On Crawford Street, once well-known for its antique dealers, is the long-established pharmacy of Meacher Higgins & Thomas. Above it is a four-storey house with a private entrance around the corner and, until 1977, a feature of the front of the house was its three bricked up windows - a relic of the days when windows were taxed.
In 1814 Thomas Meacher opened his business – describing himself on his labels as "Meacher (late Tindale) Operative and Dispensing Chemist.
He was succeeded by James Higgins, the first of the chemists on the site of whom much is known. He was born in 1839, an orphan, brought up by a farmer in Montgomeryshire. It is noteworthy that from that time until 1997 each successive owner was of Welsh extraction. Higgins was an energetic and astute tradesman and made a reputation for himself as a prescriber. A local resident described how the carriages would queue up in Crawford Street whilst the owners waited to consult him. A human sidelight on Higgins' love of his craft is a newspaper cutting headed "The Kings' Sympathy" in which is described the concern of Edward VII for a housemaid at Marlborough House who was taken ill suddenly and operated on by the King's physician. The cutting bears the handwritten note "Physic from Meacher and Higgins".
Providentially for the historian, Higgins had a passion for pasting documents in the end-pages of his prescription books. Price lists, newspaper cuttings, licences, notes of all kinds – giving fascinating clues to his character and much information on the prices obtained at that time. There is also a manuscript list of prices of drugs and instruments charged to a nursing home in Devonshire Street, including "Leeches - Best Speckled at 4 shillings per dozen". An unexpected newspaper cutting is headed "Females and Games" – probably kept because Higgins had four daughters. They were known as keen workers for the church in Wyndham Place.
The business expanded rapidly and evidence of its prosperity is found once more in the prescription books of 1898 and 1899. There are receipts for the ground rents of properties in South Kensington and Upper Montagu Street, and reports and dividend notices on goldfields in Mashonaland (now Northern Zimbabwe), Cotopaxi (Ecuador) and Alice (Australia).
Higgins kept two dogs and his own carriage. The licences for them, dated 1892, were issued by G E Chew who owned the grocer's shop and post office opposite. This business, established by Mr Chew at least as early as 1830, is still a grocer's.
In the 1890s the mews behind Montagu and Bryanston Squares were occupied by the horses and coachmen of the nobility. What was more natural than for Higgins to establish a reputation as a veterinary chemist? His recipe books are full of his own formulas for fever drinks, tar coughballs, worm powders and ointment for greasy heels.
During the 19th century the area, including Portman, Bryanston and Montagu Squares, was inhabited by members of the aristocracy, who needed a town house within easy reach of Buckingham Palace and the West End, as well as poets and artists. Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, was a close friend, as was Wilkie Collins - who introduced Higgins to Charles Dickens. The popularity of the area continued into the 20th century with the likes of Peter Ustinov, Herbert Lom and Nigella Lawson, as well as the embassies of Switzerland and Sweden. Houses in Gloucester Place and the squares bear many blue plaques to commemorate those "who have made a major contribution to the happiness or welfare of humanity or to the Arts and Sciences". Naturally these names are reflected in the prescription books of James Higgins. In that of 1895 – to take one at random – are to be found the names of Mrs Campbell Bannerman and Mrs Barrett Browning (daughter-in-law of Elizabeth). While the householders are given their rank and titles in full on their prescriptions, their children and servants, like their dogs, remain anonymous. We have, from the same book, "Mrs Kempson's infant", "Lady Emily Williams' butler" and "Lady Pollock's maid".
At the end of the 19th and early in the 20th century it was the custom of rich people in England to employ a German governess for their children. The custom was certainly due to the close ties of the Royal Family with Germany. In a district such as Marylebone, with a high percentage of aristocratic families, these ladies were much in evidence and inevitably came to Meacher and Higgins for their medicines. There is a note in the prescription book of 1892 that "The Association of German Governesses" of Wyndham Place should be allowed a discount of 20% from the cost of their medicines
James Higgins died on 31 October 1902 at the age of 63. The Pharmaceutical Journal records that he "died suddenly from rupture of a blood vessel after officiating as foreman of a jury in the Marylebone Coroner's Court". An entry in The Chemist and Druggist (6 June 1903) reveals that the probate of his will was £4,565 – not a bad sum in those days for a man who started life as an orphan.
Higgins was followed in the business by Arthur Rees, who qualified in 1898. Less successful than Higgins, he gave up the business in 1908. The next owner was Richard Thomas from Montgomeryshire. He owned shops in Baker Street, Marylebone High Street and Blandford Street. After two unsuccessful years Richard's assistant, Gwilym Thomas from Anglesey, was put in charge, subsequently purchasing the business in 1912. He changed the name to Meacher Higgins & Thomas in 1916.
Gwilym was a worthy successor to James Higgins and once more the shop enjoyed a long period of prosperity attributable to the personality of its owner. He was a keen Freemason and Rotarian and well known to his fellow pharmacists in the West End.
Gwilym Thomas died suddenly in 1940 and during the next 17 years his widow employed a series of managers. But the business drifted downwards until, in 1957, Gwilym's son, Ivor, took over – and stayed for 40 years.
Pharmacy was changing rapidy in this period. From hand-mixed medicines, wrapped and sealed with sealing-wax, cachets and hand rolled pills, came the change to proprietary tablets and medicines. The pill machine went first, then the ointment slab. Labels were hand written, then typed and finally the computer arrived.
The area too has changed. The antique shops have gone as has the baker. The grocer remains though now catering to a middle-eastern clientele.
So Meacher, then Meacher and Higgins and, finally, Meacher Higgins and Thomas moved on from the 19th to the 21st century. Still in the same premises and still pleasing their customers.
Adapted from "200 Years a Pharmacy" by Percy White and Ivor Thomas