4. Sotherton Backler (1704-1763) Apprenticeship and Freedom

220px-Sweedons_passage_grub_street[1]The first Sotherton’s apprenticeship and freedom

In which we take a look at Sotherton Backler’s apprenticeship to Daniel Hanchett, Apothecary of London, and look at the neighbourhood where they lived.  We note Sotherton’s marriage and the births (and, sadly, deaths) of their many children.

In her History of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (1998, p 194), Penelope Hunting notes that ‘the rising status of apothecaries has been traced to the recruitment in the early 18th century of a ‘high proportion of apprentices who were sons of clergymen’. There was a high value placed at that time on obtaining a good apprenticeship and ensuring a secure trade for such a younger son.

Sotherton was apprenticed  to Apothecary Daniel Hanchett in 1721 and was made ‘free’ of the Society of Apothecaries in 1732.  His apprenticeship would have been served at Hanchett’s premises in Coleman Street, which runs north to south just east of the Guildhall.  Once the apprenticeship was completed,   Sotherton’s address was at nearby Fore Street from 1738-1756. Apprentices needed to be proficient in general knowledge and Latin, and Sotherton would have had practical training in pharmaceutical skills, alongside attending lectures and classes, anatomical dissections, home visits and instruction in botany and chemistry.

Presumably upon completion of his apprenticeship, Sotherton had both a shop and a practice which among other things would have involved tending to the poor of the area. I have found no record to date of his premises or business, but John Strype’s survey of 1720 (updating Stow’s work) says of Cripplegate without the Wall:[1]

‘This is a large Tract of Ground, containing several Streets, and all crowded with Courts and Alleys. The chief are Forestreet, the Postern street, Backstreet in little Moorfields; Moor lane, Grub street, Whitecross street, Redcross street, Beech lane, Golden lane, Barbican, and Jewen street. Of these in Order.  Forestreet, pretty broad, and well inhabited, runneth from the North end of St. Giles Cripplegate Church, unto Moorlane, Eastwards; and then it falls into Postern street, which leadeth to Little Moorfields, against new Bethlem.’

The image above of Sweedon’s Alley, Grub Street is from around 1777, and perhaps illustrates the environment in which Sotherton lived earlier in the century.[2]

Apothecaries of the time had a mixed reputation.  A contemporary document referred to ‘the mere apothecary – a Creature that requires very little Brains’.[3]  Many people were suspicious of the apothecary-doctor, whose potions might poison as much as cure.  The lack of understanding of illness and disease at the time meant the use of traditional herbal (galenical) and other remedies (for instance mercury for venereal disease), which could do as much (or more) harm as good.  Yet the public sought out apothecaries, often because most people could not afford the expense of the university-educated doctor.  

Sotherton’s marriage to Ann Ashley in 1732 resulted in the birth of 9 children, but the parish records of St Giles Cripplegate show that they were mostly short-lived.  How sad it must have been for the apothecary father to be unable to avert the deaths of his children from ‘rising lights’ (any obstructive condition of the larynx or trachea (windpipe), characterised by a hoarse, barking cough and difficult breathing, occurring chiefly in infants and children); small pox; consumption; ‘tooth’; and measles.  Of the nine children born, only two (Ann and the second Sotherton) and perhaps a third (Elizabeth) survived into adulthood.

[2] http://www.motco.com/index-london/SeriesSearchPlatesFulla.asp?mode=query&title=Grub+Street&keyword=1820&x=11&y=11  From Smith’s Ancient Topography of London, 1815, said to be drawn around 1791, the building taken down in 1805.

[3] Cited in Penelope J. Corfield. From Poison Peddlers to Civic Worthies: the reputation of the apothecaries in Georgian England. Social History of Medicine22 (2009), pp 1-21.  The quote is taken from: R. Campbell. The London Tradesman: Being a Compendious View of all the trades, professions, arts.  London, 1747.


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