Royal Pharmaceutical Company

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society was founded in 1841 by Jacob Bell, owner of a large pharmaceutical business, to promote the interests of the trade. Bell also established the Society’s periodical, Pharmaceutical Journal, which he edited from the Society’s premises at 17 Bloomsbury Square. It moved to 1 Lambeth High Street, London SE1 7JN in 1976 when the Bloomsbury building was compulsory purchased to make way for the British Library. It is now located at in East Smithfield.


This article appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Vauxhall Society’s Newsletter

Pharmaceutical History

At the corner of Lambeth Road and Lambeth High Street stands the headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. A seven storey, steel-framed building, the lower part is built of dark red-brown brick and quarry tile, and the upper part is faced with matching marble slabs in a matt finish. The heavily tinted windows in aluminium frames contribute to a generally sombre and functional appearance. The building is the work of David Hodges MBE, FRIBA, and It was opened by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on 22nd February 1977.

The potentially massive effect of the structure is moderated by inserting a mezzanine above the ground floor and by setting back the top floor so that it is visible only from a distance. An interesting feature is the car-lift situated in Lambeth High Street, which gives access to seven parking spaces underground. Inside, the building contains a Council Chamber for monthly meetings of the Society’s governing body, committee rooms, an assembly hall for 300, and a library of historical and contemporary pharmaceutical works.

Though it seems to make an unwelcome contrast with the neighbourhood of old Lambeth, the Pharmaceutical Society building contains sore fascinating relics of the local pottery industry. Several of these are on shown in the entrance hall, and may be viewed on request. There is a fine collection of English Delft drug jars dating from 1675-1725 and a separate display of examples made in Lambeth. Tin-glazed earthen-ware, or delftware as it came to be known, was first manufactured in the 16th century and some of the earliest vessels were designed for use by apothecaries.

From around 1650, a particular style of Delftware jars, decoratively marked with the wares of medicaments, was produced and they continued to be made locally and elsewhere for over 100 years. The decoration is usually in blue, and sometimes includes the Arms of the Apothecaries Company. Delftware tiles were also produced, often shield-shaped or octagonal, on which apothecaries had their name and Company Arms inscribed. These tiles were used as a kind of palette for mixing ointments and rounding pills and may also have been used simply as a kind of trade-mark displayed outside the owner’s shop.

The exhibits at the Pharmaceutical Society have been arranged with informative captions underneath, which tell us about the make-up and alleged properties of early medicines. Several jars were evidently used to contain Mithridate, which from Roman times to the 17th century was popularly regarded as an antidote against poison and infectious diseases. The medicament takes its name from Mithridates VI, king of Pontus (132-63BC) who was thought to have rendered himself proof against poisoning by the continual use of antidotes. A recipe for Mithridate in the first ‘Pharmacopoeia Londoniensis’ (1618) uses over fifty ingredients of vegetable and animal origin.

One of the Lambeth Delft drug jars is labelled ‘Syrup of Comfrey’ which was ‘excellent for all inward Wounds and Bruises… it unites broken bones, helps Ruptures and stops the Terms in Women….. You cannot erre in taking it’ wrote T. Culpeper in 1669. Another fine English Delft jar contained The Blessed Pills, made from aloes, gum ammoniacum and inspissated juice of thistles, massed with Rhenish wine and thistle juice. ‘They are wondrous good against Hypochodriack Melancholy….. .Obstructions of the liver Spleen, Etc’ wrote W.Salmon in 1671.

The conditions of 17th-century life in England are reflected in the large jar for Soldiers’ Ointment. Its 45 ingredients, mostly herbs, included also stag’s marrow, bear’s and hen’s grease, butter, and beeswax. ‘Doubtless it is an Excellent Oyntment to be used in Camps and for Souldiers to anoint their cold, stiff and weary limbs with’, noted the Pharmacopoeia of 1618.

It is interesting to speculate that perhaps not only the jars but also some of the drugs used in those times may have been prepared in one of the three Llambeth windmills. The Lambeth Drug Mill stood in Gray’s Walk, roughly where the Ethelred Street estate now lies, to the north of Black Prince Road. Although the association of this windmill with the Apothecaries Company has now been disproved, it is certain that the mill was in the tenancy, up to about 1790, of persons carrying on the trade of druggist and apothecary.

Other items of interest on view at the Pharmaceutical Society include a Presidential Chair, made of black bean wood and presented by the Pharmaceutical Associations of Australia and New Zealand. The back is inlaid with a marquetry map of these countries, using typical woods from the Australian states. Nearby are some beautifully decorated bell mortars, one of which was used by Charles Angibaud, apothecary to Louis XIV.

On the opposite side of the entrance hall is an impressive display of large gilded 18th century jars for such things as rhubarb, magnesia, and sulphur. Interspersed with these are 19th and early 20th century giant bottles of coloured liquid which were the symbol of the local chemist’s shop until the 1950s. Bringing us riqht up to date, the reception desk holds a display of latest works published by The Pharmaceutical Press. The best known of these is, of course, the ‘British Pharmacopoeia’, containing the formulae of all nationally recognised medicinal and pharmaceutical substances. Such is the complexity of modern medicine that the companion to this, Martindale’s ‘Extra Pharmacopoeia’, took five years to compile the current edition and now costs £54 per copy.

Also on sale at the desk is a set of postcards illustrating the historical collection of the Pharmaceutical Society and posters, one of which is a colour reproduction of the 1801 broadsheet by G.W. Woodward and T. Rowlandson, entitled ‘The Apothecary’s Prayer’. It caricatures the penniless apothecary, praying to God that he will bring sufficient sickness and disease to his neighbours that his own fortunes may be restored! These items make an interesting memento of old trades in Lambeth and a well-presented modern display.


The RPSGB has published a PDF of the  “Lambeth Pharmacy Walk”. It was by pure coincidence that there was so much history connected with pharmacy in the area.