The Pills & Potions of Thomas Holloway

A Glimpse into the world of the Victorian Pharmacy

This exhibition looks at the world of the Victorian Pharmacy, concentrating on the pills and potions of the Victorian entrepreneur Thomas Holloway. The objects are taken from 19th and early 20th century pharmacies as well as artefacts relating to the business of Thomas Holloway himself.

The 19th century was one of vast social upheaval and technological change. The population had become more mobile as a result of the development of the steam engine. New urban cities were promising work in industrial factories moving people into concentrated and densely populated areas of the country, and the development of the printing trade combined with increasing standards of education meant that newspapers and adverts were now being more widely circulated and read. The Victorian pharmaceutical industry monopolised on these societal changes and began to sell a wide array of different medicines throughout the century
that claimed to cure a variety of illnesses.

The improvement in education meant that a proportion of the population now understood more about sanitisation and standards of health, and the prosperity of the country, as a whole, meant that more people were willing to spend a substantial amount of money on new medicinal remedies that claimed to cure a wide array of diseases. It is from this era that we see some of our present day pharmaceutical products being created; brands such as Beecham’s and the high street pharmacy Boots, were both set up in the middle of the 19th century. 

Thomas Holloway is an example of a local figure that made a great fortune out of the Victorian pharmaceutical industry and this exhibition will enable you to gain a further insight into his work, life and business. 

This exhibition was researched and written by Lizzie Hall, student of Public History Royal Holloway College, 2012.

Thomas Holloway

Thomas Holloway, the eldest son of Thomas and Mary Holloway, was born in Devonport, England in 1800. In 1816 his parents moved to Penzance where his father took up the occupation of keeping a Public House named The Turks Head. It is believed that during his time in Penzance Holloway undertook a brief apprenticeship in Harvey’s Chemist between 1816 and 1820, perhaps being the inspiration for his later work.

In 1828 he left home and embarked on a mercantile career in the North of France. In 1836 he returned from France and made the decision to set up business and home in England’s capital city, London. It is during his early time in London that he became acquainted with a leech vendor from Turin, Felix Albinolo. Albinolo met Holloway whilst advertising his ‘St Cosmas and St Damian’ ointment which, backed by numerous testimonials from medical personnel, claimed to cure a variety of different ailments and diseases.

Holloway, currently working as a merchant, offered to go into partnership with Albinolo helping to sell and advertise his ointment, but unable to provide the capital that was needed for the venture Holloway’s offer was declined. In 1837 Holloway posted his first advert in the Sunday Times for ‘Holloway’s Universal Family Ointment’. Over the next year Holloway and Albinolo battled in the advertising columns of many well known newspapers and journals before Holloway was imprisoned in Whitecross Debtors Prison for going bankrupt. After his mother bailed him out of Whitecross in 1839, Holloway immediately embarked on the making of his digestive pills and subsequently moved to larger and more adequate business premises at 244 The Strand, London.

In January 1840 Holloway married Jane Pearce (1814-1875), the eldest daughter of John Driver a Rotherhithe shipwright. It is unknown how Holloway and Jane Pearce met but it is possible that Holloway became associated with her father whilst visiting the docks at Rotherhithe when trying to sell his ointment and pills to sailors onboard the ships. The couple remained married until Jane’s death in 1875 and according to several accounts led a happy marriage and life whereby Jane was heavily involved in the business; whether by chance or choice the couple went on to have no children of their own.

The success of Holloway’s pills and ointment in subsequent years lay in his extraordinary ability to publicise his patent medicines worldwide. He spent a vast amount of his fortune on advertising through a variety of different means including billboards, tote cards, stamps and posters. He wrote to thousands of people throughout the empire and enlisted agents in other countries to pursue his advertising for him.

In 1860 Holloway decided to take a step back from the business life in London and he and his wife, together with some other members of his family, moved to Tittenhurst Park in Sunninghill, Berkshire. Even though he had taken a back seat in the business he still spent hours a day studying daily returns and stock and share papers; his business continued to be a large part of his everyday life. By now Holloway had become a selfmade millionaire and with no children to leave any inheritance to he decided to invest a large sum of his money in two philanthropic ventures.

With the advice of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury he first planned to build a Sanatorium for 240 middle class mentally ill patients costing around £300,000. The Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1885. Sadly, Jane Holloway died of heart trouble and bronchitis in 1875, and it was in memory of his wife that Holloway invested in his second philanthropic venture, the building of a college to educate 250 middle class women. Holloway was closely involved with the construction of the college in Egham, built a short distance from the Sanatorium. However, despite being closely involved with the
building of the college Holloway passed away before its opening by Queen Victoria in 1886. Holloway died of congestion of the lungs at his home, Tittenhurst Park, in December 1883. His body was later buried in St Michael’s, Sunninghill in 1884 where it still rests today. The self-made millionaire left behind him a great fortune and a sizeable estate, amounting to over £600,000.


Thomas Holloway made his fortune by manufacturing patent medicines in the 19th century. His pills and ointment were advertised as being a ‘universal cure’ for almost any illness or disease and were used by thousands of people throughout the Victorian period, including Queen Victoria. Below is just a select few of the things that his medicines were supposed to be able to cure:

Asthma, bilious complaints, blotches on the skin, colic, constipation of the bowels, consumption, debility, dysentery, female irregularities, fevers of all kinds, fits, gout, headache, indigestion, inflammation, jaundice, liver complaints, lumbago, piles, rheumatism, retention of urine, sore throats, stone and gravel, secondary symptoms, tumours, ulcers, venereal infections, worms of all kinds.

He began making his first ointment at his premises, 13 Broad Street Buildings, in 1836. Below he describes how he used his mother’s saucepan to try out his first ointment.

‘The 1st ointment that I made was in my mother’s saucepan, which held about 6 quarts; an extra jump was in a long fish kettle and after that her little copper, which would hold about 40lbs.’

Shortly after his release from Whitecross debtors prison in 1839, he set about making pills to add to the Holloway brand. A letter from the Royal Holloway archives dated 14th October 1877, states that in the early days of making the pills, Holloway and his old clerk, Hibert, took it in turns making the pills in a small pill machine in the cellar of Broad Street Buildings.

Over the next sixty years the Holloway business expanded vastly. However, although his ointment and pills were very popular amongst the Victorian public, Holloway was not without his critics. In the late 19th century certain medical professionals claimed that Holloway was a quack and a charlatan after an article published by the Chemist and Druggist in 1880 criticised the ingredients used in his medicines. The article stated that the medicines effectiveness was highly questionable and ‘would have had a placebo effect at best’. The fact that his pills were said to have had only a placebo effect upon its users shows the extent to which Holloway’s advertising played a central part in the products’ success.

The ingredients used in Holloway’s family pills and ointment were a close guarded secret until 1880 when the article published by the Chemist and Druggist stated that the pills and ointment were ‘made up of mainly aloes, rhubarb root and ginger, together with some cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, glaubers salt and potassium sulphate, all held together by a confection of roses.’

This combination of ingredients was not unusual for the time period. Society was at the stage of taking over from the medieval ideas of village apothecaries but had not yet delved into the business of researching and testing new medicines.

Many pills and ointments that were available in pharmacies throughout the 19th century consisted of herbs and plants that had been used for medicinal purposes throughout the last few centuries.


Holloway advert

Holloway advert

The great success of Holloway’s pills and ointment was largely due to the vast amount of time and money that Holloway put into advertising his new patent medicines. Holloway was the first great advertiser of the time and made his fortune by extensively advertising his product, not only in Britain but throughout the Empire as well. In 1842 his annual advertising expenditure was around £5,000. In 1851 this cost had risen to £20,000 and by 1863 he was spending in excess of £40,000 per year on advertising.

He produced a very extensive range of advertising products that became more diverse throughout the century. Brightly coloured posters and billboards were displayed all over the world, tote cards were produced giving information on topics such as natural history and science, postcards and metal tokens were distributed throughout the Empire, and Holloway even made drawing books. He wanted to ensure that Holloway’s ointment and pills became a household name of the 19th century.

It was not only the brightly coloured and informative nature of the advertising that won Holloway his clients, he was also very clever when it came to the writing. Firstly he made sure that most of his adverts were accompanied by testimonials from those who had used his medicines before, hoping that it would encourage people to buy his products. He also wanted to make sure that the public not only bought his products, but had complete faith in them as well. In order to do this he set out to appeal to the Victorian nature in his adverts. In one advert he wrote:

‘Holloway’s ointments and pills – Happiness round the hearth. With sore trials, temptations and accidents daily endangering health and life in large cities it is important to have at hand some means of stopping this budding evil’.

The 19th century was a time of vast social upheaval with industrialisation forcing people away from rural life and into urban cities that were thick with smog and surrounded by dirt and disease. Many believed that no one could escape from the dangers of disease that was rife throughout the streets of the new cities. Holloway used these fears as a vehicle for his advertising. He wanted people to believe that by using his products they would be safe from all the disease that the cities threatened them with. His medicine was a universal treatment that could cure anything.