What ho! sickly people of high and low degree
I pray ye all be warned by me;
No matter what may be your bodily ills
The safest and quickest cure is Beecham’s Pills.
They are admitted to be worth a guinea a box
For bilious and nervous disorders, also smallpox,
And dizziness and drowsiness, also cold chills,
And for such diseases nothing else can equal Beecham’s Pills
They have been proved by thousands that have tried them
So that the people cannot them condemn.
Be advised by me one and all
Is the advice of Poet McGonagall.
One of the world’s great pharmaceutical companies had its origin in a Lancashire market stall. Thomas Beecham, a farm worker from Oxfordshire, had developed an interest in herbalism while tending his master’s animals. In 1840, armed only with a sack of patent remedies and a natural flair for self-promotion and salesmanship, he set out for the fast growing cities of North-West England to seek his fortune. Foremost among his products were the pills that bore his name – a simple laxative that fast gained a reputation as a cure-all. Beecham’s business went from strength to strength, building a factory in 1858 which exported Beecham’s Pills all over the Empire.
Eating a poor diet and wearing tightly restricting clothes, the Victorians appreciated a pill that “keeps you regular”. However the action of the pill was supposed to purge impurities from the body, curing a bewildering variety of conditions. Though McGonagall may seem to be talking up the range of diseases treatable by the Pills, he’s actually being quite modest compared with Beecham’s own advertisements, for example:
BEECHAM’S PILLS are admitted by thousands to be worth a Guinea a Box for Nervous and Bilious Disorders, such as wind and pain In the stomach, sick headache, giddiness, fullness and swelling after meals, dizziness and drowsiness, cold chills, flushings of heat, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, costiveness, scurvy, blotches on the skin, disturbed sleep, frightful dreams, and all nervous and trembling sensations, &c. The first dose will give relief in twenty minutes. This is no fiction, for they have done it in thousands of cases. Every sufferer is earnestly invited to try one box of these Pills and they will be acknowledged to be WORTH A GUINEA A BOX.
For females of all ages these Pills are Invaluable, as a few a doses of them carry off all humours, and bring about all that is required. No female should be without them. There is no medicine to be found to equal BEECHAM’S PILLS for removing any obstruction or Irregularity of the system. If taken according to the directions given with each box, they will soon restore females of all ages to sound and robust health.
The British Medical Association were more sceptical of the patent medicine’s claims. A report in 1912 determined that the Pills were made of 40% aloes, 45% ginger and 15% powdered soap! This news did not seem to deter Beecham’s many customers, the Pills were one of the company’s best-sellers as late as 1951. It was not until 1998 that they were finally withdrawn from the market.
If it seems strange that McGonagall should lower himself to commercialising his work, it should be remembered that, as stated in his Reminiscences:
I never considered [money] to be either filthy or bad. Money is most certainly the most useful commodity in society that I know of. It is certainly good when not abused; but, if abused, the fault rests with the abuser — the money is good nevertheless. For my own part, I have always found it to be one of my best friends.
Money was hard to come by when this poem was written in 1894. Despite his protests, Dundee’s city fathers had forbidden McGonagall’s public performances due to the rowdy audiences they attracted and he was desperate for funds. An advert for Sunlight Soap had gained him a fee of two guineas and an unlikely career as an advertising copywriter was opening up. History does not record how much the Beechams company paid for this effusion. They could afford to be generous, in the 1890’s they were spending the enormous sum of £95,000 a year on advertising (maybe £50 million in today’s money). The advertising market could not stand more than a couple of McGonagall’s celebrity endorsements though, and by the end of the year he had left Dundee for Perth in search of more appreciative audiences.