Old trade card for a chemist’s shop Show image info

Trade card for William Slater, chemist and druggist, Bath, 1833

It all began with a rotten floorboard

Written in 2019 by a member of a creative writing class, through a collaboration between Bath Record Office and the St. John’s Foundation.

We had moved into our house and were keen to find out more about its history. It is a small house, dwarfed by its stately neighbours with their armies of chimney stacks which had once been had serviced by armies of maids carrying buckets of fuel. It had a rickety front window that was slightly bowed and with small window panes. In the fairly recent deeds that had been handed over to us, there was no mention of it having been a shop although the vendor said she thought it had been a pharmacy at some time. We discovered that in 1820 the owner was running a business hiring out a light, one-horse covered carriage or fly. Before then was our mystery.

The shop window was dramatically blown in during a fierce gale and then the floorboard collapsed and had to be lifted out. There underneath it, had lain for two hundred years, a penny, now darkened by age but unscarred by commerce. Its date was 1806 and it bore the head of sad, mad King George III, elevated and ennobled by his laurel wreath.

During the time it had lain there Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln had been born and lived their lives, Napoleon had rampaged across Europe, slavery was abolished, the American War of Independence and two World Wars had taken place, Beethoven had composed his fifth symphony and Jane Austen had lived in Bath and written Sense and Sensibility. This last event played tricks with my imagination.

Directly opposite our home is Camden Crescent, then called Upper Camden Place and Jane Austen was said to have had friends living there whom she visited. She did not enjoy good health and died eleven years later in her early forties. She would have passed by our house on her visits - is it just possible that she may have called in to the pharmacy to buy medication?

A visit to a coin shop nearly punctured my excitement about the coin’s age. “Oh, you as well, I get loads of these brought in - worth more then than they are now - when they finished a building they used to put a penny in the joists for the luck of the house. Take my advice and put it back!”

We did put it back but my fantasy remained. I found myself scrutinising our small sitting room and trying to visualise it as an old pharmacy with a polished oaken counter with polished brass scales and small weights, shelves bearing decorated ceramic vessels with Latin inscriptions and a door bell that clanged when a customer called in. Maybe, just maybe, the customer was a lady wearing a bonnet and shawl and long dress who had left the high pavement opposite and picked her way across the dirty unmade road.

Veronica Connolly, 2019