Treasures from Worcestershire’s Past: ~15~ A Victorian Chemist’s recipe book

  • 7th March 2014

This week’s Treasure has been chosen by Jonathan Brusby, Digitiser. Here he explains how he discovered so much more than first expected when working with a Victorian recipe book:   

This treasure is a family recipe book which isn’t what it seems. Inside there are many inedible concoctions, made with very strange ingredients like Eau de Cologne, chalk and cuttlefish bone. It is, in fact, the book used by a Victorian pharmacist to record the remedies they cooked up to help ailing customers.

This particular book was kept by a chemist working at Medical Hall in Bull Ring, Kidderminster. The pharmacy traded under the name ‘Steward and Westover’ after its founders, Josiah Steward and John Westover, continuing under the name after Steward left the partnership in 1890. There is still a pharmacy there today. The book records recipes they made from May 1847 – March 1882. Alongside each customer’s name they wrote down the ingredients used for that mixture, and in some cases the method and dosage.

[Miss Canuck – Hair Wash: 20 cl Eau de Cologne, 20cl Tincture of Cantharicles, 10chops Oil of Cloves, 10chops Rosemary] 

Visiting a Victorian chemist’s shop would be very different to today. Anybody could trade as a pharmacist and the cures they sold were often based on old beliefs and remedies. Most of them made their own potions and pills from scratch, experimenting with recipes in makeshift laboratories. Addictive substances such as opium and cannabis were used in cures. Toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury were also used. Addictions, overdoses, and poisonings were common.

[Mr Mead – Nerve Ointment: Corrosive Sublimate of Mercury, Camphor, Oil of Organum]

The kind of recipes contained in the book include:

  • foot powder
  • tooth powder
  • cough remedies 
  • polishing cream 
  • treatments for blisters   
  • Compared to the carefully tested chemical mixtures of today, it’s hard to imagine what these must have been like to take. Of course the patient was usually unaware of what their medicine contained, and indeed what effect it would actually have. In some cases you would be trusting your health to the hands of a maverick!

     [Miss Davenport & Miss Lidoes Blakebrook – Powder for the Teeth: Prepared Chalk, Cuttlefish Bone, Anis Root, Gum Myrrh]

    Steward & Westover prepared recipes for animal treatments, reminding us that the local chemist had to serve not just the townspeople but also farms and their livestock. One potion contains chalk, pomegranate and opium, amongst other ingredients, to be used for “lambs of about 7 years old”:

    [Mr Mackin:, 4oz Prepared Chalk, 2oz Pomegranate Powdered, 1oz Alum, 1oz Ginger, 2oz Bole Armaniac, 1oz Opium]

    Victorian chemists didn’t only create and sell cures though. Seeking to find new ways of making money they branched out into making a variety of other products – sauces, skin creams, soaps, exotic foods and even fireworks. This resulted in many popular new brands, some of which survive today as household names like Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce, Bird’s custard powder, and Swan Vestas matches.

    An insight into the mind of such a chemist-entrepreneur can be found in the recipe for “Dr Kitchener’s Recipe for Tomata [sic] Sauce”, presumably written down as inspiration to make their own sauce to sell:

    It was only with the introduction of The Pharmacy Act 1868 that pharmacists were required to hold a professional qualification. By the end of the 19th century pharmacists like this one had started stocking branded products, as opposed to manufacturing everything themselves.

    This document is held at Explore the Past at The Hive and can be viewed in the Original Archive Area at reference 899:310 BA 10470/318.

    One response to “Treasures from Worcestershire’s Past: ~15~ A Victorian Chemist’s recipe book”

    1. . says:

      Fascinating, though I would worry a bit about sticking tincture of cantharides on my head given the infamous irritant effects!

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