Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Apothecaries' Hall: No. 246, High Street

The Apothecaries' Hall left © Devon County Council is a little-known building which stood for many years in the High Street until its demolition in the 1890s. Unfortunately, precise details about the history of the building are frustratingly scarce.

The Apothecaries' Company in London was incorporated by a Royal charter from James I in 1617. Prior to this all apothecaries were members of the Guild of Grocers, itself an off-shoot of the Guild of Pepperers first established in London in 1180. As with most cities and towns in England, apothecaries had practiced in Exeter for centuries. One notable late-16th century apothecary in Exeter was Thomas Baskerville. He lived in a substantial house which included a cellar, a hall, two parlours and a separate kitchen, with three bedrooms on the first floor. An inventory of his premises made in 1596 recorded such things as 20 lbs of sarsaparilla, 10 lbs of ratsbane [i.e arsenic oxide], red lead, linseed oil, 20 lbs of gum arabic and a wide range of scales, pots and pans including "2 dossen syrup pottes with pipes". Upon his death Baskerville's estate was valued at a not inconsiderable £324, and his son, Sir Simon Baskerville, later served as physician to both James I and Charles I at the Stuart court in London.

Another Exeter-based apothecary was Humphrey Bidgood who worked in the city in the first half of the 17th century. The story goes that he was accidentally poisoned by his own servant, Peter Moor, the servant's intended target being Bidgood's wife. Their son, Dr John Bidgood, became a Fellow of the College of Physicians and had an illustrious career. He died in 1691, having amassed a fortune of around £25,000, and was buried in Exeter Cathedral where his marble monument can still be seen today.

Unfortunately neither Thomas Baskerville or Humphrey Bidgood lived at No. 246 High Street and its connection with the Society of Apothecaries only dates to the 19th century. In July 1822 a notice appeared in the 'Exeter Flying Post' stating: "We understand that an establishment, similar to the Apothecaries' Hall in London, is about to be opened in this city under the direction of some respectable, professional gentlemen." No. 246 was chosen for the new enterprise, a building which had been used as Mr Lewis's dental surgery in 1815 and Norrington's haberdashery in 1821. The Apothecaries' Hall opened for business on Monday 22 July 1822. According to an advert placed in the 'Exeter Flying Post' in July 1822, above right, the Company of Apothecaries in London had "induced some respectable Medical Gentlemen of the City of associate for the purpose of forming an Establishment to be named 'The Exeter Apothecaries' Hall'" from where they could dispense the "best possible drugs and medication" both to other professionals as well as to the general public.

The aerial view left shows the location of the Apothecaries' Hall on the High Street, highlighted in red, based on the 1905 street plan. The approximate site of No. 245 High Street is highlighted in purple. Both properties were merged in 1893 to became the Devon and Somerset Stores. St Lawrence's church is highlighted in yellow and St Stephen's church is highlighted in green. The opening into Bedford Street is to the south. This section of the High Street was obliterated during the Exeter Blitz of 1942. The street was widened during the post-war reconstruction which is why the fronts of the pre-war buildings on the map appear to project out beyond the line of the current shop frontages.

The plan was to conduct the business on the same lines as the Apothecaries' Hall in London and much effort was expended in associating the Exeter hall with its more illustrious counterpart in the capital. All of the drugs sold in Exeter were purchased directly from the Company of Apothecaries in London. When complaints were received about the poor quality of a batch of iron carbonate sold by the branch at Exeter, the management issued a statement which included an apology from Thomas Morpeth, the secretary of the London Apothecaries' Hall. The business continued for 40 years until, in October 1863, the Apothecaries' Hall was put up for auction at The Half Moon inn. The Hall was described as having a "front and back shop, breakfast, dining and drawing rooms, three best bedrooms, two attics, water-closet and kitchen". One of the ground floor rooms was probably used as a laboratory. The premises at the rear comprised "a variety of rooms". There was also a yard with a printer's shop. Access to the buildings at the rear was via a covered passageway, the entrance to which is visible to the left in the image at the top of this post.

The postcard view right c1905 shows the Devon and Somerset Stores building as it existed until 1942. The plot once occupied by the Apothecaries' Hall is highlighted again in red. The plot of No. 245 is highlighted in purple. It's easy to see how the store straddled two quite separate tenements. The bell tower and porch of St Lawrence's church, with its statue of Elizabeth I over the entrance arch, is visible to the right. The same location as it appears today is shown in the photograph below left.

By the mid-1870s No. 246 High Street was once again being used as a pharmacy when it was the premises of Messrs. Milton & Son. Milton stayed at No. 246 for over 20 years until he built a new shop at No. 265 High Street in 1893, a move which resulted in the demolition of the old Apothecaries' Hall. A report in the 'Exeter Flying Post', dated 07 October 1893, stated that "another of Exon's historic scenes has been removed...During the earlier portion of the 16th century, and for successive generations, the quaint old house and shop, with its small window frames and coloured carboys, opposite to Bedford Circus, has been the haunt of the Exeter Apothecary".

I'm not sure that there are any surviving documents to support the claim that the Apothecaries' Hall had a connection with pharmacology which predated 1822. The timber-framed building itself dated at least to the 17th century but its pre-19th century history will probably remain for ever unknown.

Following Milton's departure both No. 246 and its neighbour at No. 245 were occupied by the Devon and Somerset Stores. One incident worth mentioning was the sudden collapse of the frontage of one of these two properties in August 1894 during the rebuilding of both premises. According to the 'Exeter Flying Post' it was "the sensation of the week", the report adding that "the greater part of the building was to have been pulled down the next day". Fortunately no-one was injured but it's highly unlikely that anything of the Apothecaries' Hall was incorporated into the new premises. The Devon and Somerset Stores, with its brick-built facade surmounted by parapets and finials, remained on the site until 04 May 1942 when it was completely destroyed by fires spread by incendiaries. Milton's 1893 premises further up the High Street at No. 265 were destroyed at the same time. Nothing of either building remains today.

However, that isn't quite the end of the old Apothecaries' Hall. In 1975 a ceramic mural was commissioned from the artist Philippa Threlfall to commemorate the opening of the Guildhall Shopping Centre. This beautiful piece of artwork, by far the most attractive thing in the vicinity, is squirrelled away in an obscure passageway; and there amongst a collage of ceramic versions of Exeter's more well-known buildings is a lovely representation of the Apothecaries' Hall, standing next to the portico of the Guildhall. Underneath is written:

“On this land many generations have lived and worked. They are remembered by their buildings and the things they made."


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