Review: Victorian Pharmacy book

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Victorian Pharmacy
by Jane Eastoe (foreword by Ruth Goodman), 2010

I am very much love the idea of bringing History to life through good story telling. The narrative enables the current living to better understand the lives of the people of the past. Obviously a narrative without dates and places become just another fictional story but in the same way dates and places themselves are not that interesting either. The ability to extract a narrative from all the facts is one that I personally hope to become better at, but also one I do believe that Jane Eastoe has managed in her book ‘Victorian Pharmacy’.

The book is connected to the TV series staring Ruth Goodman, Nick Barber and Tom Quick. In the TV series they investigate the pills and potions of the Victorian era. Jane’s book follows this process and this makes a fascinating story.

The Victorian era spanned from 1837 to 1901 in other words the reign of Queen Victoria. So I am going to have a look at the family I know of who lived in Britain at this time and see if the book can help me elaborate on the facts I already know about this family.

Let’s first visit the Beech’s in Wigan. Joseph Beech married Rebecca Sampson in 1889 and between 1889 and 1899 they had 8 children of which 5 died before the age of 5. According to ‘Victorian Pharmacy’ this was often the case at the end of the nineteenth century. Children aged 0-5 accounted for 1/3 of all deaths in Victorian Britain. To add to the tragedy their mother Rebecca dies herself in 1900 only five days before the death of her youngest child.

In 1889-1892 one of several influenza pandemics in Victorian Britain swept across the country and carried of Queen Victoria’s grandson Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. Up in Scarisbrick, Lancashire we have three children (the youngest 2, the oldest 9) of George Longton and Ellen Glover who died in December 1890. I think (but of course have no solid proof) that this influenza pandemic may very well have been the cause of this.

This is such an interesting book and it opened my eye’s to things that I had no clue about. The bits that have stayed with me is the stuff about malnutrition and pollution. When you visit London these days you do tend to wonder about the stories of the fog, but that’s because it hasn’t really been around for the last 50 years. But in fact the last fog in December 1952 went on for 4 days and killed around 4000 people. Apart from the danger of being out and about in a thick and brownish yellow, sulphurous smelling fog, it was also the cause of respiratory diseases, we learn.

The other interesting part in regard to malnutrition is that the idea of adding additives to food and drink is by no means a new one. This is something we often accuse the big burger chains of doing and I must admit that I myself had this idea of good honest peasants food of olden days. But apparently it was quite common to add things like alum (a chemical often used in natural dyeing – as we demonstrate on Historic Crafts) and chalk to bread and mashed potatoes. It seems that this could be what lead to Rickets, especially in children. This was quite common in the South where coal was expensive and people were more likely to buy their bread, full of additives, from the bakers. Whereas, in the north, where the coal was mines, it was cheaper to bake your own bread.

I think this book is a great addition to any family historians library as a look-up book of life and death in Victorian England.