Beecham’s was the largest patent medicine manufacturer in the world by 1913, with well over a million pills sold every day.
Thomas Beecham (1820 – 1907) was born in Oxfordshire to humble circumstances. 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.
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 in 1859. Until the late 1870s the business was run by the family and a small number of employees.
Thomas Beecham’s son Joseph (1848 – 1916) had effectively taken control of the company 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 had the highest sale of any patent medicine in the world by 1885. A new factory, powered by electricity, was opened at St Helens in 1886.
250 million pills were sold in 1890, a quarter of all factory-made pills in Britain.
A factory was established in New York in 1890.
Thomas Beecham handed over full control of the business to Joseph in 1895.
The firm spent £100,000 a year on advertising by 1895. The factory had 120 employees, all men.
Between 1906 and 1913, American sales doubled.
Around 365 million pills were manufactured in 1912.
The business was sold to Philip Hill (1873 – 1944) in 1924. Hill was a skilled entrepreneur, and established a 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.
Macleans, a toothpaste manufacturer, and Lucozade, a medicinal drink, were acquired in 1938. Also that year, Eno Proprietaries and County Perfumery, the manufacturer of Brylcreem, were both acquired, the latter for £580,000.
Eno Proprietaries, best known for its Fruit Salts product, provided Beecham with an international distribution network.
Following the death of Philip Hill in 1944, Stanley Holmes (1878 – 1961) became company chairman.
A single product, Lucozade, provided one third of Beecham’s British profits in 1949.
Beecham was dedicating a significant amount of revenue to product research and development by the 1950s.
H W Carter, the manufacturer of Ribena, was acquired in 1955. Thomas & Evans, the manufacturer of Corona soft drinks, was acquired in 1958.
Beecham was the second largest advertiser in Britain by 1960.
Horlicks was acquired in 1969.
Production of Beecham’s Pills ended in 1998. The manufacturer recommended consumers use Milk of Magnesia as a substitute.