by Frank Sharman


Wulfrunians were no less concerned with their own health than anyone else. In this aspect of life chemists played an important part. For centuries reliance had been placed on traditional or folk remedies, handed down in families and amongst friends, or prepared by wise women. Their efforts were supplemented, for those who could afford them, by the barber surgeons, apothecaries, druggists, pharmacists, herbalists and doctors.

Throughout the nineteenth century these ill defined groups gradually sorted themselves out into the kind of system we know today, with the doctors acting as general practitioners, the chemists (or pharmacists) dispensing medicines prescribed by the doctors, and the surgeons working in hospitals. During this time the surgeons rose in status from somewhere near the bottom of the heap – they had had much the same status as craftsmen – to the top; doctors – whose status was that of gentlemen, who had knowledge of the medical arts - came down somewhat from the top, giving way to the surgeons; and the chemists can be seen as having lost out to the doctors, ceasing to be the chief medical advisers for most of the population, and becoming seen as mere shopkeepers and dispensers of other men’s prescriptions and shopkeepers.

Samuel Griffiths.

These changes are reflected in the affairs of that roguish Wulfrunian, Samuel Griffiths, whose publication on the value of Fluid Magnesia also relates to the role of the pharmacist in giving medical advice – Griffiths, though a pharmacist himself, objected to their doing so. But the boundaries of any occupation are hard to define and, in the days before there was statutory and professional regulation of this area, there was not only overlap between the different sorts of practitioners but they might be involved in other activities, either related or not.

For example, W. K. V. Gale says of Samuel Griffiths that "in his early days he was in business as a chemist and druggist in the … town of Wolverhampton. The term ‘chemist’ was used loosely at the time, and chemists were often drysalters as well. From this it is but a short step to the trade of oil merchant, and it is not surprising to find that in 1851 … Griffiths was a ‘merchant and factor’ in Wolverhampton, with a trade in oil, tallow and grease".

Later Griffiths gave up that sort of trade altogether and became a metal broker and ironmaster and then a publisher.

In our local trade directories for Victorian times, we find many people and firms we would describe, in today’s terms, as chemists. All of them would have sold traditional remedies and their ingredients. Many of them would have sold their own remedies which might have been traditional remedies handed down in their families; or they may simply have been made according to a recipe found in a book, several of which were in circulation; or they might also have produced their own inventions. It really didn’t matter much as, until the twentieth century, very few of the remedies actually worked for anything other than the slightest problem.

Two small bottles, representing two different branches of the chemist's trade.  On the left is a bottle from a local dispensing chemist, Taylors of 29 Victoria Street. 

There is a space at the top of the label for the name of the medicine or the patient's name or the dosage to be written.  On the right is a bottle for turps by Reade Brothers who were manufacturing chemists on a large scale.

Medicines, whether got from the chemist or prescribed by the doctors, mostly had a placebo effect. The doctor’s reassurance and his bedside manner were of more importance than his prescriptions – the doctor was simply trying to provide the best conditions in which nature might take its own healing course, and, maybe, alleviating pain by prescribing opiates. Likewise the remedies sold by the chemist might have a better effect if the patient has faith in them; and dressing them up in fine words and impressive packages probably contributed as much to recovery as any physical effect they might have.

Four more small bottles.  On the left a local dispensing chemist, A. Frost of 29 Worcester Street has labelled some Oil of Lavender. 

Second left is a green bottle of eye drops from the Eye Hospital's dispensary; and third is the same but later in date.  Fourthly, near right, is Spirit of Camphor by Maryns of 26 Queen Street, who were dispensing chemists and manufacturing chemists.

The great majority of people could, to a limited extent, rely on the local doctor’s having a free surgery for the poor on one day a week, or reducing his fee in accordance with the means of the patient. But he might still give you a prescription. Until well into the twentieth century many doctors made up their own prescriptions but it was more normal to take a prescription to a chemist – if you could afford it. For many people self-diagnosis and traditional remedies were all that they had. For example, it was believed that many minor ailments, especially anything connected with colds or with breathing difficulties, could be cured by walking three times round the gas works. Presumably inhaling the tarry odours cleared the head.

Five of these bottles are by Reade Bros., the fourth from the right being embossed "Kow Kow or Essence of Herbs". 

The orange tinted bottle is etched "Beattie Ltd, Drug Department, Wolverhampton" as they also had a chemist's shop as part of the department store.

But the local chemist continued with a minor prescribing role, recommending proprietary or patent medicines, of the sort which, in time, came to require a prescription, for minor ailments. They also had other health related roles. Many of them had scales in which to weigh babies. This, and the traditional ambiance of the shop, did much to reassure their customers and to give them fond memories of their local chemist’s shop. Writing of the local chemist’s shop in Dudley Road in the 1950s, Angie Johnson recalls: "Shelley’s was the local chemist, with lovely wooden panelling in the shop, and a weighing scale for babies, and great carboys up on the shelves with coloured water, and the smell of baby talc".

But, in addition to these medical men, people could also rely on herbalists who would diagnose ailments and prescribe and dispense remedies based on plants. These could either be the plant itself, eaten or made into an infusion or reduced to the form of a pill.

Small boxes of thin wood, card or tin were also used for dispensing.

These are by Warners, Reades and Fleeming. 

Some local chemists became manufacturing chemists. They produced medicines on a large scale and sold them not only in their own shops (as most chemists did) but produced them in bulk and sold them as widely as they could. In Wolverhampton Warners and Martyns seem both to have been in this sort of business and Reades, as successors to Mander Weavers, were into it in such a large and diverse way that they count as part of the chemical industry (and are not dealt with here).

Chemists sold many goods, usually allied in some way to health and heygeine. This bottle, embossed E. H. Bowdler, Chemist, Wolverhampton" is a feeding bottle. 

It was often used for feeding invalids - and it was popularly supposed that rich relatives could be rapidly dispatched by including poison in the bottle. So these bottles were sometimes knows as "murder bottles".

Nearly all chemists sold things other than medicines. Some, like Griffiths and the Manders, wandered far from medicinal matters - in which they preceded Boots, who did not venture beyond medicines until, late in the nineteenth century, Jesse Boot’s new wife pushed his firm in new directions, even including subscription libraries in their larger stores, including the one in Wolverhampton. Most chemists’ shops sold, and sometimes made, things which had some alliance with chemistry or health, and it was common in the nineteenth century, for chemists to sell tooth powder, tooth brushes, perfumes and the like. But they also ventured into soft drinks, bottled sauces and other foodstuffs, including confectionery. They also got into photography through providing the chemicals photographers needed.

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