Dr Richard Barter (1802—1870)
and St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment

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1. Barter and the early years of St Ann's

Richard Barter was born on the Barter family estate, Cooldaniel, in the parish of Kilmichael in County Cork, Ireland, in 1802. His father died while Barter was still a young child. According to his pseudonymous biographer, he was often left to his own devices, his mother apparently preferring his elder brother.

Being accustomed to look after himself, he grew up with an independent mind and an ability to act with firmness in bringing to fruition projects in which he believed, even though he might be criticized for them or, on occasion, be subjected to ridicule.

In 1828 he completed his studies at the London College of Physicians, passing his examinations with distinction. Moving back to Ireland, he took up an appointment at the Inniscarra dispensary while, at the same time, building up a successful medical practice of his own. According to Richard Metcalfe, he was well liked and one wealthy satisfied patient 'settled an annuity of fifty pounds a year on Dr Barter during her life.'

Soon after the cholera epidemic of 1832 he left the dispensary and went to live in Mallow where he met and married a Miss Newman. They returned to Inniscarra, where Barter now became interested in farming and was one of the founders of the Agricultural Society of the County of Cork. (His son, also named Richard, was later to be knighted for his services to agriculture.)

Dr Barter's interest in cold water as a therapeutic agent began after hearing Captain Claridge speak when he visited Cork during the course of a lecture tour in 1843. Claridge was an extremely convincing advocate of hydropathy, author of a book on the subject, and a well-known proselytizer for the water cure practised by Vincent Preissnitz in Silesia.

Metcalfe suggests that Barter first became interested in the medical aspects of water during the 1832 cholera epidemic. His mind was, therefore, clearly receptive to what Claridge propounded. Metcalfe describes his conversion:

Being of an open and receptive mind, what he had learned from Claridge set his whole being astir, and he was not satisfied until he had paid a visit to England and seen with his own eyes the Water Cure in operation. He visited both Malvern and Ben Rhydding in Yorkshire, and witnessed there the practical application of processes which hitherto he had only heard or read of, and thus conviction confirmed what reason had previously sanctioned and approved.

Not being one to delay any action once his mind was made up, Barter opened his Hydropathic Establishment at St Ann's Hill in 1843, paying scant attention to the 'most determined and paltry opposition from the Irish medical faculty'.

For the opening of the establishment 'was greeted with every form of ridicule and contempt; yet strange to say patients dropped in, one by one, to “the mad Doctor”.' The hydro was almost immediately a success, and Barter soon had many residential patients.

The Hydropathic Establishment is situated on St Ann's Hill, about seven miles from Cork, and one and a half from Blarney; and, as a recent visitor observes, 'St Ann's Hill is really a hill. The house stands upon the highest point of the rising ground, to the right of the road to Tower Bridge, and commands a magnificent prospect. The approach to it is a gradual sloping drive, about a quarter of a mile in length, which brings you to a plateau on which the house, or rather series of houses,...are erected.'

St Ann's remained open as a hydro till 1952, but all that now remains are the remnants of a few of its ruined buildings, heartachingly photographed on his beautiful website, Abandoned Ireland, by Tarquin Blake.

Barter's enquiring mind soon took him away from the path of the 'traditional' orthodox hydropathist for whom the cold water cure was the only acceptable therapy. He quickly realized that cold water and wet sheet packing were not suitable for every patient and every malady. Believing that heat might be more effective in some instances, he first installed a cabinet vapour bath, and then followed this by adopting the pattern of the Russian banya where patients were able to immerse their whole body in a steam room.

The introduction of the vapour bath 'was regarded by the stricter followers of Vincent Priessnitz as an altogether unjustifiable substitute for the blanket pack' and Barter was ridiculed by those for whom the only panacea was cold water—another pioneer accorded by his peers the reward traditionally reserved for innovators and reformers. His use of heat 'gave such offence to English hydropaths that they contemptuously called St Ann's "a vapour establishment"' but this did not seem to trouble him.

But none of this prevented Barter's patients from attending St Ann's for any significant length of time, and the number in residence soon returned to the normal level of between eighty and ninety. The establishment continued to grow both in popularity and in size and the premises had to be enlarged several times. There was, inevitably, a decline during the period in 1847-8 when famine swept over Ireland decimating its population. But the check proved to be temporary because, by now, St Ann's had a justifiable reputation based on the successful alleviation of pain and on the cure of many complaints for which traditional medical practice had no effective treatment.

But just over a decade after St Ann's opened, Barter's adoption of yet another treatment disapproved of by the hydropathic fraternity again caused a reduction in the number of his patients. However, this innovation was to have the widest impact of any emanating from St Ann's—the installation of the so-called 'Turkish' bath. Barter came across this in 1856 while reading a travel book called The Pillars of Hercules or, a narrative of travels in Spain & Morocco in 1848  written by a Mr David Urquhart.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2020

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Dr Richard Barter

Hydropathy by Captain Claridge

Early view of St Ann's Hydro

Vincent Priessnitz

Title page of The Pillars of Hercules

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