long before an enterprising ancestor of the present writer, who had been to San Francisco and seen the steep tramway there, had the idea of a tram to take the visitors to the Bank Road hydros, of which there were now a large number. On leaving school aged 10, in 1852; Job Smith became a bath attendant at Smedley’s Hydro. Smedley appears to have encouraged his employees to set up on their own, and Malvern House on Smith Road was the Hydro built by Job Smith after he went gold prospecting in America. Oldham House on Wellington Street and Rockside towering spectacularly above it are examples of large hydros that complemented, but never seriously rivalled, Smedley’s. Both are now converted into flats enjoying impressive views over the town.

Below them in Rutland Street, and used for various industrial purposes, is the tram house, all that remains of the machines which for 34 years from 1893 carried people from Crown Square to the top of Rutland Street. The tram shelter at the head of the park originally stood in Crown Square and was presented to Matlock by Robert Wildgoose. Job Smith first thought of the tram in the 1860’s. By the time finance was raised, principally through Sir George Newnes, newspaper proprietor, the tram was being upstaged by the motor car. Nevertheless, it is etched into the folklore of Matlock, and many would like to see it restored.

The hydros brought visitors with money to spend, and shops opened to cater for them. Dale Road was once one of the most elegant shopping streets in the East Midlands. Evans the Jewellers with its astonishingly high standards remind us of that era, and fortunately many of the Victorian and early Edwardian buildings remain largely unaltered. Smedley Street had several shops catering for visitors, Tinker Wright’s ironmonger being a remarkable survivor from the time when the main trade was in elaborate baths and shower accessories for the many treatments, but it sadly closed in 2006. Alcohol was strictly forbidden at Smedley’s, but it is thought that many sent out for it from the local pubs and liquor stores.

Smedley was a highly religious man and a large purpose built church was an important part of the hydro complex. The austere religion on offer was not to everyone’s taste, and All Saints Church was built to accommodate those of more liberal inclination. On Bank Road several fine Non-conformist churches were built. St Joseph’s Catholic Church also dates from the period.

Between the two World Wars, Matlock prospered uneventfully. The slump of the 1930’ affected heavy industry, although the hydropathic business seems to have been less seriously affected. During the war many of the hydros were requisitioned, Smedley’s being used as an Intelligence Centre and Military Hospital. It opened again after the war, but the inception of the NHS in 1947 doomed hydropathy. Its more fanciful treatments never had the approval of the medical profession, and were not prescribed under the NHS. Even the very rich saw little reason to pay large sums of money for treatment of unproven worth, when expert attention was available free. Smedley’s closed in 1955 and became the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council.

A comprehensive guide to Matlock’s history canbe found at the Andrews Pages

A short history of Matlock from the Derbyshire Heritage website.