Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. The team attempt to create their own 'cure all' remedies from rhubarb, licquorice, soap and syrup.
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Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire revives the sights, sounds and smells
of the 19th century.
At its heart stands the pharmacy - a treasure-house
of potions and remedies from a century and a half ago.
Now, in a unique experiment, historian Ruth Goodman, professor of pharmacy Nick Barber
and PhD student Tom Quick have opened the doors to the Victorian Pharmacy.
Recreating a high street institution we take for granted, but which was once a novel idea.
They're bringing the pharmacy to life, sourcing ingredients,
mixing potions and dispensing cures.
But in an age when skin creams contained arsenic and cold medicines were based on opium,
the team need to be highly selective.
They're only trying out safe versions of traditional remedies on carefully-selected customers.
The start was like the Wild West. People didn't know what was good and bad.
Get a bit of speed up. There we go.
The pharmacy was something that affected everybody's lives in one way or another.
They're discovering an age of social change that brought healthcare
within the reach of ordinary people for the very first time.
Heralding a consumer revolution that reached far beyond medicine
to create the model for the modern high street chemist as we know it today.
So far, after a grand opening, the pharmacy team have made the transition
from the traditional remedies of the early 19th century to the birth of new scientific advances.
Now they're taking on the medical and commercial challenges of the 1850s and 1860s.
As promised, Professor Barber's Miracletts!
In the mid 19th century, overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions had reached their peak,
leading to unprecedented outbreaks of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.
Desperate for cures, people turned to the pharmacies as never before.
I mean, this is the point when public health is at its worst.
Of perhaps all the time in Britain, the 1850s is the very, very worst.
-The most scary time of all.
-There are whole series of infectious diseases. Cholera, scarlet fever,
typhus, typhoid, influenza - all of them killing people, right, left and centre. Measles...
What you get as well is a new fear.
It must have been a really scary time, actually. You'd just reach out for anything, wouldn't you?
Anything that offered any sort of hope.
With medical science struggling to provide viable treatments and people looking for miracles,
new commercial opportunities beckoned.
People were really worried about these diseases and were prepared to spend money.
The pharmacy's a business, so there need to be medicines which either cure or believe to cure
the diseases which are there.
In the spirit of experimentation, they developed creative new remedies for the health crisis,
one of which aimed to solve everybody's problems in one go.
"Do I need to have separate medicines for each of those things?"
"No, we can come up with a cure-all which is going to make you better whatever's wrong with you."
They addressed the public's fears and brought people clamouring to the pharmacy.
It's got to solve people's problems, really.
They were seen as a viable means of treatment.
The team are going to make their very own Victorian-style cure-all.
Ruth and Tom are setting out to determine the level of customer demand for their product.
-Hi there. My name's Tom, this is Ruth.
-My name's Tom.
-Nice to meet you.
We're from the pharmacy just up the road.
-We're on a bit of a market research...
We're looking for people who might have something wrong with them, of any sort, really.
-I've got quite a few actually, yeah.
-I do have a small stye here on my eyelid.
Oh, yeah. I see.
Working with sewage as well, I tend to get septicaemia quite a lot because I burn myself.
My back is absolutely killing me.
I've got a burn there which is in an open, movable joint, which will take some healing up.
-And then quite a nasty one on my arm there.
-Oh, that's horrid.
I've had a sore throat for a couple of months.
Quite bad tonsillitis.
And then of course, anything you could do with baldness would be appreciated.
With potential customers lined up, Nick needs to decide on the ingredients for their medicine.
Briony Hudson, curator of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum,
has brought him some examples of genuine cure-alls for inspiration.
Well, some of the really big-sellers are things like... Let's have a look.
Beecham's pills. Started off when Thomas Beecham went round the markets in Lancashire,
selling pills that gradually got more and more popular, hit the national market. So he was a really big name.
We've got Holloway's pills.
Thomas Holloway, who styled himself as a professor,
no medical background, but absolutely hit the big time.
He was making so much money, he died a millionaire.
Did people know what was in them?
Could they say, "It's got this and this in it," like you can now?
No. Not at all. Part of the mystery and perhaps part
of the appeal was that they were what were called secret remedies.
So there was absolutely nothing in law that meant you had to reveal what was in them.
They didn't have to reveal any scientific basis to claim
that they could cure this massive list of diseases.
How many would people take?
Were they generally a one-a-day or one-a-week minimalist thing?
Some you would want to take just when you were ill, but a lot of these, you
really did want to encourage people to take a regime of many, many.
Morison's is a really good example.
People were taking up to 1,000 of the pills a week and in the 1830s,
the first case of someone dying, clearly a very serious issue.
You had to trust your pharmacist, or trust the advertising or trust
the person that recommended it to you that they wouldn't do you harm and they would do you good.
Ruth and Tom are making headway gaining trust from their potential customers.
I certainly think these pills should - they're designed to help you.
-Would you be happy taking them?
-That would be great.
I'm willing to try everything.
If you can stop it growing out of me ears and up me nose
and put a bit on my head, that would be lovely!
With a growing number of ailments to treat,
Nick wants to find an authentic formula.
Fortunately, although these remedies were secret at the time, a book was later published by
the British Medical Association revealing the hidden contents of popular cure-all brands.
So this is their secret remedies.
What they cost and what they contain.
Exactly. So, what they were aiming to do spelt out on the cover.
A lot of them have things like senna, aloes, liquorice, rhubarb - that sort of thing.
Most of them were laxatives and so they did have an effect.
-People would think, "It's working because I can feel there's an effect."
One example - the wonderfully titled Pink Pills For Pale People, which is great.
They were claiming, as with all of these things, they could treat a really wide range of diseases.
One of the adverts says "the dark days of dyspepsia..."
"Dr Williams' pink pills go to the very cause of the mischief."
If you look at the ingredients, nothing particularly worrying.
Certainly, you've got liquorice in there. You've got sugar in there.
So, along with sulphate of iron and potassium carbonate.
But I don't think anything that would have done anyone great harm.
Or great good, either, for that matter.
It's hard not to be sceptical about the ingredients of cure-alls,
but in the mid-19th century, many people genuinely didn't know any better.
There was little scientific understanding of the cause of disease.
Nobody knew, in our everyday terms now, what really worked and what didn't.
Through into the middle Victorian times, people believed that infections and disease
often came from decaying matter and that this raised up an invisible gas which they called a miasma.
The miasma theory of disease believed that disease was spread by evil clouds of bad smelling air.
People said, "Obviously these new diseases are being caused by the evil miasmas.
"Wherever there is stink, there is illness."
They believed it was the same miasma for everything.
So it was the same one for cholera as influenza.
Your body, your constitution would react to that miasma in a different way,
and that's what would give you the disease state.
If they had a bit of flatulence or diarrhoea, they didn't know if it was cholera or not.
So that's when they'd take their cure-alls.
They'd take it to nip the disease in the bud and stop it progressing.
With their thinking rooted in false scientific theory, pharmacists were inadvertently misleading the public.
Pharmacists in the 1850s are somewhere between the quacks on the one hand who are just out
there selling things which they knew were pointless, and the scientists who were researching things.
They'd be selling things which people believed
would work, but they had to make a living out of it as well.
The pressure to make money was very real.
Records show that in the middle of the 19th century, about 100 pharmacies went bankrupt every year.
Shops opened six days a week, often from 8am to 11pm.
The staff worked even longer hours preparing the shop in the morning for business,
and catching up with the day's prescriptions and accounts at night.
Organising their expensive stock was another time-consuming priority.
Poor storage or over-stocking could put their whole business at risk.
Supplies come in quite regularly in batches, and of course the things have to be stored properly.
It's no good putting herbs in the cellar. They'd get damp.
They're better off being decanted into the drawers where the atmosphere is dry and people are opening
the drawers fairly regularly, so you're getting plenty of air supply through them.
As a 21st-century pharmacist, Nick is struggling to select
the ingredients for his 19th-century cure-all.
We know that one set of ingredients is not going to cure all ailments, so what I've got to do is put
my modern knowledge behind me and try and find something
which is authentic, which will have an effect on the body, but also we need to make sure it's really safe.
He turns to his pharmacy's prescription book - a log of preparations doctors had
requested for their patients, which were administered by the pharmacy.
A lot of people couldn't afford to use the doctor,
but these cure-alls were sometimes prescriptions which the doctors used.
They'd sort of cut out the middle man.
People could get access to theses doctors' medicines
by just going to the pharmacist and getting them over the counter.
Here, Nick finds inspiration for his formula,
and finally decides on a variety of perfectly safe ingredients.
He's showing Tom how to turn his formula, or recipe,
into their first batch of pills - enough for 20 customers.
-I've got a secret recipe.
-What are we putting in these?
I'll tell you, cos you're an apprentice and need to know.
So, what I've got is some soap powder - acts as a laxative.
They actually used quite a lot in Victorian days.
Some liquorice root going in -
it helps people cough, and can protect the stomach as well, if people have ulcers.
Grinding them together now, nicely.
And then we've just got one more thing to add, which is rhubarb.
Ground rhubarb root. It's a laxative, and so actually two of these ingredients are laxatives.
What we've got to do now is bind this together.
So, a little glucose syrup, a little bit at a time.
-I suppose the main cost is man-hours, if anything?
On average, the price charged for just one pill would have covered the cost of making over 200.
They sold in massive quantities, despite having what we now know were very modest healing properties.
If you give people a sugar-coated pill and they think it's a medicine,
you can get a 20%, 30% recovery rate in some conditions.
The power of the mind to heal is quite amazing.
And this is just beginning to thicken now
at the bottom here.
A little bit more on the crumbly bits.
All that powder just gradually comes together into this sort of cake.
If my calculations are correct!
I don't think it will taste as good, though.
Shall we have a go at actually rolling some pills, then?
Yes. It is now one mass.
The pharmacy has a brass and mahogany pill-making machine,
which Tom's getting his hands on for the first time.
-So, what I need to do here is break off a bit and make it into a sausage, don't I?
Before this machine was invented, the pill mass was rolled out by hand and cut to size with a spatula.
And then you roll it down into a long, thin sausage.
This is a piece of advanced kit, in a way.
Making sure you get the same dosage for everyone because it
standardises the size of each little pill coming out. It's looking good.
Still a bit too much, though. Oh, look. Flattened the thing.
You don't need a lot for this, do you?
-Now we just roll it across these bits, yeah?
-This way round, though.
The brass grooves are designed to cut a spherical pill.
Push back and forth a few times.
Get your body into it.
And we have lots of slug-like pellets.
I'll try to make them better with this pill-rounding device.
They do look horribly like rabbit droppings.
I think we needed to have slightly stickier pills.
Appearance was key.
They had to look like they were going to work, even if the main ingredient was soap powder.
Some pharmacists even coated pills for their wealthier customers
in silver-leaf to increase their desirability and their price.
How many thousand have we got to make?
So, if we're doing 50 pills in a box and a box a week for a patient...
-20 boxes a week.
That's 1,000 pills. We've just nearly done 50.
As apprentice, it'll be Tom's job to make the rest of the pills.
This is going to take about three days to do it.
In the kitchen, Ruth is making a remedy for Bill Jones, the plumber who complained of hair loss.
Herbalist Eleanor Gallia has come to show Ruth how to make Makassar hair oil.
Its recipe came from Makassar in India, giving it exotic connotations,
but most British pharmacists used ingredients from closer to home.
I've got here the European alkanet, which sort of produces a hugely effective dye.
Just look at that.
You've got the fresh, you've got the native British.
If you look there, can you see it glistening?
-Yeah. It's really quite pretty.
-It's beautiful, really beautiful.
It's weeping a gooey, sort of, sticky sap that'll help coat the hair.
Make it easier to comb. Act more like a conditioner.
Absolutely. And nourish the scalp as well. Moisturise the scalp.
Victorians didn't have a proper understanding of hair loss, and saw it as an illness.
One 1864 medical report stated its causes as "habitual drinking, late hours, violence,
"intense study or thoughtfulness and the pernicious practice
"of constantly wearing a hard, non-ventilating hat."
We'll put it all into cold oil and then heat it above the fire.
-This recipe has gone unchanged for hundreds of years.
-I'm just going to stir this in.
Already pink, even cold.
-The mixture has to heat for an hour before the remaining ingredients can be added.
-Shall we have a cup of tea?
-I'll make a nice pot of tea.
In preparation for the launch of their cure-all pills, Nick is drafting a poster.
In the 1850s and '60s, more people could read, printing processes have
improved, and advertising really begins to take off.
And it was really influential on people.
In Victorian times, pharmacies could make exaggerated claims
about the drugs they sold without worrying too much about rules and regulations.
It was completely different of course to how things are today, when we've got a whole mass of rules.
Lots of medicines can't be advertised to the public at all.
And if you advertise medicines, there's got to be evidence as to
how they work, whether they can really cure you or not.
You can't claim anything cures unless there's a whole load of evidence behind it.
You'd have to give information about side effects and all sorts of things.
So it's a very different situation.
I'm going to get the printer to print lots of copies. I'm going to put them all round
the town, and try to get people to come in and buy my miracle cure.
In Ruth's kitchen, the Makassar hair oil has heated through.
There you go, that's been boiling, boiling, boiling,
hot, hot, hot.
Look at the colour of that!
Eleanor has an old trick up her sleeve for blending in another ingredient - cleavers.
You'd get your cleavers - I picked these this morning.
Your first row goes up the way.
Your second row goes across the way.
So, basically, you're weaving.
They all want to stick together, so making that is pretty much what they've got in mind by themselves.
It's a sieve.
It's going to make a really nice filter.
But, at the same time, we're pouring hot oil through it, so that's going
to draw some of the contents of the cleavers into the liquid at the same time.
In a sense, by making a sieve of it, you're sort of killing two birds with one stone.
And then we pop that in there.
It does smell good, this.
We haven't even added the perfumes yet.
It looks like it's coming through quite nice.
Ooh. Oh, that smells good.
The final stage is to scent it with cinnamon, lemon and cloves.
So this is a hair oil aimed, I suppose, at both sexes, to some degree.
People would usually put slightly different scents in,
according to whether it was a male hair oil or female.
-This one could go either way.
It's how you package it as to whether it's for women or for men.
The pharmacy will market the hair oil as a preventative remedy for hair loss aimed at men.
Many enterprising pharmacists expanded its appeal beyond medicine
as a health and beauty product aimed at women.
-That's a lot of hair oil, isn't it?
Tom's been busy pill-making - one of the many chores an apprentice would have carried out for his master.
An apprentice had to impress his boss.
And Tom's hoping to do just that by drumming up further publicity for Nick's cure-all medicine.
He's drafted in engineer Chris Hill to help him put together a promotional stunt.
What we want to do at the pharmacy is make a bit of an event, really.
A bit of a show to attract some customers.
And what we thought we could do is maybe fix up some sort of machine
that we could maybe power a pestle and mortar with,
so we can show our ability to grind all the medicines and so on.
-Yeah. OK. An automated grinding mechanism.
-That's right, yeah.
He's been inspired by a contraption
used by a chemist in Knaresborough in the early 19th century.
A pestle and mortar, powered by a dog.
Victorian England is actually filled with advertising.
There are adverts in all the papers.
Some of the papers are just composed of adverts in exactly the same way as today.
What's fascinating about doing a stunt like a dog pestle and mortar
is that you're creating a real, physical event in the street.
And it's a lot more local. You're advertising it on a local scale.
Chris is going to make the machine.
All Tom needs now is the dog.
It's time for the first marketing push.
Nick's claims for his cure-all have been put into print.
I can feel them working already.
The first batch of Professor Barber's Miracletts is ready for delivery.
I've...brought you something.
We've got some special pills for you.
Pharmacies, of course, are a business. We have to make a living.
We've got these Miraclett miracle cures for you today.
And that means getting in touch with your local community.
-Professor Barber's Miracletts.
-Thanks very much.
It means finding the products that they want to buy.
We'll see if it sorts out your back. It should certainly clean your blood, if nothing else.
Clean your blood - right!
You have to project an image that was enormously trustworthy and deeply convincing.
-I have my doubts.
-Do you know what's actually in it?
With the best will in the world, it's not going to cure everything, is it?
I think pharmacists would have been quite coy
-about revealing their secret ingredients, actually.
-Of course. Yes.
-I hope that it does some good.
-Any side effects that I might...?
You can tell us!
Must have been quite difficult, mustn't it?
Sort of maintaining this front.
Better go and sell some more.
Engineer Chris Hill is putting the finishing touches to Tom's dog-powered pestle and mortar.
One small dog.
-Up until the mid-19th century, a breed of dog called
a turnspit was often used to turn meat on a spit over a fire.
The dog pestle and mortar is an adaptation of that technology.
Hopefully, all we need to do is get Tilly to move a little bit.
The turnspit dog is now extinct, so Tom is using a Jack Russell...
..a breed less renowned for its turning capabilities.
Come on, come on!
Tilly, Tilly, Tilly...
-I'll give her a hand.
-A little start.
She'll be fine once she gets started.
Come on, Tilly!
There we go! Look at that! She loves it!
-She could get used to that.
-Look at the pestle going round!
She's almost doing that by herself.
I think Tilly needs some sort of treat. Come on.
Hey, look at that!
One thing the Victorians understood above all else was that
no matter how great the advances of science and medicine, the best way to draw a crowd was good marketing.
Tom will reveal his new-fangled marvel,
the dog-powered pestle and mortar, giving Nick a chance to catch up with his cure-all customers.
If they say the worse a medicine tastes, the better it does,
I should be really fighting fit, because it was vile.
-I didn't think they were too bad, actually.
-They weren't very nice, no.
A little bit tart, but they went down OK.
Don't you think Victorian medicine should taste a bit nasty?
I think it probably should taste nasty, yes.
-Have you got a sore throat now?
-No, it hasn't come back.
It just shows they work for everyone.
That's healed up. This is nearly healed up.
-You had a stye on your eye?
-Yes, I did.
-Do you still have it?
Can you see?
-Did your back get better?
-My back did get better.
-But I didn't take the tablets.
-The thing that it did do for me is just give me a bit of extra flatulence.
-Oh, yes! Oh, really?!
Fortunately, Nick has other products he can turn to, including Ruth's Macassar Hair Oil.
Just put a bit on your hand.
And how long does this take?
Oh...I don't think we're working in minutes!
It's Tom's moment to impress the public...and his boss.
It's a big moment, Tilly. This is the big night!
Oh, go on, Tilly. Just for us!
Watch it! She'll get it out of your hand any second. Go on, Tilly! Come on!
Oh, come on! You know you like cheese.
You liked cheese before.
Are you bored of cheese now?
Tom's first PR stunt has drawn a crowd.
And the pestle is finally turning...
But it's not being driven by Tilly the dog.
This is... It's not quite as it was planned, is it?
-No, not entirely.
Not entirely, Nick. No.
As an apprentice, you've got a lot to learn, clearly.
Don't you think dog-powered pestle and mortars have a future?
Er, I think, if we work on it a bit, we could get it going.
Folks, thank you very much for coming.
I'd like to show you this, the first dog-powered pestle and mortar prototype.
-Thank you for coming, everyone!
Next time on Victorian Pharmacy, the discovery of how to kill germs.
Look at that go.
Nick turns his hand to some horse medicine.
-Rather you than me.
-You're a big chap, aren't you?
-Do you want to try it?
-Yeah, go on.
And Ruth tries some Victorian electro-therapy.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Ruth Goodman, Nick Barber and Tom Quick take on the challenges of the 1850s and 60s, a time when overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions had reached their peak, leading to unprecedented outbreaks of disease. 'Cure all' medicines that promised to cure virtually everything were all the rage, and the team make their own out of rhubarb, licquorice, soap and syrup. Tom attempts to emulate an ambitious Victorian publicity stunt by building his very own dog-powered mortar and pestle, but will it work?