The Decline and Re-Use of Hydros

The Decline of Hydropathy on Matlock Bank

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear that many visitors to the hydros were not in need of any treatment. At Smedley’s in the 1890s it was reckoned that ‘about a quarter of the patients did not have much wrong with them’. ‘These people had come for a good time’ and had ‘no intention of taking any treatment at all’. Increasingly, football teams were using the facilities at the hydros to prepare for important matches. They included Newton Heath (later Manchester United) who stayed at Prospect Place in 1893, Manchester City, who came to Rockside in 1895, and Stoke City who ‘arrived at Chesterfield House on Christmas Eve, 1899, for a three-week stay’. We have already seen how fashionable hydro breaks had become in the 1890s and early 1900s. So much so that in 1912, the writer Richard Metcalfe commented that as the hydros began to be regarded as ‘pleasure resorts’, there was ‘extreme danger’ of the ‘more desirable objects of the system being lost’. The popularity of conventional hydropathy certainly seems to have reached its peak during the early part of the 20th century, and most of the smaller hydros did not survive the First World War.


World War I: Hydros and Hospitals

A couple of high profile hydros were also victims of the First World War; namely Matlock House and Chesterfield House. The former was used as a military TB sanatorium (1917-1925) and a school – Matlock Modern School (1926-1938) – before being sold and converted into apartments known today as Rutland Court; whilst the latter also became a TB treatment centre (c. 1922/3-1926) – but specifically for service officers – before being purchased by the Sisters of the Presentation Convent c. 1927. The Sisters, the current owners, went on to establish an all-age school (until 1990), novitiate (until 1933) and care home (from 1992). The handful of hydros which did survive the First World War included those outlined in the following paragraph, together with – rather surprisingly, perhaps – Tor House. Still run by George Davis junior, this modest establishment remained open until 1928; some time after which it was demolished (date uncertain) and the site redeveloped.

The Goodwins of Rockside offered their whirlpool bath to treat – free of charge – thirty or so nerve-shocked soldiers per week. Unfortunately, this generous gesture did not prevent the hydro from being commandeered in August, 1918 for use as an RAF convalescent hospital. However, the hospital had a short life, enabling Rockside to re-open less than a year later. Additionally, a prominent member of the Goodwin family, Dr Marie Orme (nee Goodwin) was the commandant of a temporary Red Cross military hospital, which was set up at the Whitworth Institute, Darley Dale (two miles north of Matlock). This was a voluntary post for which Marie was rewarded with an MBE. Meanwhile, The Derby & Derbyshire Convalescent Hospital, Lime Tree Road, set aside 24 beds for use by the military; whilst the Royal Hotel, Matlock Bath, was taken over in 1917 for use as a 227-bed convalescent unit for Canadian Officers. The Arkwright family’s Willersley Castle at Cromford was also made available for the Armed Forces.

World War I: Matlock’s Pain

The surviving hydros on Matlock Bank were actually quite busy during the war, whilst Matlock Bath is said to have ‘thrived’ as a tourist resort, possibly because the Matlocks were unlikely to suffer Zeppelin attacks owing to their distance from the coast. But they were severely affected in other ways; eighty of Smedley’s Hydro staff, for example, were on war duty – and seven were killed. And, such was the antagonism towards European staff in Matlock Bath that there were many (unsubstantiated) stories of spying, and the manager of the Royal Hotel had no option but to leave when the local magistrates refused to renew his licence. Apparently, he had been born in Alsace, with no proof that his father was English.

Like the rest of the country, the First World War (1914-18) had a profound effect upon the town. The Matlocks lost over 170 sons in World War I, and it is fitting that the area’s principal war memorial (shown on our home page) stands proudly on the summit of Pic Tor, from where it was, and still is, clearly visible from all parts of the town. Although erected in 1921, it bears the names of service personnel from World War II, as well as from World War I, who gave their lives whilst serving their country. Some of the names also appear on the war memorials at Starkholmes and at Matlock Bath, where generous donations from the public funded a striking marble sculpture of a soldier and a sailor holding a flag. Remembrance services are held at the Pic Tor memorial and also in Hall Leys Park, where a cenotaph in the form of a block of natural stone, was unveiled in 1965.

World War II: The Final Nail in the Coffin of Hydropathy

Following George Barton junior’s death, Jackson House Hydro had various owners and managers until its closure in 1939. After World War II, the building reopened as a private hotel which survived until 2006. By 2010, it had been converted into private residential units. The larger hydros, which were open during both the First World War (1914-18) and the inter-war period (1918-1939) – Chatsworth, Rockside, Lilybank, Oldham & Prospect and Smedley’s – still flourished, but more on the lines of hotels than hydros; a change probably brought about by significant improvements in medical practice. To illustrate the point, in 1931, a trio of locals including the Matlock jeweller, W Evans, took possession of Chatsworth, refurbished the interior and installed hot and cold water to all ninety bedrooms. Unfortunately, the group could not foresee the difficult times which lay ahead, caused by World War ll. In 1939, Rockside was again commandeered – this time as a hospital for RAF crews suffering from combat fatigue; whilst the neighbouring Oldham & Prospect buildings provided accommodation for the nurses and support staff. Smedley’s Hydro was commissioned for use as an Intelligence Training Centre, with the Winter Gardens being used to display German uniforms, badges and signs for military recognition purposes.

Lilybank, to which some patients from both Oldham / Prospect and Smedley’s were transferred, and Chatsworth remained open during the war, but their futures were not secure. By the time hostilities came to an end in 1945, the country was in the grip of a recession and hydropathy was no longer fashionable. Given the absence of a viable number of patrons, it was only a question of time before all the hydros were consigned to history. The Wildgoose family sold their Oldham & Prospect complex to the White sisters*, who wished to expand Woodlands School (which had hitherto been accommodated in the White’s home on Bakewell Road); hence the change of name to Woodlands. The school ran successfully in the new premises until 1965. After that, the former hydro served for a short time as a conference centre for an evangelical movement before much of it was demolished during the late 1970s to make way for new housing. However, the buildings now known as Ruatha Hold (thought to be the boiler room & first-floor dining hall of the former Oldham House) and Woodlands (the original Prospect Place) were spared for use as private residences. Smedley’s did reopen after the war, but it struggled to attract clients and survived for only another decade or so.

*Winifred and Annie White were the sisters of Charles White junior MP (1891-1956), the Chair of Derbyshire County Council who initiated the relocation of Derbyshire County Council’s headquarters from St Mary’s Gate, Derby to the former Smedley’s Hydro, Matlock, in 1956.

A College, a Care Home and County Hall

Lilybank, the last but one surviving hydro, became an hotel when hydropathic treatments were withdrawn in 1950. The building was sold to the Sisters of the Presentation Convent in 1962 for use as the Nagle* Preparatory School, which closed in 1990. Five years or so later, the premises acquired a new role as a care home known as Lilybank Hamlet. Meanwhile, the former Chatsworth and Rockside Hydros were purchased by Derbyshire County Council to form the nucleus of Matlock College of Education which opened as Matlock Training College in 1946. Although the influx of young trainee teachers – some of whom were accommodated in guest houses and former private residences – helped to rejuvenate a local economy which had been severely damaged by the closure of the hydros, Matlock was not destined to become a long-term centre for further education – and the college closed in 1988.

By that time, however, the former Smedley’s Hydro – the first hydro to open (by Ralph Davis in 1851) and the last to close (1955) – had once again regained its prominence, having been purchased by Derbyshire County Council to house the County Offices (now County Hall), which opened in 1956. The Council retained the ownership of Matlock College’s Chatsworth complex, which until 2023 was an annexe to County Hall; whilst Rockside was eventually sold to a development company, which in 2004/5 partly demolished, enlarged and converted the building into residential blocks known as Rockside Hydro (Rowland’s original building), Rockside Hall (the Goodwin extension) and Cavendish Apartments (accessed from Cavendish Road).             

*Nano Nagle was the founder of the Presentation Sisters Order.

Matlock’s War

Surprisingly, perhaps, Matlock’s involvement with the Second World War goes beyond the use of a few hydros for military convalescent and support purposes. Along Asker Lane, an MCA interpretation plaque indicates the former site of an anti-aircraft unit (1939-45), which was installed on Bailey’s Tump* to help in the defence of Sheffield and other northern cities; whilst Ground Station Zero – a secret wireless and communications unit which would become operative in the event of an invasion – was hidden above a tailor’s shop in Burton House, opposite All Saints’ Church. Meanwhile, at the other (eastern) end of Smedley Street, at least part of the former Paton & Baldwin’s Derwent Mills complex was let to a London firm which manufactured weapons; with the company’s largely female workforce being retrained to make taps and dies to help with the war effort. Down in the valley, the A6 through the Derwent gorge was regarded as a strategically important because an attacking force could potentially be trapped and pinned down here. Matlock Bridge was therefore prepared for demolition in the event of a German invasion. Magazines of explosives were hidden in many of the old quarry workings in and around Matlock, and these would have been available to certain members of the Ground Station Zero unit, should the invasion signal have been given.

*Bailey’s Tump is a spoil heap created from the excavations associated with the laying of an aqueduct in the early 1900s from Derwent Dams to the East Midlands. The land was owned by the local corn miller & philanthropist, Ernest H Bailey.