Old trade card for a chemist's shop in Bath Show image info

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

Mr Slater's Popular Potions

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

A trade card for Mr Slater's chemist's shop inspired this report, which it is imagined appeared in the Bath Chronicle for 9 April 1762.

The city of Bath may be renowned for its healing waters but it can also boast one of the best stocked and most up to date chemist’s shops outside the capital. Walk along George Street on a fine spring morning and your attention will inevitably be drawn to the handsome bow windows of William Slater, Chemist and Druggist where the sun glints off a fine array of blue jars with gold labels bearing the names of substances whose miraculous powers are known only to Mr Slater. The largest jars made of clear glass with narrow necks and tear-shaped stoppers, contain the brilliant blue, green and ochre liquids of the chemist’s trademark. Open the door and a carillon of bells alerts the busy shopkeeper who will invariably be occupied with other customers. The shop’s location in George Street means that it is on a direct route from the affluent Upper Town down to the attractions of the Pump Room and the Baths, thus providing visitors with a chance to supplement the natural remedy of spa water with Mr Slater’s manmade medicines. Perhaps it is not too presumptuous to suggest that customers might sometimes be tempted to use the latter to treat the after-effects of the former.

As you wait to gain the attention of the chemist you will have plenty of opportunity to admire the contents of this Aladdin’s cave. A solid mahogany counter runs along the back of the shop with glass fronted cupboards underneath stacked neatly with all manner of bottles, jars, bowls and boxes.  The walls are lined with bespoke apothecaries’ cabinets four drawers deep, each one marked with a curved green label. The names on these labels are slightly more familiar than those on the blue jars in the window, they include substances like camphor, valerian, senna and opium though there is a smattering of obscure Latin words and abbreviations such as cascar. cort., piper alb., alum exsic. and plumb. acet. Above the cabinets narrow shelves climbing right up to the ceiling are lined with so many more bottles and containers that is difficult to know how the chemist can find anything in a hurry. Mr Slater may have a very tidy mind but I wonder how successful he is in imparting his knowledge to any new assistant. The cupboard doors beneath the counter display advertisements for the most popular patent medicines such as Dr Boerhaave’s Aurea Medicana which claims to promote perspiration, purge Choler, Melancholy, Phlegm and Waterish matter and be particularly effective for Gout, Gravel, Scurvy, Dropsy, Chilick or Gripes.

Mr Slater himself is a slight figure with steel-rimmed spectacles that always seem to lodge themselves perilously near the end of his narrow nose. His pale complexion probably results from the fact that he rarely leaves his shop. When he is not attending to customers he can always be found in his workroom at the back of the premises surrounded by flasks, scales, pestles, mortars, and all the paraphernalia that he needs to make his own medicines and tinctures. Here he keeps his patent sifter and grinder, a large wooden box turned by a cast-iron handle and, his pride and joy, his father’s vintage tablet-maker. In this contraption the ingredients are compressed into hollow grooves and the mixture then forced out into thin sausage-shaped lengths ready to be sliced into pills. The most popular of Mr Slater’s remedies are basilicon ointment for drawing out splinters and boric acid ointment for treating cuts which he markets under the somewhat alarming name of ‘Bulldog’. There can be few bedside cabinets in Royal Crescent that do not contain one or two of Mr Slater’s signature labels.

Unfortunately, Mr and Mrs Slater who live above the shop have no sons to take over the business so, although there will be no shortage of buyers, it is difficult to imagine a new owner able to match the high standards of traditional pharmacy with which Mr Slater has served Bathonians and visitors alike for the last forty years. Perhaps all we can hope for is that whoever takes over the business will safeguard some of the old medicines, equipment and recipes. At some time in the future they will be rightfully regarded as a part of the history of Bath.

Ann Preston, February – March 2019