Tag Archives: edward hawksley

The Radical Effect of Holloway’s Pills

Nobody has ever decided exactly what went into Holloway’s Pills, but for nearly a hundred years, they were hugely popular.  Even Queen Victoria took them – so it’s said.

The 19th century was the heyday of patent medicines and snake oils of all sorts.  On the one hand, commercial business practices were taking over from the old village apothecary with his individual recipes; on the other hand, Big Pharma wasn’t yet in the business of researching and marketing medicines that might actually work.  Instead there were quacks and charlatans who sold the promise of a cure.  And who knows?  Maybe sometimes they did.  Never underestimate the importance of the placebo effect.

Holloway’s Pills were a standby of self-medication throughout most of the 19th century, and through much of the British Empire – and beyond, they were popular in America, too.

Thomas Holloway was born in Devon in 1800.  In the 1830s, ‘Professor’ Holloway developed a secret formula, possibly stolen from an Italian, Felix Albinolo, whose ‘St Cosmas and St Damian ointment’ didn’t sell well in Protestant England.

Ss Cosmas and Damian

St Cosmas and St Damian, physicians - here they are miraculously transplanting a leg. From Wikimedia Commons

Holloway began advertising ‘Holloway’s Universal Family Ointment’ in London newspapers in 1837.  Like another 19th century entrepreneur, Isaac Singer, Thomas Holloway’s success was based on applying a new business model to sell his product.  Singer developed hire purchase to sell sewing machines [see my post here].  Holloway put his faith in blanket advertising.  According to his own – entirely unreliable – figures, he spent £5000 on advertising in 1842, rising to £20,000 by 1851, and over £60,000 in the 1860s.

It worked.  Holloway’s Pills became famous and immensely popular, and Thomas Holloway and his wife became immensely rich.  They had no children, and his name is remembered today because when he died in 1883, he left his money to found a college for women’s education, the Royal Holloway College.

This story is fairly well known, and I’ve based it on his biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  What interests me is another role that Holloway and his pills played in Australia, where his massive advertising budget played a significant role – I think – in New South Wales politics in the 1840s and 1850s.

Holloway's Pills envelope, from Australian Postal History & Social Philately

Holloway's Pills envelope, from Australian Postal History & Social Philately, used by permission

The first small advertisement for ‘Holloway’s Universal Ointment’ appeared in the Australian press in December 1839, when the Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen’s Land Gazette mentioned them along with a lot of other potions: Dutch drops, Henry’s calcined magnesia, Oxley’s essence of ginger, Dixon’s antibilious pills, Smyth’s scouring drops… and Holloway’s universal ointment.’

Unlike the rest of these potions, Holloway’s potions were universal – and how.  In 1842, the Australasian Chronicle advertised that a long list of medical men recommended the pills for

‘all diseases of the skin, bad legs, old wounds and ulcers, bad breasts, sore nipples, stony and ulcerated cancers, tumours, swelling gout, rheumatism, and lumbago, likewise in cases of piles’ and as a general medicine, and purifier of the blood, andought to be used by all females.

The ointment was good for

‘Burns, scalds, chilblains, chapped hands and lips, also bunions and soft corns.’

In the early 1840s a fellow native of Devon became the agent for Holloway’s Pills in NSW and New Zealand.  Jabez King Heydon migrated to Sydney in 1838 and set up as an auctioneer and agent.

In 1837, the British government had decided to end convict transportation to NSW.  At the same time, more free immigrants were arriving from Britain, most of them from provincial towns, small craftsmen with young families looking for a new home – and this was important – without convicts.  People like the Birmingham toy maker Henry Parkes, the Nottingham schoolteacher, Edward Hawksley, and the Aberdeen bookseller, William Duncan, all of them influenced by Chartism back home.  So was Jabez King Heydon, who was also, like Duncan and Hawksley, a convert to Catholicism.

These men could easily have been John Howard’s aspirational voters – but in Sydney, they found, they didn’t have the vote any more than in Britain.  When the first elections were held for the new post-convict-era Legislative Council in 1843, there was a high property qualification that excluded men such as these.  Very quickly, the radicalism of 1830s Britain transferred to NSW.

One form that this radicalism took was in a proliferation of newspapers.  I’ve counted 13 newspapers published in Sydney in 1843 – the figure varies a bit, depending on how you define a newspaper.  Most of them were hand to mouth affairs, with tiny circulations (then as now the numbers were exaggerated to increase advertising revenue), with an editor-owner who also did the printing and wrote most of the copy, and paid the bills by picking up extra printing jobs.

So a big-ticket advertiser like Holloway’s Pills was a godsend.  Jabez King Heydon must have been authorised to spend a lot of money on advertising, and he directed it where the money would do most good for the causes he believed in.  The Catholic press did well, such as William Duncan’s Australasian Chronicle, and so did the radical press, including Edward Hawksley’s People’s Advocate and Henry Parkes’s Empire.  The Advocate and the Empire encouraged agitation for political reform.  There were other factors at work too, of course, but by 1858, NSW had one man, one vote – and Henry Parkes went on to become Premier, three times.

Who knows exactly what went into Holloway’s Pills?  Perhaps their greatest advantage was that they don’t seem to have contained any poisons, like mercury, a constituent of the ‘blue pills’ referred to by Jane Austen.  But they certainly did wonders for the health and regularity of radical newspapers in colonial Australia.

Maurice Mishkel, ‘The DUALITY of the LIFE of “PROFESSOR” HOLLOWAY’, http://www.auspostalhistory.com/articles/80.shtml

Scandal sheets

Like everyone else, I’m following the ongoing saga of News of the World.  I particularly liked the Telegraph’s headline, ‘Goodbye, cruel World’, although I’m also intrigued by the more arcane ‘Should Rupert Murdoch’s papal knighthood be rescinded?’ from the Catholic Herald.  But as a historian, I’m sad when anything 168 years old bites the dust.  Shouldn’t there be a preservation order or something?

The News of the World has been a scandal sheet for a very long time.  Wikipedia quotes the following story, which must date from the late 19th century:

Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, met in his club one day Lord Riddell, who died a few years ago, and in the course of conversation Riddell said to him, ‘You know, I own a paper.’ ‘Oh, do you?’ said Greenwood, ‘what is it?’ ‘It’s called the News of the World—I’ll send you a copy,’ replied Riddell, and in due course did so. Next time they met Riddell said, ‘Well Greenwood, what do you think of my paper?’ ‘I looked at it,’ replied Greenwood, ‘and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, “If I leave it there the cook may read it”—so I burned it!’

That’s the trouble with servants.  First they learn to read – and then you never know what they might get up to.

We’ve always loved scandal – whether it’s gossiping around the well or the water cooler.  The original term ‘gossip’ meant a godparent, one of the sponsors at a baptism.  This meaning, which the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to 1014, applied equally to men or women, but gradually it became associated with women.  Gossips were the women who attended a woman in childbirth (1600), or ‘A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler’ (1566).

A lot of women’s work was boring but sociable, collecting water, washing clothes and so on – see here for my post on doing the laundry – so it’s not surprising if women spent some of this time gossiping about their neighbours.  But there are other sorts of watering holes, and plenty of male gossips drink at the local pub.


This sort of shared gossip about the neighbours can be a way of drawing the community together.  Everyone knows each other’s business, and what goes around, comes around.  It’s not necessarily very nice – neighbours cruelly punished people, such as cuckolds and scolds and homosexuals, who subverted the rules of the village – but there’s nothing quite like chucking bad eggs at a bad egg to make the rest of the community bond together.

There are other sorts of gossip that are much less egalitarian. The juicy scandals that servants told about their masters, the scurrilous dirt about the mistress that made life as a scullery maid that much more bearable, this sort of gossip is asymmetric, because servants know more about their masters, than their masters know about them – and I’ll bet Greenwood’s cook knew just what was going on, when she raked up the ashes from his study.

Some gossip like this had a political agenda.  Gossip about Marie Antoinette, however false and misogynistic, helped the fuel the French Revolution.  In a more general sense, digging the dirt on the rich and powerful is a sort of rebellion against the system.

Sometimes the gossip served a more practical purpose.  In early Australia, convict women were assigned to the free settlers to work as domestic servants.  If they got pregnant, they were returned to the Female Factory to live and work there until the baby was born and nursed.  There’s no doubt that the gossip these women shared amongst themselves was important, warning other women which masters were sexual predators, which mistresses worked them too hard.

I wrote my first book over 20 years ago, a biography of a shady banker named Ben Boyd who came to New South Wales in the 1840s.  I came across a story that Ben had fathered a daughter by the wife of a Sydney merchant, Robert Campbell.  The story was supposed to come from one of Campbell’s servants.  I wasn’t able to substantiate it, and left it out of the book, even though I’m fairly sure it was true: the Campbells separated during the 1840s, and Ben Boyd fought a duel with one of Campbell’s closest friends for reasons that were never very clear.  But nothing made it into print.

And that is the problem, of course.  Most gossip is never written down where a historian can find it, so we are left with vague innuendo.  Kirsten McKenzie, in Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 (2004), does a great job making sense of many of these mysteries – but it’s very hard.

Once gossip is in print, it’s available to the historian – though it could be dangerous for the publisher, then as now.  In 1854, Edward Hawksley, the editor of the wonderfully named People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator, was gaoled for libel for accusing Captain FitzRoy, the Governor’s son, of cheating at cards.  When the FitzRoys, father and son, left Sydney 2 years later, Hawksley printed an advertisement on the front page of the Advocate:

TWO SUPERIOR STALLIONS…  One of them is known by the name of CAPTAIN… This excellent Horse stands 16 hands, light chesnut… and a sure Foal getter; he has stood several seasons at Parramatta and Windsor, and the purchaser can have a certificate of his performances at both places… he is also, very favourably known in Sydney and can occasionally be seen prancing up and down in front of the Café in George-street… in fact he would make a first rate fellow for a Circus – he has lifted a wooden candlestick with one of his fore hoofs when in the Stables at Parramatta, and besides doing a trick or two at cards, he can go through many other very extraordinary feats.

So as a historian, I am deeply grateful to scandal rags like the News of the World, which took our natural prurience and made it profitable.  Now the scandal has hit Rupert Murdoch himself, whose succession plans currently look to be on a par with those of King Lear.  And we are all riveted by the story.  Why?  Because we all enjoy a juicy scandal about the rich and powerful – it’s very much in the spirit of News of the World, when you think of it.