John Backler (1780-1846) – Apothecary, Cupper – and ‘outlaw’

In which we consider what is known about the life and career of Sotherton Backler and Frances Harris’ son John, a cupper, and his flight to Paris.  

The report of the hearing at the Court of Common Please was unequivocal.  ‘[John] Backler had .. been outlawed and was out of the country.’  John Backler’s father was the eminently respectable Sotherton Backler (1746-1819), an apothecary and Clerk to the Society of Apothecaries.  John was the fourth of Sotherton’s 13 children, the youngest of four children born before the [presumed] death of his first wife Frances Harris.  What circumstances had led to the hasty departure of John from England for Paris, where he died in 1846?

John and Hannah Backler christening 1780Thanks to their father’s close association with the Society of Apothecaries, most of his children were christened in nearby St Ann Blackfriars.  John was christened on the same day as his sister Hannah.  Sotherton and Frances had married in Stoke Newington on 11 February 1777.  Their oldest child Sotherton was christened on 5 January, 1778 (but died in December 1786), and his sister Frances on 23 May 1779.  This surely means the double christening on 11 June 1780 was of twins?

On 17 August 1790, John was enrolled at St Paul’s School, which was in St Paul’s Churchyard, just around the corner from his home at Apothecaries Hall.  No further information about his time at St Paul’s has been found.  His career at the Society of Apothecaries is more easily traceable in a fragile card index  which summarises all the mentions of its members through several centuries, compiled by Cecil Wall, a one-time clerk to the Society.  It shows that John was apprenticed to his father on 5 April 1796, and was admitted to the Yeomanry in 1803.  This meant that he was a member of the company, and having been apprenticed, he was probably admitted by ‘servitude’ rather than by patrimony.  There is no indication, though, that he was ever elected to the ‘Livery’ of the Company, the economic and social elite of the membership, who were entitled to wear the company’s ‘livery’.

I have found no details of John’s early life as an apothecary.  There was a thriving trade at Apothecaries Hall, where there was a laboratory for the manufacture of drugs, and a salesroom.  His father would have been occupied with his duties as Clerk, but John may have worked with his younger half-brother Samuel, some 4 years John’s junior,  who had been admitted to the Society by patrimony after the Master to whom he had been apprenticed had died.  An 1811 directory finds both John and his father Sotherton in residence at Apothecaries’ Hall (and Samuel at his premises in Bedford Street, Covent Garden).

A cupper: John’s practice as an apothecary centred on the ‘art’ of cupping, an ancient practice involving the placing of heated cups on the body at different points, to draw out the ‘humours’.  Cupping could be ‘dry’ (just using the heated cups), or ‘wet (involving scraping of the skin on which the cup was placed, to draw out blood).  This is sometimes known as blood-letting.  As the heated cups cooled, the vacuum they created drew up the skin, causing marks which remained when the cups were removed.  The hot cups could also cause burns.

Mapleson book on cuppingJohn entered into partnership with Thomas Mapleson, a well-known cupper to the Prince Regent and then King.  The premises of this partnership were in Golden Square, at the corner of St John Street, in the City of London.  Mapleson was the author of ‘A treatise on the art of cupping: in which the history of that operation is traced; the various diseases in which it is useful indicated and the most approved method of performing it described’.  This 80-page tract was first published by the author in 1813, and reissued in 1830.

Fraudulent dealings and flight: However, the partnership was not to last.  On 2 December, 1820, John married Susanna Maria McLauchlan in the safety of the port of Dover,  presumably on his way to Paris, shortly after his partnership with Mapleson  had been dissolved in October, 1820.  The rather sordid details of the alleged fraudulent dealing of bills of exchange between Backler and a man named Chartres (subsequently transported to Australia) can be seen in Chancery papers (C 13/283/17,  6 May 1822) and a lengthy report in the Morning Chronicle.  In ‘Wills v Mapleson’, heard in the Court of Common Pleas on 10 December 1823, Frances Wills was seeking recompense from Mapleson on account of a fraudulent bill issued in autumn 1820 by Backler in the name of the partnership.  Since Backler was ‘now outlawed in Paris’, Mapleson was being held to account, even though the partnership had been dissolved at around the same time as the exchange of the bill.   The upshot of the case was that the jury found for the plaintiff, and Mapleson had to pay £115.  The next year, Mapleson tried to produce new evidence to support his claim that he was not responsible for the Bill, but this attempt failed.

In his case to Chancery, Mapleson had reported:

The Times 1 September 1820

‘the said John Backler had shortly previous to the dissolution of the said partnership became embarrassed in his circumstances and had unknown to your Orator (as your Orator has lately discovered) published an Advertisement in the newspapers in the words following [see advert from The Times 1 September 1820] that is to say, “Money, the Advertiser wishes for the loan of Two hundred and fifty pounds for two years the most liberal terms will be offered the situation respectability and principles of the Advertiser will be no barrier, Address letters post paid with real name and address to X.X. Battys Coffee House behind the new church Strand” as by the said Advertisement will appear and your Orator sheweth that one George Chartres a man then in desperate circumstances answered the said advertisement …’  Chartres had in effect swindled Backler out of large sums of money, andthe fraudulent bills were passed to Frances Wills, who sought recompense from Mapleson.

By this time, John Backler was well away, having married Susanna Maria McLauchlan (born around 1890 at Landguard Fort in Essex).  Their first child, Susanna Maria was said to have been born in Paris in January 1822, but christened at Christ Church Southwark in August 1822.  Her father’s address was given as John Street West, but it is not clear whether at that time he was in England or not.  What seems fairly certain, however, is that after the above court case, he remained in Paris until his death in 1846.  There are various references to the ‘noted English cupper’ Mr. Backler.  For instance On 1 May 1832 The Times reported in its ‘French Papers’ section, from Galignoni’s Messenger’, in an article which discussed official returns for cholera, and the system of cupping:  ‘they have therefore had repeated recourse to the English cupper, Mr Backler, Hotel de la Marine, No 23: rue Gaillon, whose skill and experience have been constantly exercised with the best results.’

Successive editions of Gallignani’s ‘New Paris Guide’ show Backler in 1827 at 15, rue Trainee, St. Eustache; in 1830 at Hotel de la Marine, rue de Gaillon No. 23;  in 1839 at rue Neuve St. Roch, No. 49;  and in 1841 at rue Rameau, No. 7.

While carrying on his successful career as a cupper, Backler and his wife produced a number of children, whose christenings in Paris are recorded in nonconformist records.  Their son became a highly successful businessman,  whose two daughters had tragic ends.  The three daughters married (one very very well, and several times), while another son has yet to be traced after his birth in Paris.

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