Smedley's Hydro

John Smedley

The hydro was fitted out beautifully and was supplied with an abundant supply of pure water from Matlock Moor. Smedley personally supervised the treatment of an average 2,000 cases a year while his wife, Caroline, took care of female patients.

The couple originally listed almost 300 water treatments. Some provided subjects for comic postcards, such as the ascending douche, needle and steambox baths, the 'wet sheet' procedure and the Sitz bath (where one 'sits' on a perforated chair!).

Other people came to tap into the hydropathic boom and eventually there were 30 establishments in and around Matlock, including Tansley and Darley Dale. Smedley's rates however were always amongst the cheapest.

In 1872, after years of arguments with conventional doctors, John Smedley was delighted to place his hydro under the management of a member of their profession, Dr. William B. Hunter. Dr Hunter maintained Smedley's high standards but gradually relaxed the strict rules which banned dancing, tobacco and alcohol.

John Smedley died in 1874. His widow, Caroline, built Smedley Memorial Hydropathic Hospital (now Matlock YHA) in his memory, for the treatment of poor invalids. Caroline lived on at Riber Castle, until her death in 1892.

Smedley's hydro was used for military purposes in both World Wars. It reopened after World War II but never regained its popularity. It was the very last of Matlock's hydros to close, in 1955.

The property was purchased by Derbyshire County Council and is now County Hall.

Smedley had for some years experimented in adapting cotton machinery to woollen manufacture, at the same time improving both the shape of the garment and its quality. He had bought a little good quality Spanish wool from Taylor of London who allowed him 12 months' credit. He worked for long hours, sometimes alone and sometimes with his mechanics, but after about 15 years his efforts were successful and he had a good bank balance.

The years of struggle had exhausted him so he and his wife, Caroline Ann, went for a long holiday in France, Germany and Switzerland, but John returned near to death with typhus fever. He had intended to lead a life of comparative leisure but now aged about 43 he had a change of heart.

During his illness he had been advised to go to a hydropathic establishment at Ben Rhydding in Yorkshire, and made what he regarded as a miraculous recovery - and so he became a fervent believer in hydropathy. (Healing by treatments using water both to drink and to bathe in.)

Not only did Smedley believe, but he expected everybody else to do so! He started modestly with a small hydropathic hotel but soon success drove him to build much bigger premises. He almost changed the face of Matlock by building Riber Castle and the great hydro on the hill behind the town. He positively encouraged other businessmen to enter into the hydropathic trade and, by the time John Smedley died in 1874, Matlock was filled with hydros of all shape and sizes.

Smedley was a model employer for those days, looking after his employees in both sickness and old age. His legacy has continued to benefit local communities - at both Lea, where his mills are still working, and Matlock where, when hydropathy went out of fashion, his great building found a new lease of life as the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council.

This article was kindly contributed by Dr J. Burnby.

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