9 November 2012

Apothecaries & Druggists

Image of an apothecary from The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts,
Part I, printed in 1804.

I have brushed upon two druggists in a couple of my recent posts, Thomas Carless and his nephew Richard Pratchett,* who ran a shop on High Street. Whilst writing about them I remembered the image above, and thought that it might be nice to explore some of Birmingham's apothecary and druggist shops. The difference between the two is subtle, the apothecaries had originally been spicers and/or grocers, but had split to form their own guild in London in 1617. The apothecary would be trained to some degree and would also visit and treat patients, whilst the druggists would just prepare and dispense medicines. In the early 1800s the apothecaries argued that they should have control of making up medicines and tried to get an act passed in Parliament; the druggists won the day though, when in 1815 the Apothecaries Act kept control with the druggists. Apothecaries were very much part of the medical institutions in Georgian and Regency Birmingham.

The apothecary's role has developed into that of our GP's and the role of the druggist can be seen as to have evolved into our modern chemists, but confectioners can also trace their ancestry back to druggists and apothecaries as many modern sweets have developed from medicines. In fact, the bright colours and alluring jars of an old-fashioned sweet shop shout-out "apothecary shop" more than any branch of Boot's Chemist.

Section of Samuel Lines Senior's painting of the
area by the Town Hall in the late 1840s, with
insert of Samuel Wilson Suffield's druggist's
shop window. The full painting is on display
in the Birmingham History exhibition at BMAG.

Near the Town Hall, artist Samuel Lines captured a druggists shop window in the late 1840s.** The druggist was Samuel Wilson Suffield*** who ran his business at the castellated shop from around the late 1810s (before Suffield the shop was run by William Allin as a tailor's and cabinet of curiosities, you can visit his shop here). The druggist, or apothecary, would display their talents by mixing chemicals to produce vivid colours which would then be placed in large glass jars in the shop window; you can see them on display in Suffield's window in the close-up below.

(*** Suffield was an ancestor of J. R. R. Tolkein who wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit)

There were suppliers who were unscrupulous, and mixed drugs with cheaper, and sometimes dangerous substances in order to make more profit. It was often hard to control these practices as imported goods could be tampered with before they arrived in the hands of even the wholesale druggist. Mr. Suffield, who ran the shop above, seems to have had some trouble with one such supplier: D. Carr and Co. The article below, from June 1828, describes how he had to replace his entire stock from the 'most respectible houses' obviously after some unmentioned incident. What is rather lovely as well though, is that it lists in some detail, a selection of some of the products that he supplied and their cost, and shows how the druggists work intertwined with making chemicals for cleaning.

Inside the Druggist's Shop
Druggist's drawers from a Hall Green shop, in the collection of
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

The BMAG website is here.
* In Pratchett's Bull Ring and briefly in 'I have forever quited Birmingham'
** Samuel Wilson Suffield went bankrupt in 1844, I have been unable to discover whether he continued in business after bankruptcy. The druggist shop was definitely closed by 1849 when the Bryan family opened their coffee, pastry and confectionery shop in the building.

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