Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Apothecaries' Hall

Black Friars Lane

Friday 13 November 2015  Although it's not on our original list of Museums, the Apothecaries' Hall is pretty historic and full of interest, so I jumped a the chance to visit it. Our visit was one of the splendid series of outings organised for the Friends of the British Library.

We assembled in the courtyard, which has scaffolding because of the issues affecting all elderly buildings:  and this one, rebuilt in 1672 after the Great Fire of 1666, is no exception.  The pestle and mortar on the wall is of similar antiquity, and reminded us of the origins of this ancient Society.

The coat of arms above the door (and in many other places, stained glass, petit point, ceramic plates) boasts two unicorns and a rhinoceros, reminders that the horn of these supposedly mythical beasts  were thought to have medicinal properties.  By the way, the society strongly supports Save the Rhino these days, in expiation of former days. Meanwhile, the centrepiece of the shield is Apollo slaying the dragon of disease.

The motto comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses and translates as 'I am spoken of all over the world as one who brings help.' 

Our guide was the Beadle, and he explained the history of the apothecaries. Initially, they were people who imported, stored and sold herbs and spices, and so counted, with the Pepperers and the Salters as part of the Grocers' Company. (Grocers being people who bought 'en grosse', something we hadn't known before)

The Society is celebrating the centenary of the Act which entitled them to practise medicine and to assess and licence practitioners. In the days when Physicians were expensive and elitist, apothecaries filled the role now occupied by GPs, and this continues to be true. The hallway was decorated with cases of pharmaceutical storage jars, as well as the ceramic plaques which marked the shops of members of the Worshipful Society.

We were taken upstairs to the parlour, where we saw a map of this area before the dissolution of the monasteries. Sandwiched between Bridewell Palace and Baynards Castle, the Dominican Blackfriars owned a huge swathe of land. The Apothecaries snapped up the land during the reign of Charles I. They had been recognised as a separate 'mystery' in 1617 by James I, who declared the Grocers to be 'mere merchants'.Their Hall did not last long, but was quickly rebuilt after the Great Fire. It had a lucky escape in the next 'great fire' of London, when a Luftwaffe 500lb bomb went down the chimney into the cellar and failed to explode. Not surprising, then, that the Apothecaries welcome bomb disposal and fire service workers warmly.

The parlour is lined with portraits of former Masters, not least Gideon de Laune, who was the driving force behind the recognition of the Society.

Our guide explained to us that, when searching for a crest for the coat of arms, the artist relied on Durer's armoured depiction rather than anything more accurate.  

We saw the paperwork for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson:  blocked from joining the Physicians, she obtained her licence from the apothecaries, mainly because she signed her papers with her initial not her forename. They are proud of her now, but the regulations were tightened for some decades after she slipped through

The great Hall was also lined with portraits, including one of the Queen, with the Apothecaries' roses behind her. The ceiling is rather fine as well.

Other wall embellishments include the banners that flew on the Society's barges. Dr Hans Sloane's Chelsea Physic Garden was run by and for the Apothecaries for many years, and the herbs were brought to the warehouses and workshops here by barge.

The most interesting fact about this handsome Hall is that it is now used for practical examinations: few hospitals can spare the beds to set up the cubicles in which actors test the skill and behaviour of medical students, and so this hall is used, not just for the Apothecaries' own examinations, but by several other institutions. We were shown the ancient chest which now contains prosaic blankets and cubicle curtains.

You can find out even more about this remarkable Society here.

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