Documentary series recreating a 19th-century pharmacy. The team looks at how a lack of regulations enabled chemists to invent products ranging from fireworks to jelly.
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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.
Try and get a bit of speed up. There we go, yeah.
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.
By the middle of Queen Victoria's reign,
the pharmacy was an established and trusted supplier
of remedies and cures,
but the commercial pressures of the time
pushed them towards other products and services.
Their access to raw and sometimes dangerous chemicals
allowed them to experiment in a way that wouldn't be allowed today.
It must've been a marvellous thing being a Victorian chemist and druggist in those days.
They were just able to play around.
The lack of controls and regulations also led to the inventiveness and freedom to experiment
and come up with new ways of improving the life of people.
Their experiments enabled pharmacists to invent products
like soap powder, table salt and matches.
Tom has drafted in Phil Dunford, a member of the UK Pyrotechnic Society,
to show him how to make his own matches for the pharmacy.
I don't suppose you could recommend a few techniques that we could use?
Well, the matches used earlier, maybe from 1800,
were called Promethean matches.
The way they work is by mixing potassium chlorate and sugar.
The method of lighting the match was to dip it into sulphuric acid.
So, if you dip it quickly in, just so that you cover the tip. That's it.
And leave it out there, yeah?
That's it. And you should see it will start to fizz.
Oh, yeah. Look! Here we go!
So rather more messy and harder to light than a modern match.
Other advances in matchmaking had disastrous side effects.
The precursor of today's red phosphorous matches were made of white phosphorous,
which poisoned match workers and caused a disease known as phossy jaw.
The phosphorous was a waxy substance, which has to be melted and it gave off a vapour,
which at first gave you headaches and sallow skin,
and then gave you toothache and then you lost your teeth.
And then your jaw and your bones started to go spongy, and, um,
for a long time, people worked under these conditions until they finally banded together
and refused to do it any more and went on strike, in the famous match-girls' strike.
Tom's made about 20 matches, enough for a box full.
The downside to carrying these matches around
was that in order to light them, you needed sulphuric acid.
As Phil demonstrates, an accidental spillage of acid would have had nasty results.
-That's the mixture that's in these Promethean match heads.
This is some sulphuric acid,
-and this is what happens when they get together.
-So you really don't want that happening in your pocket, do you?
-No, not at all.
Tom will need to explore safer, more reliable alternatives to these early matches.
As the century progressed, pharmacists kept expanding their product range beyond medicines.
With Britain's population more than doubling during Victoria's reign,
products for babies and toddlers offered great potential to become big sellers.
They appealed to parents' concerns for their children's health.
Ruth is setting up a free weighing service for babies,
a common ploy used to entice mothers into the pharmacy.
We're looking to extend our range.
All of life, from cradle to grave.
Jenny Flegg, a local mum and prominent member
of the National Childbirth Trust, has arrived to test out the scales.
Hello, Billy. And how old is he now?
He's...he'll be 12 weeks tomorrow.
You're a nice big lad, aren't you?
Looking all bright and cheery.
We'll put you on. Here we go.
One, two, three...whee!
With poorer nutrition, Victorian babies tended to weigh less than a modern healthy baby like Billy.
-14 pounds, 2 ounces.
Once a baby was weighed, the pharmacist had the opportunity to promote their products.
So it's a sort of community service but with a bit of an ulterior motive.
We all know how big you are. You're nice and healthy, aren't you?
-Nice big healthy baby.
-Is he bottle fed?
I'm feeding him myself.
Which is really nice. Even for someone who is feeding themselves,
a pharmacist would offer a whole range of feeding products.
-So, a breast pump. Have you ever...?
I've got the most...
-Oh, my word!
Isn't it so Victorian?!
I mean, it is basically just a, you know, a cup on a pump, isn't it?
-Mind you, they weren't all quite as nice as this. There's also a range of nipple shields.
-Oh, my word!
-If you're feeding, you know?
Some of them are all right, you see.
Like that one. And there was a little rubber teat that went on it
and you could feed directly. That's fine. But some of them were made of lead.
-It's such a soft material, they felt that it was
easier for the baby to get in the mouth and you'd get a better seal.
But you were poisoning the child. People just weren't anywhere near
as aware of the dangers of lead poisoning, you know?
And you weren't safe if you had bottles, you know?
Despite a pharmacist's best intentions,
many of the baby products they sold caused more harm than good.
What a brave baby you are.
-This stuff, Mrs Wilmslow's Soothing Syrup.
This is utterly horrifying.
"For a child under one month old." They've got opium in them!
You've got four or five children, you're on the edge of starvation,
if you don't work, your children die. The only thing you could do was dope up your babies
so that you could carry on working so that you could feed your other children.
Babies who are fed opiates, they lose their appetite.
They have no hunger, so they won't suck.
-Right. So they waste away.
-They do. They basically die of starvation.
When Victoria came to the throne, at the very beginning of her reign,
-the infant mortality rate, so that's babies under five...
-Just horrendous, isn't that? A quarter of babies.
-That doesn't bear thinking about.
-It doesn't, does it? Imagine.
I've got three, so I may well have lost one of them.
Don't fancy buying any of these products, do you?
I don't think I'll bother.
Bit too young for alcohol. All right. I shall get you home.
Narcotics were freely available across the counter.
Thank you very much.
Before the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920, anybody could buy them
from a pharmacy without even needing a prescription.
Medical practitioners often advised opium addicts to take cannabis or cocaine to cure their addiction.
I have been really quite astounded at just how many narcotics were available
in a pharmacist, how much they were used, how cheap they were,
and the range of products that they were in!
All these things aimed at babies and children and nursing mothers -
absolutely loaded with opium, laudanum, morphine
in one form or another, and the price!
So extremely cheap. So cheap that it would be much, much more sensible in a way
for a working-class mother to drug her baby than to try and pay for childcare.
The dangers of the explosive Promethean matches had been clear for all to see.
One pharmacist, John Walker, used his knowledge of science
to create a safer, more marketable alternative - the friction match.
-OK. Do you want me to have a go?
-So if you just scrape the tip along.
So straight like that, yeah?
-Just like a normal match?
Walker was making percussion caps for guns
when he discovered that antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate
caught fire when they were rubbed together.
We need to add
a couple of drops of water.
This will make up a blacky brown sort of mixture,
which is a bit more the colour we're familiar with matches.
It's quite surprising to me that pharmacists were making matches
and, not only that, but coming up with new processes of making them.
Well, I suppose the pharmacists had the materials on hand
and they were educated men.
And very many of them, particularly this John Walker,
who invented this friction match, was very much a polymath.
The locals called him Stockton's Encyclopaedia.
You can really imagine someone sort of working in their back workshop,
trying to come up with the latest or a new technique
that's going to really propel their business.
These are definitely safer than the first ones we made, aren't they?
-But, I mean, they're not safety matches?
No. The definition of safety matches is where there are two separate parts,
each of which on their own can't do any harm at all.
So in a modern safety match that you strike on a box,
the head, in itself, can't actually catch fire on its own.
When you scrape it down, what in fact you're doing is the side of the box is covered with red phosphorus.
So when you scrape, you take a little tiny bit of the red phosphorus
off of the match and create a more dangerous mixture on the end of the match, but only a tiny amount.
But the match itself can never catch fire unless it's touching the red phosphorus,
and that's what makes it truly a safety match as opposed to just a friction match.
So, if you're ready, then?
Yes, that looks about right. Just...
..dip the tips in. Make sure it's only the very tip,
otherwise, obviously, it can burn further down...
which could be dangerous. That looks good.
And that looks rather more like you would think a modern match looks, with the dark colour.
John Walker, already comfortably well off, passed up the option of making himself a fortune.
Instead of patenting his match, he made it freely available for anyone to make.
Walker produced the matches for just three years, and the credit
for his invention was attributed only after his death in 1859.
The lack of regulation gave pharmacists the liberty
to continue to experiment with the hazardous chemicals on their shelves.
There were no restrictions, even on the manufacturing of fireworks,
which many enterprising pharmacists made and sold.
Finally, in 1875,
the government introduced laws and regulations,
following a number of serious accidents.
Today, only qualified explosives experts, like Steve Miller, can make fireworks.
Steve, I've just been looking at this Chemist And Druggist
from April 15th 1868.
There's a large article on a fatal explosion of chemicals at Nottingham,
saying that, "A frightful explosion occurred in the shop
"of Messrs Fletcher, Chemists and Druggists of Nottingham, by which the errand boy was instantly killed.
"And several persons more or less injured."
And he seemed to be doing what you're doing, really - making an explosive.
Yes, an awful lot of factories did blow up, and chemist shops and things.
So that ended up with the 1875 Explosives Act being brought into force.
And that stipulated that you had to make your explosives in particular factories,
at specific distances away from storage facilities.
It took it away from the chemists, it made the whole process safer.
It could be done in facilities where everything was controlled.
I'm using things like a brass mortar and pestle here, so it's non-sparking...
Despite the Explosives Act, modern legislation does allow Steve to make a small quantity
of gunpowder in Nick's lab using the Victorian method.
So, I've now ground up the potassium nitrate.
Steve will make fireworks out of his gunpowder for a display
that Nick is organising to attract customers to his shop.
And then I'm going to add some water to it and then give it a proper grinding.
Make it into a nice paste so I can grind it
-with less chance of it going off in my face.
Always an advantage, I think!
-You see that's sort of clumped together?
-Yes. Shall I pour it out?
-Yes, if you could pour it out onto the paper there.
-Then we can dry it.
Well, let's lay this out in the sun.
The gunpowder will take the rest of the day to dry before it's ready
to be compressed into fireworks, but it's still explosive, even when wet.
-This should give us just a little fizz.
-So if I light this, like that,
leave it there, it should hopefully go "fizz" and produce a bit of smoke.
Here we go.
-There you go.
That's even when it's wet, so it's still quite violent.
Armed with the tools and ingredients to experiment, and a solid understanding of science,
innovative pharmacists were well-placed to become successful entrepreneurs.
James Crossley Eno was a pharmacist in Newcastle.
He was worried about sailors on ships and their health, and so he developed Eno's Fruit Salts.
Here it comes, look at that go!
Robert Hudson was working an everyday task with a mortar and pestle - pounding soap -
and he realised he could market it as Hudson's Dry Soap.
Joseph Swan, who developed the light bulb at exactly the same time as Edison.
He's never got the fame for it, but invented the light bulb.
The key thing is, they were businessmen.
They knew what the public wanted, they knew what would sell, and some of them made a fortune.
Some real rags-to-riches fortunes made in pharmacies.
Among the most successful of the great entrepreneurial chemists was Alfred Bird.
This Birmingham pharmacist, whose wife had a yeast allergy,
invented a yeast-free raising agent - baking powder.
She was also allergic to eggs, inspiring Bird to develop his recipe
for custard powder - still a brand leader today.
Ruth is adding custard powder to the Barber and Goodman line.
This is thickened, not with eggs, but with cornflour.
Really, really cheap - which of course helps.
And to be honest, that's pretty much all custard powder is - cornflour.
Cornflour that's slightly coloured and slightly flavoured.
I'm not sure that Mr Bird would have been too keen on people knowing
that that's all it was and that they could make their own quite simply!
So for the colour, the cheapest and easiest ingredient to use,
because it's already a food ingredient, is turmeric.
The turmeric gives the pale cornflour an egg-like yellow colour.
Don't want too much turmeric flavour, just enough to give it a bit of yellow. And now, flavour.
Then almond essence is added, to disguise the spicy flavour of the turmeric.
Alfred Bird really prided himself on his experiments. He actually had
the words "experimental chemist" over the shop door.
And it's not difficult chemistry, this. It's a really simple thing.
It's like so many inventions - in hindsight, they seem simple
and basic and obvious, but it's wanting to do it in the first place.
It's coming up with that concept.
I found this in the pharmacy.
It's another of his products.
"Bird's medicinal olive oil."
Look at the size of that bottle -
I wonder how much he was charging for that.
Right, make myself a basic funnel.
Bird gave up being a chemist to manufacture his custard powder
on an industrial scale, supplying British troops in the Crimean War.
When his son, Alfred Frederick Bird, took over the business in 1878, he added further products
to his father's range, including jelly powders and tablets.
Pharmacists marketed jelly as an invalid or baby food.
Baby food as such didn't really exist in this period.
You'd get infant and invalid food all in one.
And it's all to do with digestibility.
The 19th century is the first time that people begin to look scientifically
into how the body breaks up the food that we put into it.
This is one of those foods that was considered to be particularly easy to digest.
So I've got a load of trotters here - these are leftovers from the chop house.
So somebody's already had these for dinner
and eaten all the meat off them, leaving all the skinny, cartilagey bits, which is brilliant.
So I've got several batches -
there we go, up there - on the go all at once here.
Each batch of trotters needs to boil for several hours,
so that the connective tissues congeal and reduce.
I have really been surprised by the number of things which the chemists and druggists developed,
which are everyday things in the home today, in the kitchen.
I knew about the medicines to a fair degree,
but the extent to which they used their chemical knowledge
to sort of permeate everyday life and the way we live
really surprised me.
Tom is trying to master a basic skill that an apprentice carried out regularly.
I'm practising folding
People would have put powders into these sorts of things
and when they needed to put them in a...
in a drink or take them straight,
you just undo it, straight in there.
Take the medicine. So, yeah. I mean...
Still not quite mastered it yet.
I mean this thing, for example, tells me that the powder folder -
which is this - "is a valuable implement to most dispensers.
"It is well to learn powder folding with it, rather than without,
"for powders of unequal length are as irritating to the equanimity
"of a practice pharmacist as pills of unequal size."
This is the one I reduced down...
In the pharmacy kitchen, Ruth has finished her first batch of jelly.
Come on out of there, you.
Aha! That's a saleable product as it is, just chopped up into little squares.
I could sell that as a fresh product. There we are. That's my custard.
Have a quick try of that.
She'll promote her products tomorrow at the pharmacy's firework display.
Mmm, that's really nice.
Nick is still in the lab.
Legally, although Steve Miller could make the gunpowder here, he can only make fireworks on licensed premises.
If you take just iron filings...
But he can show Nick the colours and effects he's going to put into them.
We should be able to get some nice sparks.
You can do the same thing by mixing iron filings with gunpowder.
Steve will use the iron filings to create jet-like fountains.
And different chemical elements will create different colours when they burn.
Barium for green...
Sodium for yellow...
And strontium for red.
Materials still used in fireworks to this day.
Poke that down...
Steve demonstrates with a dummy firework
how these chemicals are mixed with gunpowder to create the colour effects in a Roman candle.
As the fuse burns down the cardboard tube, it lights each separate
coloured star and propels it into the air, creating bursts of colour.
So, because of the 1875 Act,
I certainly can't do this in the modern-day pharmacy.
No, you certainly can't. The 1875 Act was in place until 2005, so it lasted quite a long time.
Really? Good grief. Well over a century, it was valid.
For the pharmacy's display, Steve will make the fireworks
to Victorian specifications, using real gunpowder.
As they test the power of the gunpowder they made earlier, it becomes clear
that Victorian regulations were much needed to bring this dangerous enterprise under control.
Thank goodness we didn't do that in the laboratory!
After a long day, Nick and Tom can't resist the opportunity to try Ruth's custard.
-This looks good.
One of the key things you must learn as an apprentice
is always to test the quality of the pharmaceuticals which you're involved in making.
-Right, shall we try it?
-It's not bad, is it? It's very good.
That is good. I think we've got another good product on our hands here!
Mmm. I think you're right.
The team are using the firework display to bring in a crowd and promote Ruth's new products.
I've got my flare, I've got my matches. So we're all set.
Well, just be careful.
-That stuff was pretty dangerous when we were playing with it before.
-See you later!
-Do you think this stuff's going to sell?
-I hope so.
Here we are, everyone. Jelly and custard.
Can we interest you, at all, in a little taste of Barber & Goodman's jelly and custard?
Our very own home-made custard powder.
Even if you don't like it, you can go "bleugh!"
Only your best quality, natural ingredients in this. We can guarantee.
You're trying cornflour - slightly flavoured, slightly coloured cornflour!
Armed with his new matches, Tom has one last task to perform.
OK, light the fuse. Crouch right down.
-Once it's lit, step away, walk back away from it and let it do it's thing, OK?
Hang on, I think the fireworks are about to start now.
Like the matches, the fireworks have been made to Victorian specifications.
Right, then, on with the fireworks!
They became extremely popular.
Queen Victoria herself often celebrated her birthday with extravagant displays.
Whey! Watch out, watch out!
Playing with explosives, this is every schoolboy's dream, in many ways!
This is one of the reasons I went into chemistry,
was to enjoy these sorts of things and to find out about them.
They weren't just somebody tinkering in a shed
and forgetting about it - they were people who were
primed and ready to take these ideas and move them into the mass market.
I think there would probably have been quite a high mortality rate amongst apprentice pharmacists.
And in some ways, I'm actually pretty glad that I don't have to use
all these substances without being told about them in the first place.
WHOOPING AND CHEERING
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Well done, Tom!
Thank you very much, everyone.
Thank you for coming and remember, we're open for business again at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning.
Next time on Victorian Pharmacy, Nick, Ruth and Tom realise
just how many dangerous chemicals they handle every day.
-I hate to think what's on this flypaper.
-Oh, probably arsenic.
It was the most dangerous shop in a town or a village, absolutely by far.
They also face an era of new legislation and professional accountability
as exams for pharmacists are introduced for the first time.
I'd like you to go away and make some suppositories.
I'm kind of working from a complete and utter position of ignorance.
Oh, no! HE LAUGHS
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
It is an era of innovation in the Victorian pharmacy, and the lack of restrictions or regulations enabled 'experimental chemists' to invent products ranging from matches and fireworks to custard and jelly. These entrepreneurs expanded and changed the range of products in the pharmacy forever. Tom Quick and Nick Barber learn some basic pyrotechnics and then the team lay on a Victorian-style fireworks display for their customers.