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There Was Red Tape at Smedley's Hydro Then
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An article by Roy Christian, published in the "Derby Evening Telegraph" on 3 January 1951.
It was written before Derbyshire County Council bought Matlock's largest hydro, Smedley's, for conversion to use as the county's centre of administration. Smedley's Hydro is now Derbyshire's County Hall.


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, which 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 half-a-guinea.

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 virtues.

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 death.

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.

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.

Smedley's Practical Hydropathy

John Smedley
Mrs. Smedley's Ladies Manual

Caroline Smedley

Other articles by Roy Christian on this site are:

The Great Matlock Will Case

The Varied Fortunes of a Derbyshire Spa (in the Magazines & Journals section)

The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission of the author, the late Roy Christian, who lent me his personal copy to scan.

You may like to view:

Water Cures
Read an extract from Defoe's "Tour Through Britain"
Newspaper report of 1872, about a Smedley employee
Advert for Smedley's Hydro, 1869
Smedley's Hydro, Matlock, 1906-7
Smedley's Hydro, 1908-14
Smedley's - Great Britain's Greatest Hydro, 1950. An advertisement published in "The Derbyshire Countryside"
1871 census - Mr. & Mrs. Smedley living at Riber Castle
About Matlock Bank
About Riber
See Smedley's Hydropathic Establishment Enumeration Book in the 1891 census (transcript)
And in the 1901 census (transcript)

Matlock: Water Cures, Mr. Smedley's Baths, Boxes & Douches
John Smedley designed a range of steam boxes, baths and douches, as well as some other gadgets, for use at both the hydropathic establishment and the free hospital

Eighteenth & Nineteenth Century Images of Matlock Bath and Matlock has several images from Mr. and Mrs. Smedley's books.

There may be further information on the following pages