The History of Matlock
Matlock, or perhaps more accurately Matlocks given that the place comprises several individual settlements, is largely a 19th century creation, but it has an intriguing if unclear ancient history too.
Three slabs of lead mined by the Romans have been discovered in the Matlock area (one to be seen in the British Museum ), which leads to the question was their regional mining centre of Lutudarum the forerunner of Matlock, or at least nearby?
From Roman times to the Norman era little is known about the place, though the probable derivation of the town’s name – a corruption of the Saxon for moot oak, meaning an oak under which meetings were held – suggests it certainly pre-dated the Norman arrival and the 12th century church of St Giles .
In later medieval days the settlement benefited from its bridge across the Derwent, the present one with its origins in the 15th century. The fast flowing river had few safe crossing points, so traffic and trade would be funnelled through the place to its profit. The Wolley family were local landowners for several centuries, their presence commemorated in various places in the church, their tenure ending in 1668 just 30 years before a discovery changed the economic outlook of the collection of villages: warm springs that inevitably were said to have health-giving properties were found in 1698, and soon a bath-house was built to exploit them.
The development of Matlock’s spa was, however, rather gradual, given its relative inaccessibility: a further bridge helped visitors find their way to the town; and nearly a century after the find a new way into the valley was driven through.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries many of the great and the good tried the cure there: Byron dubbed it Little Switzerland; Ruskin was a fan; Josiah Wedgwood ’s family were persuaded to venture there; J.M.W. Turner painted the bridge; and in 1831 the future Queen Victoria gave the spa the royal seal of approval. The town was also home to Florence Nightingale for the first five years of her life, her family living at Lea Hall.
Parallel to the growth of the spa, Matlock and its surrounding area was of some significance in the history of the Industrial Revolution , Arkwright ’s factory at Cromford a short distance from the town setting the model for water-powered textile working. Flax was already processed in the area, and more traditional work involving lead refining continued thanks to the river and other watercourses like Bentley Brook. Cotton-spinning became important, and textile finishing including bleaching likewise.
Until the middle of the 19th century the spa at Matlock had been a small affair, somewhat exclusive. The vision of John Smedley changed that: in 1853 he constructed a new centre, still fairly modest; but by 1886 he had presided over a far grander establishment, hydrotherapy promising cures for numerous ailments for the middle classes as well as the wealthy. This spa was at once a medical centre and fashionable resort, attracting famous names such as Sir Thomas Beecham , Ivor Novello and Robert Louis Stevenson .
As with seaside resorts like Llandudno , Matlock was a creation of the railway age: the line from Derby arrived in 1849, coinciding with Smedley’s efforts; and in 1867 the line from Manchester provided easy access for Lancashire’s textile magnates and their managers. In keeping with Smedley’s grandiose style, Matlock Station was partly designed by Joseph Paxton , the architect of Crystal Palace .
Smedley’s success allowed him to build Riber Castle above the town in 1862, but he was not a monopolist by any means – he encouraged rivals to such an extent that eventually some 20 hydros existed in the town, their establishments linked to the centre with a tramway in 1893.
The NHS and changing times killed the spa business after the war – real cures for free more attractive than pleasant if unproven ones at great expense. Smedley’s hydro closed in 1955. But some of the buildings remain, and are finding other uses; and the paths that were opened on the surrounding hillsides still attract many visitors to what is a very beautiful location.