Matlock owes its importance as the county town of Derbyshire primarily to two men.
The first, John Smedley (1803-1874), was a local hosiery manufacturer who made a recovery from typhus at the age of forty-three at the newly-opened Ben Rhydding Hydro near Ilkley. He felt he owed his life to an innovative form of water-cure, hydropathy, a system of baths, compresses and treatments in mineral-free water to expel morbid impurities from the body through “putrescent excrescences”.
He underwent a religious conversion which led him to encourage temperance through the promotion of hydropathic “cures”, which he promoted as an “entirely an original system, not the cold water cure”.
In 1853 he bought a small private medical establishment serving six patients and developed it into the huge Smedley’s Hydro on Matlock Bank.
After his death the business was incorporated as Smedley’s Hydropathic Company Limited, with capital of £25,000. The buildings were repeatedly extended until by the Edwardian period Smedley’s had 300 bedrooms.
The opulent architecture of Smedley’s Hydro reflects the gradual relaxation of its founder’s strict temperance regime: tobacco, cards, billiards and dancing were introduced over the years, and the iron-and-glass Winter Garden of 1900 was built with a dance-floor.
What John Smedley had intended as a therapeutic establishment open to all classes gradually became a high-class hotel for those who could afford it: eventually there was actually a licensed bar on the premises.
The comfort and luxury of Smedley’s in the early twentieth-century was a long way from its founder’s precepts banning “books, newspapers, or tracts of an irreligious character”, visitors or receiving letters on the Sabbath.
The entire building was taken over at the start of World War II and used as the Military School of Intelligence. Business resumed in 1947, but failed to pick up, and Smedley’s Hydro closed in 1955.
At that point the second “father” of modern Matlock stepped in – Alderman Charles White (1891 -1956), the chairman of Derbyshire County Council, who spotted the opportunity to move the council’s offices from cramped sites in the centre of Derby to a huge empty building nearer the geographical centre of the county.
Smedley’s became County Offices, and in the 1990s was aggrandised as County Hall. There is a species of rush hour up the bank and across the moors twice a day as hosts of civil servants flit in and out of the town.
Its position as the county town is no doubt the reason why Matlock retained its rail service as a branch-line when the main line to Manchester closed in 1968. Perhaps it’s also the reason it has a Sainsbury’s.
There’s a particularly well-constructed website of Matlock and Matlock Bath history at http://www.andrewsgen.com/matlock/index.htm.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.