Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

The Principles of Hydropathy

Ben Rhydding.jpg


A colour lithograph shows Ben Rhydding ensconsed amidst extensive grounds with hills and trees.  Frontispiece from Ben Rhydding: The Principles of Hydropathy and the Compressed-Air Bath (1858).  T Picken, lithographers. Dav & Son Lithographers to the Queen.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License.


Hydropathy, or “the water cure” was a common treatment for ailments ranging from depression to gastro-intestinal disorders in the nineteenth-century, as well as a form of recreation. It was especially popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Patients went to establishments such as Ben Rhydding, established in 1844, to take the water cure, which included drinking copious quantities of (usually mineral) water, wrapping the patient in wet sheets to induce a sweat, and various forms of baths and showers. Famous Victorians including Darwin, Tennyson and the Carlyles all partook of the water cure at one point or another. Hydropathy appealed to the Victorians partly because of the control they exerted over their own treatment. As the salesmanship of the excerpt below suggests, at a hydrotherapy establishment such as Ben Rhydding, men and women were pampered clients there by choice, free to come and go, and to bring family members with them. Ben Rhydding was one of the first hydros established in the UK; it was significant in terms of the scale of its operations and its provisions for visitors. Built at a cost of £24,000 to £30,000, it became the leading establishment in the UK (Durie 40-41). The excerpt below—published anonymously by the charismatic doctor, William MacLeod (or McLeod), who superintended Ben Rhydding from 1847 to two years or so before his death in 1875—focuses on the amenities available to the patient undergoing the water cure, from baths to billiards. In 1860 the cost of a week at Ben Rhydding was 3 13s6d[1]for a patient undergoing the water cure, and 3 for a visitor, usually a family member staying with the patient (Durie 45).

[1] British currency was not decimalized until 1971. It was divided up into pounds (£) shillings (s) or pence, there were twenty shillings in a pound) and pence (d). See Marje Bloy, “British Currency before 1971” on the Victorian Web

Primary Source Text

Ben Rhydding is finely situated on the slope of Rombald's Moor,[1] at an elevation of five hundred feet above the level of the sea. Whether from the natural advantages of its position, the variety and beauty of the scenery in its neighbourhood, the extensive and elegantly laid-out private grounds with which it is surrounded, or the perfection of its internal arrangements for the health and comfort of its inmates, this establishment well deserves the reputation it has secured. Built on a sandy soil, rain never lies on its gravelly walks; and the springs which supply it with water are among the finest in England. From its situation, midway between the vast upland moors and the lovely banks of the placid Wharfe, Ben Rhydding affords not only a favourable position from which to admire the varied scenery around, but one from which, by a walk requiring little time or exertion, the valetudinarian may enjoy, when he pleases, an agreeable change of temperature. Should the sun beat too strongly on the lower levels, he can enjoy the breezes of the uplands, and when cold and storm are raging on the height, the grounds by which this establishment is surrounded will be found to command a more sheltered climate than even the banks of the silvery Wharfe. Within these grounds, and by the banks of the Wharfe, even in winter, when the weather is not inclement, the delicate and consumptive may take exercise without apprehension; for as we intend to shew by and by, it is the opinion not only of Dr. MacLeod, the eminent Physician who takes the sole direction of this establishment, but also of many medical men of high standing, who are perhaps opposed to his opinions on other points, that a dry, bracing atmosphere is more suitable than a relaxing one in consumption, and that out-door exercise, when properly regulated, may often be found even more beneficial in winter than in summer.

Ilkely had long been famous for its springs, and it was this circumstance, among others, that led to its selection as an appropriate site for the Hydropathic Establishment we have undertaken to describe. Ben Rhydding was erected nearly twelve years ago, at an expense of about £30, 000. The estate consists of about two hundred acres of ground; a great part of which is laid out with a view to the advantage and pleasure of the patients, affording them the opportunity for varied exercise, and communicating also with the extensive moors which crown the hills for many miles on both sides of the valley of the Wharfe. The House consists of a central building and two wings. The centre contains, on the ground floor, the dining-room, the library, and the sitting-rooms. On the first floor are the drawing-room, six private sitting-rooms, and four bed-rooms, all commanding exquisite and varied views of the surrounding scenery. The second floor is devoted entirely to double bed-rooms. The south wing contains the ladies', and the north wing the gentleman's bed-rooms. To each landing is attached a bath-room; and the bed-rooms are each fitted with a bath and an unlimited supply of water direct from the springs. The bath-rooms contain each a plunge bath and a douche. There are also hot water, hot air, and vapour baths,[2] as well as steam apparatus for local application in cases of the nerves, or other causes. Of course, too, there are all the other means and appliances, too numerous to mention, of a first-class Hydropathic establishment. The library is supplied with a great variety of the leading newspapers, reviews, and magazines of the day. Gentlemen will find in the library that quietness for reading and writing which cannot always be secured in the drawing-room. Books in the various departments of literature may be had on application to the clerk of the establishment. A billiard-room, open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., affords the means of recreation to those who cannot be much out of doors.

But Ben Rhydding is not devoted solely to the Water Cure, but to the fullest carrying out in practice of the entire art of cure. Hardly inferior in importance to the hydropathic treatment is that by the Compressed Air-Bath. [… ] The Compressed-Air Bath, a strong chamber constructed of iron plates, firmly rivetted and air-tight, and with several small windows of strong plate glass, is on the west of the house, and so near, that the most delicate patient may walk, or be carried to it, in the severest weather, and at all seasons of the year, without any danger. We step across to it, and, with the Doctor's permission, peep in at one of the windows. We see several patients sitting, evidently quite at their ease, reading the papers, or chatting to each other. We find, however, that, though they get more than the usual supply of air, they are required to be quiet and grave when under its influence, for the direction runs:-- “Parties not to laugh or discuss in the Air-bath!”

The importance of exercising the different muscles of the body, as a means of assisting in the cure of disease, or preserving health, is fully recognized at Ben Rhydding. Not only are the “free exercises” enjoined as required, (a notice of these will be given in a subsequent chapter,) but a Gymnasium, with a suitable apparatus for exercises of a more advanced description, has been erected on a large terrace levelled for the purpose. Adjoining the Gymnasium, is a large Bowling Green, whereon, as the Muse of Ben Rhydding has ere now sung; many a roaring game, with varying success, has been contested between the lovely fair and their bearded foeman. We would gladly quote for the reader's edification, some of the stirring incidents of the peaceful war, but from respect to the maiden or matronly modesty of the fair combatants, if not to that of their antagonists, we must leave them to the immortality of the “Ben Rhydding Ariel.” Let us not, in enumerating the means of recreation possessed by this fine establishment, omit to notice the American Bowling Alley, and the Racket Court. All these are under the direction of an experienced Gymnast. […]

It may not be out of place to give an account, here, of the general manner of life at Ben Rhydding. Everybody who can, rise early and get a special bath and a walk. Then comes breakfast, at eight a. m. in the summer, and half-past eight in the winter, the large bell giving a quarter of an hour's notice. Immediately after breakfast, there are short scripture readings in the drawing room. Till dinner, at two p.m. the patient consults the doctor, takes his forenoon bath and the requisite exercise thereafter, and makes excursions in the neighbourhood.[3] Dinner is plain, but substantial. There is no pampering the appetite by highly seasoned dishes, no pleasing the palate by generous wines; simplicity and temperance reign supreme. Roast meat and plain pudding form the staple dishes, though the bill of fare includes a variety of others. […] The drink is pure water. It is a goodly sight to glance down the Doctor's hospitable table, and see how thoroughly happy and satisfied the guests appear with their temperate fare: we do not see one who seems to miss his wine. No one, of course, thinks of very active exercise or exertion immediately after dinner. Some move off to the billiard-room; others lounge about in quiet meditation; while others betake themselves to the drawing-room. There is plenty of work for the afternoon,--the afternoon bath, and as brisk and long a walk in the grounds or on the moor, as the patient may think proper, and any of the exercises or relaxations, for which such abundant provision has been made. Then comes the evening meal, at seven o'clock. This meal should be lighter than breakfast, being composed, like it, of bread, white and brown, with fresh butter, water—pure and sparkling from the spring, milk, cocoa, and weak black tea. After tea, the patient seeks, of course, the humanizing influences of the drawing-room, and probably finds ten p.m. arrive all too soon.


[1] Rombald's Moor is a moorland between Ilkley and Keighley in West Yorkshire, in the North of England. Ilkley Moor is part of Rombald's Moor.

[2] A plunge bath or pool was a still pool large enough to immerse the whole body. A “douche” was a jet or stream of water applied to some part of the body for medicinal purposes. A vapour or Russian bath sweated the bather through steam. See Malcolm Shifrin's glossary of terms at Victorian Turkish Bath for definitions and images of the types of baths offered in hydropathic treatments.

[3] Bolton Abbey and Haworth Parsonage, along with the graves of the Brontë sisters, were among the nearby attractions. See Ben Rhydding, pages 23-25.



[Macleod, William]. Ben Rhydding: The Principles of Hydropathy and the Compressed-Air Bath. London: Hamilton, Adams & Co, 1858.  Pages 12-22.



Further Reading


Karen Bourrier



[Macleod, William], “The Principles of Hydropathy,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed July 22, 2024,