The apothecary of Wood Street

Sadie Watson

A rare collection of delftware jars, used to hold drugs and ointments, was found during excavations at 14-18 Gresham Street in the City of London. The ceramic jars indicate the presence of a 17th century apothecary shop in heart of the City of London. The discovery has given Project Officer Sadie Watson an opportunity to explore the lives of the people living and working in the area during the period. These findings have recently been published in ‘Urban development in the North-west of Londinium: excavations at 120-122 Cheapside to 14-20 Gresham Street, City of London, 2005-7’.

The jars, dating to the early-mid 17th century, were part of a large group of ceramics from a single property. These delftware jars, a type of tin-glazed ware, were produced in potteries in Aldgate and Southwark, not far from the site. Their colourful decoration helps to date them to pre-1640. After that most were plain blue or white.

In London, apothecaries had their own guild – the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries, formed in 1617. Still existing today, their origins can be traced back to as early as 1190. They initially fell under the auspices of the Guild of Pepperers, who were responsible for the purity of spices and setting standards of weights and measures. The Worshipful Company of Apothecaries remains one of the largest guilds in the City of London today, with more than 1,200 members.

The ceramics came from a single property and documentary research has revealed the building's original owner. In the vestry minutes of the parish of nearby St Michael Wood Street, a Dr Scarborough is listed as the owner from 1650 through to 1659. This same name appears in the court books of the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries. It records the apprenticing of a John Scarborough, to a William Harwick (Apothecary) of London on the 7th December 1630. During his apprenticeship, John Scarborough had three different masters (the first two both died). Despite this, he completed his apprenticeship but never became a member of the Apothecaries Guild.

It is thought that Dr Scarborough worked in Wood Street from 1650. The archaeological evidence indicates that he had left his practice entirely by 1659. What happened to John Scarborough after he left Wood Street, though, is unclear. At this time there was a close connection between physicians and apothecaries. Both could diagnose and prescribe medications, a right established for the apothecaries in an important court case in 1704. However, it was more likely for apothecaries to move into surgery than to become a physician. It is possible that our Dr Scarborough changed professions and, on leaving Wood Street, entered the field of surgery.

Sadie Watson’s research in to Dr Scarborough’s assemblage of tin-glazed ware pottery allows for a look at the life and work of the apothecary. It provides a tangible connection from the physical archaeology to the story of a man and his life in 17th century London.

Explore the results of the excavation, carried out on behalf of City Offices LP and Hermes Real Estate in, ‘Urban development in the North-west of Londinium: excavations at 120-122 Cheapside to 14-20 Gresham Street, City of London, 2005-7’, available on our publications page.

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