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Pharmacy waves goodbye to “one of the most beautiful shops in England”

The resiting of a branch of Lloyds in Bury St Edmunds this year meant the end of 200 of years of pharmacy in premises described as one of the most beautiful shops in England by architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor in his 1980s BBC2 series “Another six English towns”. Lin-Nam Wang, The Journal’s senior contributions editor, talked to a former pharmacist at the premises

by Lin-Nam Wang

The resiting of a branch of Lloyds in Bury St Edmunds this year meant the end of 200 of years of pharmacy in premises described as one of the most beautiful shops in England by architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor in his 1980s BBC2 series “Another six English towns”. Lin-Nam Wang, The Journal’s senior contributions editor, talked to a former pharmacist at the premises

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Not many pharmacists are so taken with the building they work in that they feel the need to produce a brochure of its history, but Noel Stow was. During his 33 years at the pharmacy at 56 Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds, so many people asked about the history of the shop that the brochure was useful, he explained.

Mr Stow, who became a pharmacist in 1949 was a director of Smalleys Chemists from 1956 to 1971. The first pharmacy business at the site, however, was established by Woolfrey Middleditch in 1789.

An advertisement in the Bury & Norwich Post in October that year informed the public of the new Golden Phoenix Pharmacy in Cook Row (later renamed Abbeygate Street), boasting of “drugs and chemicals of the purest quality” as well as perfumery (“foreign and English”), olives, oils, pickles, anchovies, vinegars and choice fruits.

Middleditch was something of an entrepreneur. At one stage he even installed mills in the pharmacy so that he could make wig powder. Another of his schemes could have destroyed the building — while he was heating beeswax and turpentine to make floor polish, it was set on fire.

The sale of items, such as sauces and spices, was continued by the third proprietor (1808–30), Martin Colk, from Bacton in Norfolk, who added “horse medicines of every description” to his range.

A speciality of the proprietor number five (1840–54) Charles Dalton, who was also a surgeon, was “Dalton’s General Sauce”, which was recommended as a prime relish with fish, game and steaks.

Others in the long line of proprietors also had their own specials. W. G. Skoulding (in business at the premises from 1896 to 1904), for example, sold his Pig Powder in sacks of half a hundredweight (56 pounds) and his Shepherd’s Friend was popular at lambing time.

Renovation

First floor, showing tie-beam roof, with crown posts (Henry Kiddy)

First floor, showing tie-beam roof, with crown posts (Henry Kiddy)

Restored Jacobean staircase (Henry Kiddy)

Restored Jacobean staircase (Henry Kiddy)

The exact date of the building is uncertain, but possibly 14th century. However, a foundation wall in the cellar has been dated as early as the 13th century, Mr Stow said.

The building itself was originally a medieval town house with a shop facing the street. “Major renovation began in 1956 … and it was through the vision and determination of the managing director of Smalleys that the property was transformed,” he added.

The traditional roof beams often seen in Tudor architecture (see picture, top right) were treated with a mixture of strong ammonia and 130 volume hydrogen peroxide to reveal their original beauty.

Up until the 16th century, the beams would have been exposed but, by the time Smalleys moved in, they had been covered in paint or plaster — plastered ceilings became fashionable in the 17th century.

Some of the main beams are decorated with carvings, indicating that, at some time in the 16th century, the building was the residence of a wealthy owner. In particular, carvings of a man and woman are to be found on a corner post.

During the renovation, a “good luck stone”— an 18-inch square slab with a carving of a figure on one side — was found buried face down at the entrance of the shop.

“Superstition has it as long as the stone remained, good fortune would favour the occupants, so it was mounted on the wall of the ground floor,” Mr Stow says.

The Lloyds business (1993–2008) was the building’s 13th pharmacy incarnation. After Lloyds vacated the premises, the building was stripped. According to Mr Stow, it is set to be home to a outdoor clothing retailer and a firm of architects in the new year.

The good luck stone remains mounted in the wall.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043772

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