How did Beecham’s become the largest patent medicine manufacturer in the world?
Thomas Beecham (1820 – 1907) was born to humble circumstances in Oxfordshire. He worked as a shepherd and used his knowledge of herbs to tend his animals.
A coarse yet charismatic character, Beecham began to manufacture pills from 1847. Beecham’s Pills, comprised of aloes, ginger and soap, had a mild laxative effect. The pills were more palatable than the traditional home remedies of the day, such as rhubarb and Epsom salts.
Beecham relocated to the booming mill towns of the North West of England. He sold his pills from a market stall in Wigan, Lancashire. He relocated to nearby St Helens from 1859.
The business was run by the family and a small number of employees until the late 1870s.
Joseph Beecham (1848 – 1916) had effectively taken control of his father’s business by the 1880s. Joseph Beecham was described as “[i]n personal appearance … the quiet, pipe-smoking, tweed-clad type of Englishman. He has neither business nor artistic pose, and is modesty itself.”
Beecham pills held the highest sale of any patent medicine in the world by 1885. A new electric-powered factory was opened in St Helens in 1886.
250 million pills were sold in 1890, a quarter of all factory-made pills in Britain.
A factory was leased in Brooklyn, New York in order to manufacture Beecham pills for the American market from 1890.
Thomas Beecham handed over full control of the business to Joseph Beecham in 1895.
Joseph Beecham spent £100,000 a year on advertising by 1895. The factory had 120 employees, all men.
After it was discovered that he was engaged in adultery, Joseph Beecham was divorced by his wife in 1901.
Joseph Beecham had an annual income of £20,000 by 1903.
Small quantities of morphine were present in the pills from 1905 onwards.
American sales doubled between 1906 and 1913. A new factory in Brooklyn was purchased in 1910. Joseph Beecham made frequent trips across the Atlantic to attend to his American business.
The New York Times reported that Joseph Beecham was the third richest man in England by 1909, with a fortune valued at US$130 million. Joseph Beecham was knighted in 1912, in recognition of his philanthropic work.
Beecham spent US$5 million on advertising between 1903 and 1913, and was one of the most extensive newspaper advertisers in the world.
Over 450 million Beecham pills were sold worldwide in 1913. The annual advertising budget was $5 million.
A total of 10,000 million pills had been sold by 1914.
Before his death, Sir Joseph Beecham handed the American business to his son, Henry Beecham (1888 – 1947).
Sir Joseph Beecham died in 1916, and had an estate valued at £1.5 million. The British business was passed to his two sons, Henry Beecham and Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961).
Henry Beecham sold his entire interest in Beecham’s Pills to James White (1877 – 1927) in 1919.
Henry Beecham was convicted of manslaughter in 1921 after speeding in his car. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison.
Philip Hill and public offering
Philip Ernest Hill (1873 – 1944) acquired the business, largely from Thomas Beecham, for £2.8 million in 1924.
Hill was a skilled entrepreneur, and established a new laboratory. The company’s first pharmaceutical product, an aspirin-based cold and flu powder, was introduced in 1926.
The Veno Drug Company of Manchester, a manufacturer of cough syrup, was acquired in 1928.
Beecham’s Pills was incorporated as a public company in 1928.
Yeast-Vite, including Holloway’s Pills, was acquired in 1931.
1938 saw three major acquisitions: Macleans, a toothpaste manufacturer was purchased for over £2 million; Lucozade, a medicinal drink, was acquired for around £10,000, and Eno Proprietaries, best known for its Fruit Salts product, was acquired. Eno provided Beecham with an international distribution network.
County Perfumery, the manufacturer of Brylcreem, was acquired for £600,000 in 1939.
20th century continued growth
Following the death of Philip Hill in 1944, Stanley Holmes (1878 – 1961) became company chairman.
C&E Morton, best known for the Murraymints confectionery brand, was acquired for £180,000 in 1945.
A single product, Lucozade, provided one third of Beecham’s British profits in 1949.
Henry Lazell (1903 – 1982) was appointed managing director of Beecham in 1951. He was to become the driving force behind the subsequent growth of the business, with a strong commitment to marketing and research and development.
The American market began to be targeted in earnest, led by Brylcreem.
H W Carter, the manufacturer of Ribena, was acquired in 1955.
Thomas & Evans, probably the largest volume producer of soft drinks in Britain, and best known for the Corona brand, was acquired in 1958.
North American sales dwarfed British sales by 1958, largely driven by the success of Brylcreem, where it was the market leader in men’s hair products.
Beecham was the second largest advertiser in Britain by 1960.
Macleans began to be promoted in the United States from 1960. It held fourth place in the toothpaste market by 1964.
Lazell retired as managing director in 1968.
Horlicks was acquired for £14 million in 1969.
Beecham employed around 23,000 people by 1972.
Beecham was the eleventh most highly-valued public company in Europe by 1982.
Beecham merged with SmithKline Beckman to create the second largest pharmaceuticals group in the world in 1989.
SmithKline Beecham was the 43rd largest company in the world, as measured by market value, in 1992.
Brylcreem was sold to Sara Lee in 1993.
The Beecham factory in St Helens was closed with the loss of 480 jobs in 1994. The production of Beecham’s Pills was ended in 1998, with the manufacturer suggesting that Milk of Magnesia be used as a substitute.
Block Drug of the US, best known for the Sensodyne toothpaste brand, was acquired for £850 million in 2000. SmithKline Beecham became the second largest toothpaste manufacturer in the world.
Title image used courtesy of the Science Museum, London.