Thomas BEECHAM (1820–1907)

Manufacturer of patent medicines

Beecham Cottage, Curbridge

The rags-to-riches story begins in Curbridge in 1820. He was born in a cottage on the Lew Road to Joseph Beecham, a shepherd, and his wife Sarah (née Hunt). He was baptized at St Mary’s, Witney, and received one year of elementary schooling there before being sent out to tend sheep at the age of eight.

Beecham CottageThe cottage in Curbridge where Thomas Beecham was born

At eleven he moved further away to Cropredy where he worked as a shepherd at Lawn Farm. Here he began to make herbal pills based on his observations of plants and animals, using purpose made gadgets to improve quality.

He moved in c.1840 to Kidlington to live with his uncle William, working variously as mail carrier and gardener at Hampden House, while still making and selling his pills. That cottage came to be known locally as ‘Pill Cottage’. By 1842 he was living in Witney and travelling around the market towns to sell his wares.

In 1847 he made an astute judgement to move to the industrial north where wages were higher and occupational diseases more common, and opened a chemist’s shop in Wigan. He worked indefatigably manufacturing the pills at home, travelling to market them and running the shop with his wife’s help. His efforts prospered but with no great turnover until adverse publicity arising from an accidental death caused him to sell up his assets and stock and start again in St Helens in 1859. He now shifted his focus to business marketing by advertising in newspapers and using a network of wholesale agents in the north and in London, rapidly building up a thriving business. His famous slogan was ‘Worth a guinea a box’. (A guinea was the fee charged by fashionable doctors.) In 1863 his son Joseph now fifteen was able to join him full time. Thomas now joined the United Society of Chemists and Druggists. He ensured that his pills were of good standard and harmonized his prices with other manufacturers.

Beecham’s Pills were advertised weekly in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, starting with this advertisement on 12 October 1867.

Thomas Beecham’s personal life was turbulent. He is said to have had a certain sexual magnetism, was married three times and was a persistent philanderer. His first marriage produced two sons and two daughters and there were other illegitimate children. He maintained a rustic style of dress: an antique frock coat, paper collar, and hard round hat, his voluminous trousers hitched well up to the chest, as remembered by his grandson, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. He scandalized his genteel daughter-in-law with his coarse eating habits. After a brief interlude owning a country estate at Mursley in Bucks, he continued to live at St Helens until retiring to ‘Wychwood’, a villa in Stockport where he died in 1907.

Joseph Beecham opened a grand new model factory in St Helens in 1886, taking the firm to new heights of wealth and fame. He had a fine house in Hampstead and for his philanthropy in the arts was knighted in 1912 and in 1914 made a baronet. In the 1920s Beechams became a professionally managed joint-stock venture. Later the company acquired other brands and then ventured into antibiotics and pharmaceuticals which resulted in takeovers. In 1989 the name was still visible in SmithKlineBeecham and finally submerged in 2000 in the new company GlaxoSmithKline.


  • A. Francis, A Guinea a Box
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by T. A. B. Corley
  • Beecham’s, 1848–2000: From Pills to Pharmaceuticals by T. A. B. Corley

The plaque was unveiled at Beecham Cottage on 21 May 2022 by Professor Catherine Jackson, specialist in the history of science. Among those attending were Cllr Susanna Pressel (Chair of Oxfordshire County Council), Cllr David Turner, Chairman of South Oxfordshire District Council, and Mr Ian Simpson MBE (former Chair of the Retired Pharmacists Association).

Photographs taken at the unveiling ceremony:


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Manufacturer of
Patent Medicines

was born here

West Oxfordshire District Council

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com