Our March 2015 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty

Pauline Hurst came to see us on 22nd March, talking about the Beecham family and their famous pills. Thomas Beecham (1820-1907) was born in Oxfordshire. As a boy he worked as a shepherd, and used wild herbs and plants to cure his animals. In his spare time he made pills (for humans) and sold them in local markets. By 1845 Thomas was living in Whitechapel, Liverpool. In 1847 he married Jane Evans and the couple moved to Wigan, setting up shop at 120 Wallgate. They sold groceries, but also pills and patent medicines - very popular, because medical consultations were expensive and time-consuming for working men. Thomas called himself 'Dr Beecham' and claimed that his pills would cure almost anything!

Disaster struck in 1858, when Jane dispensed an unlabelled bottle of poison and a young boy died. The couple were hounded out of Wigan, and moved to St Helens, which had good road and rail links and a labour force. Thomas established a pill factory, and began using the slogan 'Worth a Guinea a Box' (the actual price being only a few pence). In 1863 Joseph Beecham joined his father in the business, and began to publish full-page advertisements in newspapers. They also put posters on billboards everywhere. Booklets 'for scholars' were given away, and popular songs were issued as sheet music - to make people aware of the Beecham name. A WW1 poster described the pills as 'My Campaign Companion'. (They actually contained a bit of morphine, which made people feel good!).

Meanwhile Thomas had married Sarah Pemberton in 1873 - she died 4 years later - and Mary Sawell in 1879. Both were more than 20 years his junior. He moved to Mursley Hall, Buckinghamshire, and left his son Joseph in charge of the St Helens business. In 1887 a new factory was built in Westfield Street, with an iconic clock tower which remains a local landmark. (It is now a listed building, the home of St Helens College). Three thousand boxes of pills were filled each day.

By 1894 Thomas had left his wife, and moved to Southport where he had a child by his housekeeper Jane. (He was 75, she was 32). Joseph, meanwhile, had moved to Ewanville in Huyton with wife Josephine, the mother of his ten children. He was Mayor of St Helens in 1899, but two years later hit the headlines as a result of a lawsuit by his wife, who had been admitted to a mental asylum in Northampton and was petitioning for separation. The couple remained separated until Joseph's death in 1916. His will took years to sort out, the sum involved being over £1 million. Josephine died in 1934, and is buried (in St Helens) in the same grave as Joseph. The inscription reads 'Also Josephine, his beloved wife'.

After Joseph's death, the firm was managed by executors - one of them being Thomas Beecham the illustrious conductor. Joseph (his father) had initially discouraged him from pursuing a musical career, but later became his sponsor. When an orchestra visiting St Helens found itself in need of a conductor, young Thomas stepped in. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pauline showed us a selection of photographs from the Beecham archives. Their later brand names included Veno's, Setlers, Eno's, Germolene and Yeastvite. Detailed floor plans of the factory showed where each product was made. Nowadays the firm is part of a multinational company. The former factory buildings in St Helens - apart from the Listed section - have been demolished.

Pauline's talk was much appreciated. She gave us a vivid account of the 'very eccentric family' that became a household name in 20th century Britain.

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