Shepherd of industry

Shepherd of industry

Nicola Lisle tells the remarkable story of self-taught pill manufacturer and entrepreneur Thomas Beecham, who was born 200 years ago this month

Nicola Lisle, A freelance journalist specialising in the arts and family/social history.

Nicola Lisle

A freelance journalist specialising in the arts and family/social history.

Anybody who has ever taken Beecham’s Powders will probably have been unaware that this internationally famous cold and flu remedy began life in the depths of rural Oxfordshire, its seeds sown by a humble, uneducated shepherd boy. This rags-to-riches story is one of incredible dedication and determination.

Beecham’s clock tower in St Helen’s
Beecham’s clock tower in St Helen’s still has a bust of founder Thomas Beecham over the door

Thomas Beecham was born on 3 December 1820 in the village of Curbridge, near Witney, the eldest child of Joseph Beecham, a shepherd, and his wife Sarah. The marriage was an unhappy one, arranged hastily when Sarah discovered she was pregnant. Thomas briefly attended school in Witney, but at the age of eight he was taken out of school and set to work to help support the Beechams’ expanding family.

His first job was helping a local shepherd near Curbridge, for which he earned 1/6 a week. He had inherited from his mother a knowledge of herbs and other natural remedies, and over the next few years he built on this and gradually gained a local reputation for his ability to cure simple ailments in both animals and humans. For poor country folk, unable to afford doctors’ fees and expensive potions, these treatments were invaluable.

By his early teens Thomas had moved to Cropredy, a picturesque village nestling on the banks of the River Cherwell, four miles north of Banbury. Despite its growing industrial importance since the arrival of the canal in the late 18th century, it was still a largely rural village in one of the hillier parts of Oxfordshire. Here Beecham began working for William Chamberlain, the owner of a 400-acre farm, and later recalled that he ‘took charge of the entire flock and stuck to it until I was 20 years of age’.

During his Cropredy years, Beecham continued to develop his skills, diligently researching the medicinal properties of the local plant life, and he became well known around the area for being able to cure a variety of human ailments. At some point he began producing a liquid concoction, which he then turned into a dough-like substance that could be moulded into pills, and soon he was peddling these around Oxfordshire’s farmers’ markets.

In 1840 Beecham took the bold step of giving up his job as a shepherd and went to live with his uncle in Kidlington, on the outskirts of Oxford, where he focused on developing his product while working part-time as a postman and gardener and continuing to market his wares around Oxfordshire’s villages. It wasn’t long, though, before this ambitious young man was setting his sights very much higher.

A 19th-century advertisement for Beecham’s Pills
A 19th-century advertisement for Beecham’s Pills

Northward bound
In 1847, aged just 27, Thomas Beecham decided to seek his fortune in the heart of industrial Britain, where he felt his medicine would be in greater need and where there were greater opportunities for expansion.

He settled first in Liverpool, obtaining a medical licence and peddling his wares around the city. In addition to his original herbal pills he now had tooth powder and remedies for toothache, and he became a familiar sight at local markets, dressed in his traditional shepherd’s smock and hat and winning customers over with his natural charm and salesman’s patter.

By this time he had also married the first of his three wives. He met Bangor-born Jane Evans shortly after his arrival in Liverpool, and the pair married at Liverpool Parish Church on 26 May 1847. Their first son, Joseph, was born just over a year later, on 8 June 1848, and another son and two daughters swiftly followed. Joseph was later to play a major role in the firm, greatly increasing its advertising outlay and expanding sales overseas.

Thomas Beecham opened his first shop and mail order service in 1857 in Wigan, but tragedy struck when one of his customers died from an accidental overdose of laudanum obtained from Beecham’s shop. Although exonerated from blame, local hostility resulting in the Beechams moving to the Merseyside town of St Helen’s, where Thomas continued to expand his mail order business.

One of the company’s famous slogans, ‘worth a guinea a box’, dates from around this time, and is believed to have been inspired by a comment by a satisfied customer.

By this time the Beechams’ marriage was floundering. Thomas, it seemed, was an astute businessman but not so clever at staying faithful to his wife. After a string of affairs, out of which came at least one illegitimate daughter, he and Jane separated. After Jane’s death in 1872, Beecham married Sarah Pemberton, who at 29 was 23 years his junior. Sarah died just five years later, and in 1879 Beecham married his third wife, the 26-year-old widow Mary Sawell, this time with an even bigger age gap – 32 years. The couple moved to Buckinghamshire, but the marriage ended in acrimony after Mary accused Thomas of trying to poison her, and in 1884 he returned to St Helen’s.

The Beecham’s Building in St Helen’s
The Beecham’s Building in St Helen’s, which opened in 1877. The factory and its clock tower became a landmark on the town’s skyline

A booming business
By this time, Beecham’s was booming. Thomas’s son Joseph had joined the firm in 1863, when he was 15, and played an increasing role in expanding the business.

The first factory was built in 1876 in Westfield Street, St Helen’s, at a cost of £30,000, and by 1884 Thomas Beecham was overseeing the production of four hundredweight of pills a day with more than 50 full-time staff on his payroll. It was a far cry from the young shepherd boy who had trundled around Oxfordshire’s rural markets to sell his wares.

Increasingly, though, it was Joseph Beecham who shaped the company’s fortunes from the 1880s onwards. A new electricity-powered factory opened in St Helen’s in 1886, and within a decade the workforce had expanded to more than 120 employees. In 1890, Beecham’s sold 250 million pills, accounting for a quarter of factory-produced pills in Britain.

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A major innovation of Joseph’s was to dedicate more time and money to advertising and marketing. In this he proved himself to be an astute and original thinker, coming up with catchy and memorable slogans. One of the earliest, in 1890, was ‘What are the wild waves saying (Try Beecham’s Pills)’, which was printed on boats’ sails and billboards around the country.

Joseph was also responsible for the 16-page pamphlet Beecham’s Help to Scholars, which was produced in 1899 and contained mathematical tables, weights and measures, geographical definitions, a table of the chemical elements and other equally useful facts and figures. On the back cover it featured a smiling lady with the slogan ‘Do as I do, Take Beecham’s Pills and Keep Smiling’.

Beecham’s-sponsored bathing machines
Beecham’s-sponsored bathing machines Museum of Hartlepool

Aimed specifically at helping poorer children, the pamphlet was distributed to schools on request and became an instant success. Four million were distributed during the first year of publication; by 1959 this had risen to more than 47 million.

Another ingenious idea of Joseph’s was the set of Beecham’s Music Folios. At a time when music was a popular drawing room activity, involving all the family, these volumes of piano music, carrying Beecham’s slogans, were particularly effective. His photo folios, featuring views of towns, were also popular.

A Beecham’s ad from the 1930s
A Beecham’s ad from the 1930s Wellcome Collection

It was also Joseph who was responsible for establishing a factory in Brooklyn, New York, in 1890, and this came to represent a significant slice of the Beecham’s output. During the early years of the 20th century sales of Beecham’s pills in America doubled, and a larger factory was built in 1910.

By this time Joseph was in overall charge, Thomas having died on 6 April 1907 of pulmonary congestion, leaving an estate valued at £86,680. He was buried at Dent Green Cemetery, St Helen’s.

Within two years, as Beecham’s continued to expand and prosper, Joseph was reported by the New York Times as being the richest man in England.

Beecham’s Music FoliosBeecham’s Photo Folios
Beecham’s Music and Photo Folios were a promotional innovation by the founder’s son, Joseph. The family later became closely associated with music when Joseph’s eldest son, later Sir Thomas Beecham, became a famous conductor

In addition to being one of Britain’s best-known businessmen, Joseph – described as ‘the quiet, pipe-smoking, tweed-clad type of Englishman’ who was ‘modesty itself’ – was also a philanthropist and major public figure.

He was mayor of St Helen’s three times between 1889 and 1911, a justice of the peace, and a patron of the arts. His eldest son was the internationally famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1861), and during the early years of the 20th century he subsidised a number of opera and ballet seasons in London at a cost of £300,000. Joseph was knighted in 1912 in recognition of his philanthropy and became the 1st Baronet of Ewanville, Huyton, two years later.

He died from heart failure at his Hampstead home on 23 October 1916.

End of the Beecham eraAfter Joseph’s death, Beecham’s passed to his son, Henry (1888-1947), who had already been running the American business, but in 1924 the business was acquired by Philip Hill (1873-1944), who was responsible for developing the company’s first pharmaceutical product, the now-famous cold and flu powder in 1926.

Philip Hill was succeeded in 1944 by Stanley Holmes (1878-1961), who renamed the company the Beecham Group Ltd the following year. Under Holmes’ stewardship, the company continued to expand and by 1972 was employing around 23,000 people.

Over four decades, both Hill and Holmes oversaw the acquisition of a number of well-known brands, including Macleans toothpaste and Lucozade in 1938, Ribena manufacturer H.W. Carter in 1955, Corona soft drinks manufacturer Thomas & Evans in 1958 and Horlicks in 1969.

In 1989 the Beecham Group plc merged with SmithKline Beckman to become SmithKline Beecham plc, and this in turn merged with GlaxoWellcome in 2000 to form GlaxoSmithKline, which is currently based in Brentford and was named by Forbes in 2019 as the world’s sixth largest pharmaceutical company.

If Thomas Beecham could see what has become of his early endeavours, he would no doubt be both amazed and proud.

Beecham’s continued a wide range of sponsorship
Beecham’s continued a wide range of sponsorship to promote their products well into the 20th century – such as this children’s newspaper puzzle page from the 1950s Wellcome Collection

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