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]  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.


3. Samuel Backler – lapsed schoolmaster of Ashwell

In which I describe a rather less than flattering account of the career of Samuel Backler as schoolmaster of Ashwell, Herts.

In my first blog I wrote about Samuel Backler, Vicar of Newnham, and later of Ashwell in Hertfordshire. Like many vicars, he took on the role of schoolmaster as well, assuming this role in 1683 while he was vicar of Newnham, a neighbouring parish. The school was owned by the Merchant Taylor’s Company of London and, according to an article about the school by David Short in the Spring 2010 edition of ‘Herts Past & Present’, Samuel Backler’s tenure as schoolmaster was not without its problems. The Minute books of the Company record that complaints were made about ‘severall misdemeanors’ committed by Mr Backler in around 1693 – the nature of which was not divulged. Indeed, a few years later the Company voted Mr Backler £25 to enlarge the schoolhouse – a building still standing in Mill Street, Ashwell. When Samuel Backler’s son Samuel went up to Cambridge, he was said to have been educated at Ashwell School – presumably by his father. But by 1718, two years before Samuel Sr’s death, the parishioners of Ashwell complained to the Merchant Taylors that there had been no school at Ashwell for several years, and that the schoolhouse was let out. A month after the Company sent a stern letter to Backler, suggesting that for the ‘notorious neglect of your office you be suspended from the said office of Master and the salary thereto belonging…’, his resignation was accepted by the Court of the Company.
The author of the article speculates that Samuel Backler, having become Vicar of Ashwell in 1714, may have moved from the schoolhouse to the Vicarage, and then let out the schoolhouse.
As to his neglect of teaching duties, no explanation is available.

The image of Ashwell School House is taken from:

2. Discovering the Backlers of Apothecaries Hall


Apothecaries Hall

Apothecaries Hall

My first blog about the Backlers – ‘Samuel Backler, Vicar of Ashwell, Herts’ – set out my knowledge to date about my 6x great grandfather, Samuel Backler. This blog describes how I discovered his identity, and also that of four of his descendants – all apothecaries ‘of Apothecaries Hall’.

Ever since my mother and I had found some precious marriage certificates at the old family history centre in London’s St Catherine House, I had known that my 3x great grandfather was Samuel Backler, who in 1810 had married Mary Pellatt, daughter of the famous glassmaker Apsley Pellatt. Searches on the surname ‘Backler’ in The Times of London at around that date showed that, in advertising his wares, Samuel described himself as being ‘of Apothecaries Hall’, with cures and treatments available from his elaboratory in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. I knew nothing about apothecaries, nor about City Livery companies. I had a treat in store.

Backlers at the Society of Apothecaries
When I mustered the courage in 2009 to enquire about Samuel from the Society’s archivist, I was delighted to received the following reply from the then archivist:

`I write in reply to your email enquiry … concerning your ancestor Samuel Backler. I don’t think you realise that he was a third (and last) generation Backler connected with, and a member of, the Society of Apothecaries. His grandfather So(u)therton Backler had been Beadle and his father (same name) the Clerk. I don’t think Samuel completed his apprenticeship and so was not technically a qualified apothecary…I think it would be best if you came to the Hall to consult the records yourself …’

My first visit to Apothecaries Hall was like stumbling into an ancestral (and historical) wonderland. There was information about four Backlers, from the so-called ‘Cecil Wall cards’, so named after the Clerk to the Society who sometime in the early 20th century indexed references to the Society’s members from documents such as Court Minutes, apprentice registers and much more.

Two Sotherton Backlers, plus John and Samuel
Sotherton senior’s card took me back two generations from Samuel, and provided invaluable information in several respects. The card showed that the first Sotherton (1704 -1763) was the son of the Rev. Samuel Backler, of Ashwell, Herts and that Sotherton was apprenticed to Apothecary Daniel Hanchett in 1721. Sotherton was made ‘free’ of the Society of Apothecaries in 1732, was elected Beadle in 1757, and died in 1763. His wife Ann (nee Ashley) had become Butler on his appointment as Beadle, and she continued in this role – and was also a Society pensioner – until her death in December 1768.

The Beadle’s son, also Sotherton, had become deputy Clerk in 1802 and was Clerk from 1806-1816, when, according to the notes, ‘the Society presented him with a piece of plate on his resignation, value 50 gns’. He attended the bicentenary dinner in 1817 as the Navy Accountant, and was elected Secretary to the Friendly Medical Society which post he held from 1799-1816.

The second Sotherton’s son Samuel (1784-1870) had been apprenticed in 1800 to Thomas Hall, but on his Master’s death, Samuel was released from his indentures and in 1805 gained the freedom of the Society by Patrimony. The records show that he was in the service of the Laboratory Stock, established many years previously to oversee and control the quality of the manufacture of chemical and plant-based medicines. In 1843, he withdrew from the Society – I suspect due to his waning fortunes, which had included bankruptcy as a tobacconist in 1831.

These three men were my 5x, 4x, and 3x great grandfathers.

But there was a fourth Backler – John Backler (c. 1780-1846), the second Sotherton’s son by his first marriage (and therefore Samuel’s half brother). John had been apprenticed to his father Sotherton, and further research through other sources showed that he had a troubled career, shortly after his father’s death in 1819 having to go to Paris to avoid court proceedings over his business dealings.

Armed with this information, I could investigate further the lives and careers of these four apothecaries – a topic about which I knew very little!

In my next blog I will look at the life and times of the first Sotherton Backler, and explore just what was meant in his role as ‘Beadle’ to the Society. After that I will look at the second (surviving) Sotherton who became first, Deputy Clerk, and then Clerk, from 1806-1816, and his involvement with arrangements for the Society’s participation in Admiral Lord Nelson’s funeral procession on the River Thames in 1806.

Further ahead, I will look at a trade issue arising in correspondence by the Society with the Army Medical Board in 1810-1811, concerning, among other matters, the quality of Peruvian Bark (or Jesuits’ Bark, or cinchona), and the coincidence of timing with the trade of the afore-mentioned Samuel Backler, my 3x great grandfather. 

In all of these blogs I will also describe what I know of these men’s families, finishing my stories of the Backlers with a look at the career of the 19th century cleric, Sotherton Backler, and that of his half brother, John Backler, apothecary.