A significant discovery

A pharmacy closure brings to light a treasure of historic artefacts and facts, writes Ralph Tapping

In 1956 when I started out on my career in pharmacy at a pharmacy in the Hobart CBD, I was aware that a business called “Wilkinsons Chemist & Druggist”at 108 Elizabeth Street had recently closed down, but thought nothing of it at the time.

Apparently it was merged with another pharmacy only two doors down the road by the name of Ash, Bester and Co.

Moving forward to 2003, the Ash Bester pharmacy closed and all the chattels were sent to auction.  The big surprise was that all of the artefacts and records from Wilkinson’s had been languishing in the cellar for the past 48 years! Included in the auction were two large cartons of assorted labels spanning the period of about 1880 through to 1940.  The bonus was the hand written recipe book that was used to compound many of the remedies that matched the labels – for which we made a successful bid on behalf of PDL !  We sorted through all the labels and found 60 uniquely different labels from the Wilkinson’s era.

Enquiries revealed that the pharmacy had been established in 1832 by one John Wilkinson, who had arrived in Hobart Town on Oct 13, 1824 and was from Northampton, England. An announcement in the Hobart Town Courier, 14th Jan, 1832 declared,

“That he had taken the business of Mr F Browne, chemist and druggist, Elizabeth Street”.2929

It appears that Wilkinson’s was the earliest officially recognised pharmacy in Hobart.

John Wilkinson was recognised at the time as being the longest practising pharmacist in Tasmania, with service spanning more than half a century – quite an achievement in that era.

A claim that the business was recognised as being the oldest of its kind in the Commonwealth is arguable – a pharmacy in Launceston known as “Hatton and Laws”, established in 1825, lays claim to that distinction.  That pharmacy is still in business 191 years later – albeit under the Priceline banner.

Another stroke of luck was the discovery that the great-great grandson of John Wilkinson, by the name of Robert Hart lives in Hobart. Robert was of great help in establishing the details, having thoroughly researched the history of his ancestors.

John Wilkinson and family lived 5 miles north of Hobart in what is now known as Glenorchy on  a farming property that embraced what is now the Elwick Racecourse. John used to travel to town by horse and trap, which is why there were stables behind the pharmacy.

Up until 1837 anyone could set up as a Chemist & Druggist, when the Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land passed an act to regulate the practice of medicine, first for medical practitioners, later for dispensers of medicines, in order to keep unqualified people from practising.  John Wilkinson pre-dated the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and could have been entirely self-taught, but he must have been reasonably competent as his services were employed by the local medical practitioners and he was eventually examined and registered.

John died in 1885 and the business passed on to his son, Frederick Brookes Wilkinson who is probably the man pictured in front of the pharmacy in the late 1800’s.  A close look at the photo reveals that most of the shop window is taken up with carboys and specie jars – a common practice in those days to identify a pharmacy.

Frederick B Wilkinson had a large family and appears to have been very active in business.  Most of the labels we found are from his period of ownership.  It is also recorded that branch pharmacies were at Huonville and New Norfolk at various times – quite a distance away from Hobart by horse and buggy! 

When he died in 1913 his obituary stated that FBW “Was charitably disposed and for forty years dispensed medicines free of charge for poor people which were prescribed by Dr William Crowther” (The PBS did not exist in those days ).   

His eldest son, Frederick Percival Wilkinson (Percy) took over and ran the business successfully for 27 years. Percy was a keen Courser, having several greyhounds of his own and was president of the Southern Tas. Coursing Club at the time of his death in 1940. Although married, Percy was childless so here the Wilkinson succession ceased and the business was continued by the family with managers until eventually  taken over by the pharmacy two doors down the road – Ash, Bester & Co and operated as a branch.

One of the managers, John McCorquodale, was brought out from Scotland and lived with his young family  above the shop in fairly primitive circumstances. His experience with farming requirements was important, as Wilkinsons had a large veterinary following.  A stormy relationship with Bob Bester resulted in him moving on to open his own business in Glenorchy, near the Elwick Racecourse.  By 1955 the property was sold and the business was merged with Ash, Bester and Co.

As mentioned before, it appears that when everything went to auction, nothing had been thrown out for over 100 years !….old out of date medicines, display cards for products long disappeared ( such as “Huon Pine Toothpaste”) and the old prescription books, gruesome veterinary instruments, plus the boxes of labels, was indeed a treasure trove.

It is interesting to review the notebooks featuring the “Nostrums” (as the formulae were then known ) many of which contained ingredients that would cause great alarm to today’s health practitioners. They were in common use in that era and were not unique to Wilkinsons.  Some examples are : Tincture of Opium, Heroin, Cocaine, Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, Phenacetin,  bromides and barbiturates, but these must be the subject of a future article.

Of further interest, advertisements of the era often relied on testimonials from local citizens to promote the products. Claims of surefire cures for many conditions were not uncommon. Given that the ingredients were seldom divulged, the public had to be very trusting !

These claims were banned by the mid-1900’s, as were claims of “Accurate Dispensing”…. After all, what other way could there be of dispensing a prescription ?

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1 Comment

  1. Mel - P!nk crazy

    Hi Guest Author – I’m a Wilkinson decedent living over in WA. One day in the very near future I hope to bring my children to Tasmania and show them what beautiful countryside our ancestors lived in. Do you know if any of the artifacts ended up in museums or anything? How wonderful it would be to look at our ancestors belongings in person 🙂

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