John Smedley and the Rise of Hydropathy

The Growing Popularity of Hydropathy

The idea of treating disease with water goes back to Hippocrates in the 4thC BCE. During medieval times, Spa, a small town in Belgium, was known for its mineral springs which were believed to have healing powers. Elsewhere, such curative mineral springs – which came to be known as ‘spas’ – often began as holy wells, and some developed into fashionable places where the upper classes went to bathe and/or drink the waters. Although the bath at Matlock did not have a religious connection, it was, as we have seen, perceived to have curative qualities. During the 1840s & 50s, Priessnitz of Gafenberg (Austria) offered a water cure known as hydropathy, which is the treatment of illness by the external application of water to the body (using wet sheets, douches, wet stomach packs and baths of various types). He believed that sickness resulted from the introduction of foreign material to the body, and that cold water would expel the poisons. Accordingly, sweating was promoted, whilst drugs, alcohol and rich food were not permitted. The new treatment quickly became fashionable throughout Europe. In 1840, Malvern became one of the first places in Britain to offer the ‘cold cure’; soon followed by Ben Rhydding Hydro (near Ilkley), which opened in 1844.

Ben Rhydding and Cheltenham

In 1851, and again the following year, Smedley – accompanied by Caroline – travelled to Ben Rhydding (Ilkley), for stays of nine weeks and three months respectively. The hydro was run by Dr William Macleod, a qualified physician who had also been trained in hydropathy. Smedley was so impressed with the hydropathic treatment, together with the ‘religious zeal’ of Macleod, that he decided to introduce hydropathy to his own workforce. But whilst the treatment clearly seems to have had a beneficial effect on John Smedley’s physical condition, it did not alleviate his spiritual and mental state. The Smedleys’ immediate response was to embark on another tour, which ended in Cheltenham, where John purchased the Rose Hill estate. From there, he sent letters to his workers, who held prayer meetings on his behalf. Renouncing all ‘frivolity and extravagance’, Smedley opted for a ‘simple humble life’. He had always been a religious man, but it was this ‘new cause of religion’, with Caroline’s support… (that)…‘restored him to health’. However, as JS found his beliefs to be at odds with those of both the established church and many of the nonconformist movements, he built a number of chapels around 1852/3: his own nonconformist building at Holloway, as well as chapels for the Cromford Wesleyan Reform circuit at Bonsall, Birchwood-by-Alfreton, Ashover and Higham. In addition, be bought a marquee in which to preach at local venues; and also financed a number of schools.

Smedley’s Mild Water Cure

Smedley certainly lost no time in bringing hydropathy to Lea Bridge, opening a free hospital for up to six patients in Post Office Row (close to his mill) in 1851, initially for the benefit of both his workforce and other local residents. He read books on anatomy and physiology, and experimented with hydropathic remedies on his mill workers; experiments which led him to conclude that ‘the cold water system was too severe for invalids’. In opting for a mild water cure (water temperature 80 degrees F / 27 degrees C), Smedley began a ‘new era’ in the history of hydropathy, subsequently writing a manual entitled ‘Practical Hydropathy’ (published 1862) (available to view online as part of the Wellcome Collection Library), which he updated from time to time. The mild water cure soon proved to be popular. Smedley’s friends, and then others – mostly clergy – sought the latest treatment. There were so many that the Smedleys ‘felt obliged to take them into their private residence’. As this was clearly not a long-term solution, Smedley began looking for alternative accommodation. Alexander’s Cottage, on Matlock Bank, soon came to his attention. This eleven-roomed property had been rented in 1851 by the framework knitter Ralph Davis – one of Smedley’s own former trainees – who also had an interest in hydropathy.

John Smedley and the Ralph Davis Hydros

Before renting Alexander’s Cottage, Davis had been administering hydropathic treatment in patients’ own homes, and it seems that he now wanted a proper base in which he could practice the art. It is unclear exactly what transpired between the two men, but at some point, Smedley became Davis’s medical adviser. And in November, 1853, he (Smedley) purchased Alexander’s Cottage, along with two other properties on Broome Head Lane (now Smedley Street), to become Davis’s landlord. So it was that Smedley’s Hydro was born! Davis and his wife, Anne – apparently with Smedley’s support – subsequently went on to run several successful hydros of their own, all offering Smedley’s mild water cure: (i) South View Cottages, Dob Lane (now Bank Road) (founded c. 1857), in whose grounds they built the 30-patient South View (c. 1866)*; (ii) Poplar Cottage, Chesterfield Road (c. 1860)**; which they sold to a Mr Knowles in 1868; and (iii) Flates, also on Chesterfield Road. The Davises enlarged the 18th C Flates farm, later renaming it Chesterfield House***, whose date stone on the east wing is inscribed ‘RD AD 1860’. In 1896, the property was inherited by the Davis’s daughter, Harriett Richards. She and her husband, having run the hydro for some time, had already built the west wing in 1895. In 1898, they appointed a manager (Ellen Wood) and baths supervisors (Mr & Mrs John Kay), before selling the hydro c. 1900 to Arthur & Sarah Hitching, who added a ballroom and new veranda. Meanwhile, Smedley’s Hydro was going from strength to strength. As an astute entrepreneur as well as a keen hydropathist, Smedley may well have had the vision to realize how his new venture would benefit from the combination of its highly scenic location, sheltered south-west aspect, proximity to the railway station and – most importantly – a plentiful supply of suitable water. The story of Smedley’s Hydro is told in more detail in sections on the rise and fall of hydropathy.

*South View became the Smedley Memorial Hospital (1882-c. 1984) – to which the Hunter wing was added in 1897; and then Matlock Youth Hostel (c1984-2007), after which it was converted into apartments known as Bank Manor.

**At one time, Ralph Davis also treated patients at Ebor Mount, just across Chesterfield Road from Poplar Cottage.

***Chesterfield House became a Convent for the Presentation Sisters (c. 1927) and grew considerably thereafter as explained in the section on the decline of hydropathy

Soft, Pure Water

Unlike those of Matlock Bath and other spas, the springs emerging from Matlock Bank did not have any medicinal, thermal or other special properties*, and their water was used only for external application. Nevertheless, its quality was crucial to the success of the local hydros; so it was just as well that Dr Hunter of Smedley’s deemed it to be ‘of exceptional softness and purity’. Initially, the hydros relied on water from their own wells, which were fed by springs along the hillside. As demand for water increased, however, the reliability of the supply was no doubt adversely affected, especially in dry weather. As a result, the Matlock Water Company (Board), established by an Act of Parliament in 1860, built its first reservoir, followed by a larger one in the 1880s (both, presumably, fed by the Wolds Spring) to solve the problem. The reservoirs are located at The Wolds, near the top of Wellington Street. Smedley’s hydro relied on its own well until 1888, when it built its own reservoir (close to the Matlock Water Board’s), fed by a ‘watering channel’ from Bentley Brook and linked to the hydro by ‘Smedley’s Pipe’.

*An exception is Allen Hill ‘Spaw’ (located just inside Allen Hill Park at the foot of Dimple Road) which consists of a spring and well whose chalybeate (rich in iron) water has an orange-brown colour. In the 1890s, local residents used the water to treat eye problems. An inscription indicates that the spa was restored in 1824, but it wasn’t developed commercially. It is now used for Matlock’s well dressing

Riber Castle

With his highly successful textile mill in the hands of manager Robert Wildgoose, John Smedley – assisted by his wife, Caroline – devoted the rest of his life to his new hydro, but was still able to find the time to design and build a new private residence – the flamboyant Riber Castle, which overlooks Matlock from its lofty situation (260 m) at the top of Riber Hill. How such a ‘statement’ building may be reconciled with Smedley’s renunciation of ‘all extravagances and frivolity’ (See paragraph on Ben Rhydding) remains a mystery; suffice to say that JS had a complicated character, perhaps with a touch of eccentricity. The huge mansion, with its four castellated corner towers and around twenty bedrooms, is clearly visible from the downstream side of Matlock Bridge. It was constructed between 1862 and 1868; the very period that his hydropathic establishment was undergoing rapid growth, as well-to-do clients from all over England came to Smedley’s Hydro for treatment. Following the death of John Smedley in 1974, Caroline continued to live at Riber until her death in 1892. The castle was used as a school (c. 1894-1929) and then as a wartime food store. After a period of dereliction, the now ruined premises became a wildlife park (c. 1963-2000), before a new owner began a complete rebuild (within the original shell) in c. 2017. Sadly however, as this project has not been completed, the future of Riber Castle remains uncertain.

The Growth of Smedley’s Hydro

By 1859, Smedley’s Hydro had 76 bedrooms, but as demand continued to grow, John Smedley designed the castellated west wing (1867), which survives today as his main contribution to Matlock’s largest building. With the completion of the wing the following year (1868), the hydro was able to treat over 2000 patients annually. Following Smedley’s death in 1874, a limited company with a board of directors chaired by Robert Wildgoose (Smedley’s manager at Lea Mills) took over the running of the establishment. The qualified physician, Dr William Bell Hunter – who had been appointed by Smedley himself in 1872 – was Medical Director. Under their leadership, Smedley’s continued to flourish with a programme of modernisation, rebuilding and expansion; including additional bedrooms at various times; Turkish baths (1876); a steam laundry (1877, now part of North Block) accessed by a bridge across Broome Head Lane (now Smedley Street); the main entrance hall and staircase, complete with the Smedley memorial window (opened 1882); a palatial new dining room (1886, now the Council Chamber) which could seat over 300 guests; the iconic central tower (1886-88); the installation of electric lighting to the public rooms (1888); and new baths, opened by the Duke of Devonshire in 1894. Expansion continued in the twentieth century with the creation of the Winter Gardens (1900) and North Block, containing 116 bedrooms (built in phases in 1901, 1905 & 1909), together with the installation of hot and cold water to 75 rooms in the main block (1927), and a new bridge across Smedley Street (1930). By 1939, Smedley’s Hydro was able to accommodate over 400 guests in 270 bedrooms. (See MCA 2004 project to paint the crown on the top of the tower)