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Look east, young man: tales of British pharmacists in India during the Raj

Today, many pharmacists of Indian origin live and work in Britain. But 150 years ago the movement of pharmacists was in the opposite direction. Stuart Anderson traces the origins of this movement and tells the stories of some of the people who went out to India during the early days of the Raj

by Stuart Anderson

Today, many pharmacists of Indian origin live and work in Britain. But 150 years ago the movement of pharmacists was in the opposite direction. Stuart Anderson traces the origins of this movement and tells the stories of some of the people who went out to India during the early days of the Raj

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During the 90 years of the British Raj large numbers of pharmacists headed east to make their fortune in India. With the founding of the English East India Company in 1600, trade with India developed rapidly.

But as the activities of the company expanded it became as concerned with governance as it was with commerce. By the beginning of the 19th century the company effectively ruled large parts of India. After the Indian Mutiny in 1857 responsibility for ruling India shifted to the British government.

Ruling India required many British nationals to head eastwards as administrators, engineers, judges and all the other professions needed to run an empire. This expanding expatriot community expected to have access to the full range of services and commodities they were used to at home, and this applied as much to chemists and druggists as anything else.

Early British pharmacies in India

British pharmacies appeared in India well before the Raj; in fact the first one was opened in Calcutta in 1811, by a Scottish chemist and druggist called Bathgate. His premises were described as “the prettiest pharmacy in India”.

The basis of his business was dispensing prescriptions and toilet requisites, although later he added a photographic department and began manufacturing products such as aerated waters, galenicals and biologicals. The company later opened several branches, including one in Calcutta in 1900 and another in Ballygunge in 1910.

The success of Bathgate’s enterprise soon attracted the interest of others. Around 1815 a small apothecary’s shop was opened in another part of Calcutta by two British surgeons, John Robinson and James Williamson.

The pharmacy of Smith, Stanistreet & Co in Dalhousie Square, Calcutta (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:144)

The pharmacy of Smith, Stanistreet & Co in Dalhousie Square, Calcutta (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:144)

Interior of Smith, Stanistreet & Co pharmacy, Calcutta (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:145)

Interior of Smith, Stanistreet & Co pharmacy, Calcutta (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:145)

A third partner, John Smith, joined them in 1826, and a fourth, Thomson Dowson Stanistreet in 1844. The firm changed its name to Smith, Stanistreet & Co and had great success.

This business was aimed initially at supplying the needs of apothecaries and surgeons, although it gradually built up a substantial pharmaceutical trade.

Despite its early start, by 1869 the company had already started to decline as increasing numbers of British pharmacies were opened in Calcutta.

However, it was acquired by a young surgeon by the name of Charles Noyce Kernot who set about turning around its fortunes. He was so successful that Silas Burroughs (of Burroughs Wellcome), on his travels through India in 1883, noted that Kernot had made “a very large fortune” from it.

When Kernot retired in 1900 he was replaced by Charles Baker, who had been with the firm since 1882.

Another pre-Raj pioneer was E. J. Lazarus, a Welshman from Carmethen. He arrived in India around 1839, initially gaining experience in a British pharmacy. Within a few years he moved to Benares, starting his own firm. He remained there as head of the company for the next 40 years.

This was the first such pharmacy in Benares, and the early British pharmacists in India learnt to be largely self-sufficient. Initially Lazarus had to arrange his own printing. However, this side of the business steadily grew. By 1880 he was employing a large number of staff, and doing everything on the premises except making paper.

Pharmaceutical gold rush

With the influx of large numbers of British expatriates at the start of the Raj in 1857, new British pharmacies soon started springing up. There was a “pharmaceutical gold rush” to India from Britain, with pharmacies opening not only in Calcutta, but in the other main centres of European population, including their winter retreats.

Some rapidly became substantial businesses. For example, R. Scott Thomson & Co opened a British pharmacy in Calcutta in 1863, joining those of Bathgate and Smith and Stanistreet.

Treacher & Co pharmacy, Bombay, 1897 (Chemist & Druggist 1894;45:158)

Treacher & Co pharmacy, Bombay, 1897 (Chemist & Druggist 1894;45:158)

Thomson & Taylor pharmacy, Esplanade Road, Bombay (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:621)

Thomson & Taylor pharmacy, Esplanade Road, Bombay (Chemist & Druggist 1902;60:621)

William Treacher established the business of Treacher & Co in Bombay in 1864, opening a branch in Poona in 1879, and another in the popular hill station of Mahableshwar in 1889.

Treacher built up what was described as “a very successful manufacturing and wholesale chemists’ business”, as a result of which he is said to have made a large fortune.

Thomson & Taylor opened English pharmacies in Bombay and Poona in 1872, followed by a large number of branches.

Typical of this new breed of pioneer was David Skinner Kemp. He undertook an apprenticeship in Scotland, qualifying as a pharmaceutical chemist in 1855.

Shortly after, he went out to India and, within 10 years, had set up his own business in Bombay. He took on two local partners and, in 1882, the business was converted into a limited company.

Kemp remained as manager until 1885, when he returned to Scotland a rich man.

Indeed, Scotland was the home of many of these pioneering pharmacists. Another was Tom Bliss. Bliss undertook a four-year apprenticeship with a pharmacist in Nairn. Not yet 20, and with a longing for travel, he left Liverpool on board a small sailing vessel bound for Calcutta in 1863. After six months, he found himself sailing up the Hooghli River to Calcutta.

Within 24 hours of arriving he had joined the staff of the newly opened Scott Thomson pharmacy. There he remained for several years but, in 1869, he moved up country to Simla, joining the firm of E. Plomer & Co.

After another four years, the owners offered to sell the business and, with the assistance of friends, he acquired an interest in it. The business continued trading under the same name and did well. Four years later, in 1877, Bliss bought another pharmacy business in Lahore, again trading under the title E. Plomer & Co. He later opened another branch, in Delhi.

In the north-eastern corner of India, nestling in the Himalayan mountains, lies the small town of Mussoorie. Its height above sea level gives it a pleasant climate, which made it a welcome retreat for the British from the hot and sultry plains of India. It became known as the “Brighton of India”. The seasons are not dissimilar to those of southern Britain, except for the rainy season in June, July and August.

J. L. Lyell saw an opportunity in Mussoorie and set up the first British pharmacy business there in 1862. He had founded his first British pharmacy in Allahabad in 1858. Lyell recruited an assistant from England, H. G. Harris, and gave him sole charge of the Mussoorie business.

The business was run on a grand scale and, in a few years, Lyell made a large fortune. He sold out to C. F. Fitch in 1885. The firm became Fitch & Co, with Fitch as managing director. It traded as general merchants, chemists and mineral water manufacturers, and it was regarded as the “Whiteleys” of northern India.

Recruiting from Britain

Lazarus & Co pharmacy, Benares, 1840 (Chemist & Druggist 1880;22:84)

Lazarus & Co pharmacy, Benares, 1840 (Chemist & Druggist 1880;22:84)

In the 1860s and 1870s this pattern of growth was repeated across India. Although, by this time, both the profession of pharmacy and the sale of poisons were regulated in Britain, the same was not true in India.

There was nothing to stop locals setting up in business on their own, but the target customers for the British pharmacies were the British expatriates, as well as prosperous locals.

Those running such businesses needed experience of serving such customers, and the obvious candidates were recently qualified pharmacists in England.

From the 1860s, advertisements appeared regularly in The Pharmaceutical Journal and Chemist & Druggist for pharmacists to go out to India to work as “assistants”. The typical posts on offer were fixed term, for three to five years. Usually they were “passage paid” and sometimes also “return passage paid.” In practice, however, many stayed on and made their careers and fortunes there.

Travel became easier and quicker from the mid-19th century. Fast and reliable steamships replaced the sailing ships, the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and regular passages between Britain and India were instituted by companies such as British India, Cunard and P&O.

Things not as rosy as presented

By the late 1870s, there was no shortage of young pharmacists responding to the seductive advertisements that appeared in the pharmacy journals, and significant numbers took up the offers made. But things were not always as rosy as they were presented, particularly the pay on offer.

A young pharmacist wrote to The Journal in 1882, anxious to make sure that those who might be tempted by such advertisements had an accurate picture of what to expect: “I have very good reason for believing that considerable misapprehension exists as to the true value of the rupee, and also the cost of living in India.

“There are many reasons why a chemist’s assistant should be well paid on coming out to India. The climate is unhealthy and an unnatural one to a European. … Expenses, taken all round, are 100 per cent heavier than in England.

“An assistant is expected to do more than he is in a similar position at home; in addition to long hours, he has night and Sunday duty recurring much more frequently than at home.”

Others gave similar warnings. A correspondent to Chemist & Druggist in 1885 wrote: “All is not gold that glitters. Let not assistants desirous of coming to the East Indies imagine that they are going to a place where they will have very little work. I can assure them that they will find nothing of the kind.

“Work here is every bit as hard and more trying than at home, and holidays are fewer in number. … Before an engagement is made with London agents it is important to consider the falling value of Indian money.”

Other correspondents attempted to present a more balanced view of the experience of moving to India. One reported a more satisfactory experience: “With regard to myself I have no reason to regret coming out here; I am doing fairly well, with prospects of doing better, and am enjoying my usual good health. I had a liberal increase in my salary before I had been out six months.

“When I came out I was put in charge of the laboratory and soda water factory. I have over 30 men and boys to look after in my two departments.

“Here you are practically your own master in your own department, and of course held responsible as such. I should not care to return to the life of an assistant at home again.”

After a while, British pharmacies in India began to experience pressures from a variety of sources. Competition between them meant that businesses were not as profitable as they once were. The fall of the pound against the rupee meant that items imported from Britain were more expensive, and the value of earnings paid in rupees was much less when returning to Britain.

Potential recruits were increasingly aware of the reality of the conditions in India. Those who were already there complained not only about long working hours and inadequate remuneration but also about poor living conditions and little holiday.

Some found the climate extremely inhospitable. A correspondent to The Journal gave an account of his life as an assistant in 1883: “I am in sole charge of the dispensing part of a mixed business in the Mofussil, and up at 6 in the morning and in business until 7pm; with the thermometer at 90 to 94 degrees, streaming with perspiration like a Turkish bath.

“It is no uncommon thing to be called up once or twice a night, and during a cholera epidemic five or six times.”

More applicants than jobs

The various warnings about the reality of life in India initially had little impact on recruitment and by the 1880s British pharmacists were making their own way to India, expecting to have the pick of jobs when they arrived.

But by then the initial rush of new British pharmacies had ended, and by 1887 there were more applicants than jobs. Those who went out without a job to go to were often surprised to find how difficult it had become to find suitable positions.

John A. Falck wrote to Chemist & Druggist from Lahore in November 1886: “It is difficult to get a situation. I came to India knowing nothing whatever of the country or anybody in it. I found but three chemists’ shops in Calcutta employing Europeans, and this is the largest city in India.

Then I received the awful information that every chemist brought his assistant (drug clerk) out from England on an agreement, passage paid out and back, and the clerk to stop with his employer three, four or five years as the case may be.

“In three weeks I was fortunate enough to secure a vacancy, but I might have been six months without hearing of one.”

By that stage the British pharmacies in Calcutta also faced increasing competition from the local practitioners. A correspondent to The Journal reported that: “There is one common enemy we all have to fight against, and that is the natives, who open a ‘Medical Hall’ in the native part of the town, and get a native compounder, dismissed from some regimental hospital for some fault or other, to do the dispensing.”

Many of these “natives” were, in fact, astute businessmen, and were able to develop their activities into substantial concerns. One such was Butto Kristo Paul. Paul had started his business in the 1860s in a tiny shop in a small one-storeyed building in the busiest part of Calcutta.

By 1896 it had moved to a busy side lane, and occupied two upper floors of the building, with an elegant sign board. B. K. Paul & Co. carried out wholesale as well as retail business, and dealt in a wide range of drugs, chemicals and related articles. The native pharmacies were much cheaper than the British pharmacies, which lost business to them.

The better-off Indian clients increasingly shunned them in favour of local businesses and the British customers increasingly complained about the prices charged, and sought cheaper alternatives.

The typical customer in a British pharmacy in India was vividly described in The Journal in 1901 by George Cecil: “A word as to the European chemists’ customers: officers, members of the Indian Civil Service, comprising judges, ‘collectors’, magistrates, commissioners, and ‘joint-magistrates,’ opium wallahs, police superintendents, merchants, engineers of the Canal and Public Works Departments, chaplains, officials of the Education Department, and a certain number of Eurasians and natives patronise him.

“With the exception of officers in British regiments, he frequently finds his customers endeavouring to force him to reduce his prices by quoting those existing in native and Parsee establishments.”

In the larger cities, such as Calcutta and Bombay, the trade in prescriptions was large and profitable. The British pharmacists supervised the work of locally recruited compounders, but they did not do the dispensing themselves. They served the customers and checked the use of poisons.

Many also supervised manufacturing facilities and laboratories. The more important pharmacies included a medical clinic, each having a doctor attached to it. The doctor examined and prescribed, and the only fee paid was the charge for the medicines.

More jobs than applicants

By the mid-1890s the message was clearly getting through to young pharmacists in Britain that life in India was not always as rosy as it was painted, or that the prospects of getting rich quick were guaranteed.

Chemist & Druggist felt compelled to address the issue in an editorial in 1895: “There appears to be a slackening in the response to advertisements of vacancies for assistants in India.

“Ten years ago it was easy to fill such vacancies, but assistants have gradually become indifferent to the allurements of the gorgeous East, and we find that the personal requests from employers for assistance have been on the increase.

“We have found it difficult to convince young men that India offers better opportunities than can be obtained at home, probably because we ourselves are not sure that the life of the assistant in India is altogether a happy one, or that the change from this variable climate to Indian indolence can be considered betterment to any but a chosen few.”

The magazine identified two main causes for the decline in interest in moving to India: “In the first place, it should be noted that the condition of qualified assistants at home has decidedly improved during the past five years. His certificate is no longer regarded as a drawback, but as an advantage. Salaries have gone up accordingly.

“In the second place salaries have remained practically stationary in India and Ceylon, although the rupee has been falling. Young pharmacists are beginning to ask what prospects there are of making a fortune in pharmacy after assistant days are over.”

Serving the Empire

At the start of the 20th century the number of British pharmacies operating in India ran into several hundred, and the demand for British pharmacists to work in them continued unabated. The answer to the recruitment problem was improved working conditions and pay.

For British pharmacies in India, the early 20th century was a period of consolidation rather than expansion. Some of those who went out to India later returned to Britain, richer in purse and experience. But many stayed, settling in India and building lives there.

Ambitious assistants moved into more senior management positions, some became partners in large businesses, and others started their own businesses.

A substantial expatriate British pharmacy community became established and continued to recruit young pharmacists from Britain. Attempts were made to bring some order to the state of pharmacy practice, and things slowly became institutionalised.

A Pharmaceutical Society of India was formed in 1913 and, in 1920, a new publication — the Indian and Eastern Druggist — for British pharmacists in India was launched. It remained in existence until 1941.

European pharmacies continued in India until independence in 1947, although increasingly they were sold on to native Indians. On independence most remaining European pharmacists returned to their homelands.

But within a few short years the movement of pharmacists was reversed. With the end of empire pharmacists from many of its former colonies started to make their way to Britain. In pharmacy, as in other spheres of life, history has a habit of repeating itself.


Stuart Anderson is a former president of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043752

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