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A capsulated history of Beecham’s pills

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.

The business was run by the family and a small number of employees until the late 1870s.

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 leased in Brooklyn, New York from 1890 in order to manufacture Beecham pills for the American market.

Thomas Beecham handed over full control of the business to Joseph 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.

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.

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 and Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961).

Henry Beecham was convicted of manslaughter in 1921 after speeding in his car. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison.

Philip 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.

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.