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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 268 No 7204 p919-920
29 June 2002

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History of pharmacy

How Jacob Bell fell from grace

Robert Blyth, FRPharmS, a former editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal, looks at an episode in the life of Jacob Bell, the first editor of The Journal, who introduced the Bill that led to the passing of the Pharmacy Act 150 years ago

Jacob Bell, first editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal, whose election to Parliament was marred by gross corruption

The first Pharmacy Act received Royal Assent 150 years ago on 30 June 1852. The Bill had been introduced by Jacob Bell when he became a Member of Parliament in 1850. Indeed, it was for that purpose that he stood for Parliament and was elected member for St Albans.

The 1852 Act protected the titles "pharmaceutical chemist", "pharmaceutist" and "member of the Pharmaceutical Society", and provided for a register of certificated chemists and druggists. It did not, as its sponsors had wished, prohibit all unqualified persons from carrying on the business of a chemist and druggist, which, it seemed to parliamentarians of the time, would have been a system of monopoly, incompatible with the principles of free trade and, therefore, untenable.

This article commemorates an important milestone in the establishment of the pharmaceutical profession in Britain, a milestone that would not have been reached, certainly not in the time that it was, but for the dedication and determination of Jacob Bell. Yet the main content concerns the sad fact that Bell's election to Parliament was marred by gross corruption whereby his election was secured by bribery, as a result of which St Albans was disenfranchised for 60 years. It has also to be recorded that there was a certain reluctance within pharmacy to acknowledge Bell's involvement in the bribery.

The matter is referred to in an obituary in The Journal,1 which admits that the affair was "ever after a source of regret to Mr Bell and was the occasion at the time of many unpleasant reflections being cast upon him". But the article concluded: "In the opinion of those most fully acquainted with the circumstances, he was more sinned against than sinning. That he showed a laxity in placing himself so fully as he did in the hands of his parliamentary agent we cannot deny. But we are convinced that his doing so was a consequence of his ignorance of electioneering practices."

That generous exculpation is matched by what is said in 'Progress of pharmacy' (in the second part of the book, after Jacob Bell's death): "The constituency of St Albans was known in parliamentary circles to be not entirely above the influence of the sovereign [meaning the £1 coin]; but this was a little weakness of which one who had never dabbled in politics might well be ignorant, as also of the right method of dealing with it. Mr Bell left the management of the contest to his agents, who merely wanted to be supplied with the usual means, without which a contested election could not be conducted; and being supplied, he was returned by a good majority. ... Unfortunately his title to his seat was almost immediately called in question by a petition against the return on the grounds of bribery. the charge was fully established against the electors and agents, but he himself was exonerated."2

Now contrast the above with the finding of the Commission of Inquiry which had been set up by a Select Committee of Parliament: that "Bell knew that money was being advanced on his behalf for the purpose of bribery and that he owed his election to such bribery".3 That conclusion was included in the memorial address given on 12 June 1959 by the President of the Pharmaceutical Society, commemorating the centenary of the death of Jacob Bell in 1859.4

The address was composed by Desmond Lewis, who became Secretary and Registrar of the Society in 1967, and it was he who drew my attention to the acceptance within pharmacy that Bell had been exonerated. And, of course, he rectified that in the 1959 memorial address.

“The bells of St Stephens: Great ‘Tom of Lincoln’ and the Little Bell of St Albans” — this cartoon, which was published in Punch in 1851, was one of several that appeared at the time concerned Bell and his troubled election

I was intrigued by his revelation and decided to investigate the matter further. My researches, such as they were, took me to St Albans and to Foyles bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road, where, in a basement room, I found a massive pile of gilt-edged, bound volumes of Punch. Sure enough, as I had suspected, I came upon, in volume XXI, 1851, a plenitude of cartoons concerning Jacob Bell and his troubled election, none complimentary to Bell. I bought the volume and presented it to the Society's library in due course. Again, a visit to the files of The Times produced contemporary comment in leading articles, all critical of Bell.

The reticence in pharmacy concerning the matter may be attributed to a natural reverence for Jacob Bell, and also to the quite different conclusion reached by two inquiries into the affair. First, an investigation by a Select Committee of Parliament early in 1851 found that a "system of gross corruption prevailed at the last election for the borough of St Albans and also on formal similar occasions". The committee's opinion was that further inquiry should be made by a Commission under legislative authority. That Commission, as I have said already, concluded that Bell knew that money was being advanced on his behalf for the purpose of bribery and that he owed his election to such bribery.

The important point to note, however, is that when the Select Committee's report was debated in the House of Commons on 30 April 1851, the Solicitor-General said that there was no evidence or any suggestion of any connection between the sitting member [Jacob Bell] and the agent guilty of bribery.

Those remarks by the Solicitor-General were commented upon by The Times (14 November 1851) when the Commission finally reported. The newspaper said: "'There was no evidence', was there, Mr Solicitor-General? 'Not the slightest suggestion' that any vote had been purchased on behalf of the successful candidate. To think so was 'very hard upon the sitting member', was it not? Oh Sir Page, Sir Page! What a contrast you have drawn between common law and common sense!"

It may be added that it was, according to the Commissioners, Thomas Hyde Hills, Bell's business partner in the pharmacy in London's Oxford Street — just east of Oxford Circus tube station on the south side — who was the active agent in furnishing the money used for the bribery. Hills told the Commissioners that he "complicated' the financial aspects of the affair as much as possible so that "if any inquiry was made about it, he could prevent it, it might not be found out whom the money came from." "And," said the Commissioners, "in this he, to some extent, succeeded."

The money, in packets of sovereigns, was taken to St Albans and locked up in a house taken as a committee room in a street in the borough which, as a result of these activities, later became known as Sovereign Alley.

Jacob Bell claimed to have been the victim of a system, which The Times of 14 November 1851 described as "the very peck of the fancy", meaning, presumably, that claim evidenced a very large quantity of imagination. It is noteworthy, however, that even eight years later, The Times itself was still commenting upon electoral corruption "which when it comes to be disclosed before Parliamentary Committees, will, we believe, astonish those who have been trying to believe that public opinion had put down electoral malpractices".

The report of the Commissioners shows that Bell was asked: "Am I to understand, it was stated when you became a candidate and during the progress of your canvass you understood your election was not to be secured by corrupt practices?"

Bell: "Yes, that was understood. After I was once in the mud it was very difficult for me to control what was going on."

"What do you mean by once in the mud?"

"When I was in the middle of a contested election everyone must know that it is extremely difficult for a candidate to pull up suddenly and control everything that was going on. I had no influence or power then."

"I was asking you whether your belief was up to the day of polling no corrupt practices were being resorted to on your behalf."

"Occasionally I had a suspicion."

"Have you ever heard the expression 'Bell metal' as referring to money being given by your agents?"

"That originated in a squib [a lampoon]. The sort of thing practised at all elections. I saw the squib and I thought no more of it than I would of any other squib."

As previously mentioned, a leading article in the PJ quoted the opinion that Bell was more sinned against than sinning, and Bell himself declared that he was the victim of a system. There is substance in those claims, and a lengthy defence of them is contained a letter Bell wrote, which began "My Dear Friend". The letter was dated 9 January 1852 and the envelope was addressed to George Dawson, Chemist, Manchester, "Private".5

The first paragraph of the letter is not relevant, but the rest reads: "I am sure that I made a mistake in going to St Albans. I found this out when it was too late to retract. I have never from that time had any opportunity of doing so or I was like a person who has taken a set in a train and is unable to stop it.

"I dare say the affair will injure me in many ways and it may probably injure the cause in which I have engaged for many years. If this should be the case, I cannot help it. I must grin and bear it. There has been a great deal of noise about that borough ? but if I wished to stand another election I should not know where to find a better. I believe they are all alike in principle with the exception of a few where local circumstances give the representatives influence which enables them to walk over the course. But I believe there never was and never will be a contest without bribery or competition in some form or another. I observe the same principles operate in parish matters and in every case in which human nature and public duty are placed in competition with each other. Of course, I do not in any degree defend these proceedings but I know more about it now since I have tasted of the tree of knowledge, of good and evil and passed through the fiery ordeal of a Parliamentary Commission."

It was, incidentally, Desmond Lewis who discovered the letter in the library of the Society of Friends. He quoted from a part of the letter in the 1959 memorial address.

I wrote a fairly detailed account of the matter, especially of the proceedings of the Commission and it was published in The Pharmaceutical Journal in 1974 just after the first general election of that year, it having been inappropriate to publish it at the time of the centenary. The election in 1974 seemed a suitable hook upon which to hang it.6


1. Sketch of the life of Jacob Bell (editorial). Pharm J 1859;19:153?60.

2. Bell J, Redwood T. Historical sketch of the progress of pharmacy in Great Britain. London: Pharmaceutical Society; 1880. p205.

3. St Albans bribery. Reports from Commissioners. 1852;10.

4. The life and work of Jacob Bell. Pharm J 1959;182:447?52.

5. Manuscript letter in library of Society of Friends. Gibson Manuscripts, volume 5, p79.

6. Jacob Bell ? "the victim of a system"? Pharm J 1974;212:175?7.

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