Saturday, October 1, 2022


At the apothecary’s, 2

The old but restored chemist’s shop in my previous post, with its handsome wooden fittings redolent of the apothecaries of long ago, showed an excellent use for such a shop interior: it’s home to a business selling perfumes, skin products, soaps, and related items, which sit attractively on its shelves. Soon after seeing that shop in Matlock Bath, I stumbled upon another, in Worcester, This time, the shop building and frontage have gone, but the interior is wonderfully preserved, along with a great deal of its stock-in-trade, in the city’s main museum.*

This was once the interior of Steward’s, a chemist’s business started in 1876 and remaining in the same family until it closed in 1973. The beautiful mahogany fixtures were made in London and bought from Charles John’s General Fixture Warehouse, Drury Lane. Well made and serviceable, they were still in use when the shop closed, and no doubt these high Victorian shelves, drawers and cupboards were packed with the latest in pharmaceuticals and related products, with little of the Victorian stock on open display.

But the goods and gear of the Victorian chemist were not thrown away. The contents were kept: everything it seems was preserved, from the glass flasks and carboys to the metal moulds for making pills, from delicate, accurate balances for measuring the ingredients of medicines to a larger weighing machine on which customers could check their body mass in pounds and stones. Rows of boxes and bottles of old patent medicines remain too, testimony to a time when people in England knocked back quinine wine or warded off seasickness with a ‘Seajoy’ plaster.†

None of this would normally have survived in a modern pharmacy business, but it’s part of social history, and it’s both pleasing and educational to see it preserved and displayed here. Museums these days are short of money and a display like this, fragile and full of portable items on shelves and counters, needs constant supervision when open to the public. Therefore the museum can only open this room occasionally to its visitors – at the moment just on the first Tuesday of each month. When the Resident Wise Woman and I turned up the other week, we and the very helpful custodian were the only people there.

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* Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum; see my point about the restricted opening times of this specific display in the final paragraph.

† Quinine is certainly not a substance seen on British chemist’s counters today, although it still has restricted use under medical supervision; I’ve no idea whether ‘Seajoy’ bears any resemblance to the modern equivalents.

Lamp, which originally hung outside the pharmacy, preserved as part of the display

1 comment:

Hels said...

What a handsome shop!

The mahogany fixtures are still elegant now, and the glass flasks sit beautifully along the shelves. Even the weighing machine sounds essential. But the problem with chemist shops these days come from the impersonal commercialisation of the services. There are 298938 lipsticks lying in one bin, 34456747 toothpastes in another bin and 70723453 tins of armpit deodorant in the back corner.