History of Lavender in Hitchin

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Hello lavender fans!

In a new series of posts, we will be discussing a little about the history of lavender growing in the Hitchin area.

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Recently, our museum of the Perks & Llewellyn pharmacy was opened to the public and I thought it would prove prudent to give you a little context about this space!

The Apothecary

Perks & Llewellyn chemist and druggist was originally founded as an apothecary by James Meers and his wife Hester around 1783. Their store on 9 High Street was a famous landmark in Hitchin and sold a miscellany of products and services including gunpowder – which he presumably made himself, rum by the gallon, red wine, combs, hair ribbon and, crucially lavender water.

The shop itself was ran by Hester, due to the fact that as an apothecary, such as Meers, did not just provide medication. They had an important place in the community, to the point that their social standing was actually importance than their knowledge of medicine. For example, there is evidence that on one occasion Meers was trusted to supply butcher’s meat to the Poor Law overseers at Kings Langley. The dispensing of a qualified physician’s prescription was a very small part of their medical practice, as they also went to the homes of patients who could not afford qualified doctors to diagnose illnesses, prescribe medication and even perform light surgery to patients who could not afford qualified doctors. This he was contracted to do for the surrounding villages, which came at a cost:

Table of Treatments and Prices
Six Pence Bleeding

Tooth Extraction (per tooth)

Ten Pence Draining a large blister
One Shilling Dressing a bad finger

Enema

Two Shilling sixpence Bleeding with six leeches

Opening a tumour

One Guinea Reducing a leg fracture

 

Generally speaking, providing medical services was commonplace requirement of an apothecary during this period, which begat the development of what we now know as general practices. However, when both James and Hester Meers died in 1800 and 1804 respectively, the business was taken over by chemist and druggist John Perks, which changed the store from an apothecary to a pharmacy. This marked the beginning of Perks & Llewellyn as a chemist and druggist.

Early Days

Edward Perks, son of John, began the growing of lavender and the development of lavender products in 1823. However, after his untimely death in 1826 the business was run by Sarah Perks for over three decades. During this time Hitchin was starting to make its name for lavender production, though it was championed by another business: William Ransoms co. By 1851 the lavender produced in the town had gained such notoriety that Queen Victoria visited Hitchin station to pick up a bottle of essential oils. She was at the station for a matter of minutes.

Upon the death of Sarah in 1860, William continued to develop the lavender business. With fields across Hitchin – specifically on Whinbush Road, Stuart Drive and Ransoms Recreational Park – the range of lavender products produced by Perks began to expand. Through labour intensive work, which relied heavily on female workers, each field would produce lavender continually for up to five years. After this period they would be uprooted and burnt, which produced a sweet aroma that drifted over the streets of Hitchin.

 

 

International Acclaim

Over the next 150 years Perks used the lavender to produce shaving soap, toilet soap, tooth powder, bath powder, bath crystals as well as lavender water, some of which can be found in the right hand cabinet of the museum.

Perks toiletries featured in several globally renowned events. Remarkably, they received an honourable mention for ‘goodness of quality of lavender oil’ at the International Exhibition of 1862 – also known as the Great London Exhibition – and moreover gained the only prize medal for lavender water at the Second Paris International Exposition of 1867.

In 1871 Samuel Perks – William Perks’s brother – bought the business for £3500. By 1876 Samuel had 35 acres of lavender field across the country under cultivation including fields at Mount Pleasant, Gaping Hills and Grays Lane, which could produce 2000 gallons of lavender water. Not to be outdone by his brother, Samuel exhibited Perks’s wears at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, one of the first World’s Fairs in America.

Perks & Llewellyn and the Decline of the lavender industry

At the time of the 1871 census 47 year old Samuel and wife Catherine lived at the shop on 9 High Street with their two daughters and six sons – they even had a nurse and 3 servants. The shop was staffed by two pharmaceutical chemists and one Charles W H Llewellyn, assistant to Samuel. In 1876 Samuel went into partnership with Charles and the company was registered under Perks & Llewellyn for the remainder of its business life.

After Perks and Llewellyn died in 1890 and 1893 respectively, the business was taken over by Anne Sarah Llewellyn. This saw a succession of different owners of the company, none of whom could reach the heights of the 1870s.

By the 1960s a combination of competition from French lavender, higher taxation forcing the price of lavender up and the location of the lavender fields being sought after for housing development, saw the final demise of lavender after 180 years.

So there we have it.

Make sure to join us again on Thursday for our new ‘Lavender Digest’, giving out information on how the field is looking.

See you in the week

Will

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