WHATEVER the future holds in store Smedley's
Hydro, the name of its eccentric founder will be remembered far
beyond the Matlock district for generations to come.
Was he a saint and a great healer, or a fantastic quack; sound
business man with a taste for philanthropy, or an egotistical
crank; or was he one of those almost incredible oddities which
the English nation occasionally throws up? Even now, more than
75 years after his death, it is difficult to assess the character
of John Smedley.
Smedley was born at Wirksworth in 1803, the son a hosiery
manufacturer. He was 14 when he left school to join the family
business, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy.
By 1846, when he married Caroline Harward, the second daughter
of the Vicar of Wirksworth, the business was on its feet again,
despite the death of his father and elder brother.
Smedley may not have been whole-heartedly devoted to his work,
but he toiled as earnestly as any hard-headed money-spinning
capitalist of the early - Victorian era. Thanks to his efforts
Lea Mills survived the years of depression that followed the
Napoleonic Wars, and though Smedley did not make enough money
to satisfy his desire for an early retirement he at least did
well enough to maintain his wife in some degree of comfort
and take her to Switzerland for their honeymoon.
That marked the turning point in John Smedley's life. While
in Switzerland he became seriously ill and returned to England
to recuperate at the newly-established hydropathic establishment
at Ben Rhydding, in Yorkshire, and later to take the waters
at Cheltenham. The cure was completely successful. From now
on, the new science of hydropathy was the greatest
interest in Smedley's life. Water, he decided, was there for
all ills, but his less kind critics asserted ambiguously that
he had water on the brain.
When, in 1851, Ralph Davis, of Darley Dale, took over an
eleven-roomed house at Matlock Bank, Smedley became
his medical adviser. It was not long before Smedley bought
the house and within two years he had started to build the
great hydro which still bears his name.
Smedley's Hydro was successful from the start. Before long
he was accommodating 1,600 visitors or patients a year. By
1867, the numbers had swollen to 2,000, and, with hundreds
of prospective visitors being turned away, the hydro had to
be enlarged. The new extensions involved the purchase of neighbouring
property. Smedley had his own methods of compulsory purchase.
He informed the more reluctant vendors that if they refused
to sell their property he would close the hydro, which would
have meant virtual ruin to the people of :Matlock Bank. In
the end John Smedley had his way - as he usually did throughout
his life. If the Derbyshire County Council obtain a compulsory
purchase order for Smedley's Hydro, the wheel will indeed have
turned a full circle.
But the other side of Smedley's character is shown by at the
fact that when his hydro became too expensive for his poorer
patients, he set up several of his bathmen in smaller houses
to cater for those who could not afford the two guineas a week,
was the cost of treatment at the hydro.
If you imagine a monastery run by Mr. Butlin, you get a fair
impression of life in Smedley's Hydro in the early days. Everything
and everybody was highly organised. Visitors rose at 6.30 to
undergo cold - water treatment. They retired to bed at 10 o'clock.
Fines were imposed on those who broke the rigid rules of the
establishment. A penny fine was imposed for late arrivals at
meals, and twopence was exacted from those who picked up a
newspaper or attempted to read during the 20-minute rest period
after meals. For the more heinous crimes of entering a lady's
bed sitting-room or the ladies' bath-room, the penalty was
Meals were ample, but simple. Sauces and spices were frowned
upon, and the establishment was strictly teetotal. Card-playing
was forbidden, and the piano could be used only for sacred
music. One Continental guest broke the latter rule and got
away with it. "To me all music is sacred," he said,
wistfully, and was allowed to continue with a Chopin waltz.
Life at Smedley's may not sound exciting to us, but our Victorian
ancestors clamoured to return to the hydro year after year.
Religion was another of John Smedley's interests. Here again
he was an individualist. As a devout member of the Established
Church he was a strong opponent of Wesley's teaching, until
he suddenly changed over to Methodism. But even there he was
not completely happy, and the religion which he preached from
the marquee with which he toured the district can only be described
as Smedleyism. Crowds flocked to hear him, but probably from
respect for the man rather than from enthusiasm for his turgid
sermons. He set up chapels in the district and held a half-hour
service at Lea Mills every morning.
Seeing himself as a modern St. Paul, Smedley published a series
of pamphlets in which he attacked the clergy as fiercely as
he had previously attacked the medical profession. As a writer
he was no more successful than he was as a preacher. His history
of religion in England reads like a not entirely unsuccessful
attempt at a "1066 and All
That." But he was deadly serious. Humour was not one Smedley's
No man with a sense of a humour could have built Riber Castle.
Smedley originally intended to build a 225-ft. high tower to
be given to the nation as an observatory, but on finding the
structure unsuitable for modern astronomical apparatus, he
changed his plans and designed the wildly unsuitable castle
which still dominates the Derwent Valley from its windswept
hill-top. Riber Castle was believed to have cost £60,000
to build. Smedley was his own architect, as he had been, not
too happily, on the hydro extensions.
John Smedley did not live long to enjoy life at Riber. He
died in 1874, but his devoted wife lived there in lonely widowhood
until her death in 1892. The hydro became a limited company
in 1875, and the castle became a school after Mrs. Smedley's
As an employer, Smedley was perhaps at his best. He did not
pay high wages, but he was ahead of his time in providing generous
welfare facilities for his employees. He paid for Bank Holidays,
provided refreshments and kept a supply of dry stockings for
those of his employees who arrived at work with wet feet.
Intolerant and over-paternal he may have been, but at least
he could proudly boast that during a time of labour unrest
there had never been a strike at Lea Mills.
Eccentric, obstinate and bigoted though he was, it can at
least be said of John Smedley that he did a great deal of good
and very little harm. Of many men can less can be said.
|By ROY CHRISTIAN,
a master at Allenton Secondary
Technical School, and son
of the Rev. F. E. Christian,
who was Vicar of St. John's, Derby,
up to his death in 1958.