“Would you like any arsenic with that, Madam,” – the deadly lotions and poisonous potions of Edwardian England are brought to life in all their grim glory at the latest addition to Beamish Museum.
W Smith’s Chemist and neighbouring site JR & D Edis Photographers are the new kids on the block in the 1900s town in Beamish, which opened their doors this year to coincide with the summer season.
They’re already proving popular with visitors to the County Durham open air museum, with people eager to don bonnets and breeches and strike a pose in the photography studio or marvel at the medicines dispensed in the chemist next door.
Rewind 100 years and the two stores would have been bustling features on the high street and, unlike some other museum attractions, are based on the business ventures of real people.
William Smith really did have a chemist in Durham City and records show he really did sell chemicals to John Reed Edis for his photography business, which he ran with daughter Daisy.
Costumed engager Jessica Thomas says people often have a morbid fascination for the glass eyes, curious contraptions and gory details of the daily life of a chemist at the turn of the last century.
“Everything from arsenic to cocaine, cannabis and laudanum would be available over the counter, and anyone could buy it,” she explains. They’d be used for a variety of things. Laudanum was often used on women who were deemed to be hysterical, whereas arsenic would be used in fly papers.”
In the 1913 town it would be another three decades before the NHS came into being, making the chemist even more of a lifeline than it is today.
Jessica said: “People would have a lot of trust in their chemist in those days because there was no NHS or free health care, so if you couldn’t afford to go to the GP your first port of call would be your chemist.”
As well as weird and wonderful potions in a kaleidoscope of glass bottles, the chemist would sell contraptions to help ease ailments – though not all of them would be particularly helpful by today’s standards.
Jessica said: “One of the most alarming things were machines where you could ‘cure’ yourself at home with electricity. They believed it could cure all sorts of things such as epilepsy, insomnia, rheumatism and nervous dispositions.
“Another interesting piece of equipment is the tonsil guillotine, which would be passed down your throat to snip the tonsils. They were huge purgers too and the whole family would often take epsom salts on a Friday night so that you’d be ‘clean’ for church on Sunday.”
Once they were feeling ship shape, people may have treated themselves to a photograph. Unlike today’s selfie generation, people then may only have had their photograph taken three or four times in their lifetime to mark special occasions, such as a wedding, or going off to war.
Rachael Dilley is a costumed engager at the new photography studio where visitors can have their photos taken in period costume before receiving a mounted print to take home.
“Quite often the chemist would be near to the photographer’s because of the chemicals needed in the development process. Even today, people get their photos developed at Boots,” she explained.
The two new businesses occupy a curved building which fits in between the garage and the baker’s in the old town and is based on a property on Elvet Bridge in Durham City.
“We recognised there was something missing. The chemist was chosen because, apart from the dentist’s, there is no reflection of health in 1913. Also there’s a nice link to the dentist, who would visit the chemist’s to buy his novacaine,” explained Lindsay Curry, head of engagement,
Rachael added: “This was an interesting era for photography as, although people did have access to photographers in the Victorian period, it was around 1913 that the pocket camera came into existence. Though that was only for people who could afford it.
“The photographer would buy in the latest fashions so that people could wear the clothes and look their best for the photo. Outfits made popular by Victoria and her family were still very popular, especially sailor-style suits on little boys.”
Rachael says the outfits really help to transport people to the time of their ancestors.
“It’s such an immersive thing to dress in costumes of the time, you can see people straighten their backs once they put the clothes on,” she explained.
While the chemist and photographer’s transport people back to the Edwardian era, the next new addition to Beamish will propel people to the booming 1950s.
The museum today announced it has received a £10.9million grant from Heritage Lottery Fund to help recreate a 1950s housing estate, complete with cinema donated from Ryhope, cafe and aged miners’ homes, which will be built on empty land between the old town and Pockerley Old Hall.
The new development will highlight a time of huge change in the North East and tells the story of a period still in living memory – just as the Edwardian period was when the museum first opened in the 1970s.
We’ve teamed up with Beamish and the South Causey Inn in Beamish Valley to give away a bumper family day out.
One reader will receive a day pass for Beamish, worth £48.50, as well as a three-course meal for four (two adults and two children) at the South Causey Inn, which can be redeemed at a time and date of their choosing.
The hotel and restaurant, which recently launched a host of themed rooms, is a six-minute drive from the museum. To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: which of these is a new addition to Beamish:
A) e-Cig store
B) Apple store
C) Edwardian photography studio
Fill in your answer and contact details on a postcard and return it to Beamish Competition, Katy Wheeler, Johnston Press North East, 2nd Floor, Alexander House, 1 Mandarin Road, Rainton Bridge Business Park, Houghton, Sunderland, DH4 5RA.
Alternatively, you can email your answer and contact details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk.
Closing date: October 24.