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.
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.
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, and ‘ought 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.