This phrase “The Poor Man’s Friend” was used by an MP in The Chimes a novel by Charles Dickens, discussed recently. It was also the name of an ointment which was widely sold in this country and around the world, in the 1800s. The ointment was produced by Dr Giles Lawrence Roberts in Bridport, reputed to cure “The King’s Evil”. The Poor Man’s Friend was also the title of a Community Play produced in Bridport in 1981 by Ann Jellicoe, written by Howard Barker, with music by Andrew Dickson.
Giles Roberts was born in the Ship Inn at Bridport Harbour in April 1766. He was the son of Richard Roberts, a pensioned seaman, harbour pilot and inn keeper. The late Elizabeth Wild researched his life and gave Bridport History Society these details: Giles had an early interest in medicine and at about 13 years began to prepare ointments. His parents did not encourage this. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a draper in Exeter, a grocer in Bridport and a tinsman and brazier in Shepton Mallett. Giles soon tired of these trades and returned home to repair clocks and watches. For a time he lived with gypsies and learned taxidermy and the use of medicinal herbs. In 1788 he set up in Bridport selling “pure and cheap medicines”, gaining much of his knowledge from Culpepper’s “English Physician”. He offered taxidermy, surgery and dentistry to his patients. He was sufficiently successful to go to London and study at Guys and St. Thomas’s Hospitals. In 1795 he was licensed to act as an apothecary, surgery and physician. Two years later the University of Aberdeen awarded him an Hon.M.D.
The Bridport News of 24th February 1866 reported a lecture by a Rev. J Stevens to the Bridport Working Men’s Association on 31st January, within 32 years of Roberts death. It said that Giles Roberts had worked for an optician in Bristol for 9 months, lodging with his cousin. Another lodger was Mr Pitt, a surgeon and Giles helped him in his dispensary, learning much from him and borrowing his books. He bought his first medical book in 1779. Rev. Stevens also said Roberts parents set him up in a small house opposite the Wesleyan Chapel in South Street (now Bridport Arts Centre) as a tinsman and brazier when Giles was aged 23. He made pills and potions in his spare time and his fame spread.
Dr Roberts married Phoebe Brown of Shipton Gorge in 1791, but she predeceased him in 1810, aged 56, their only child dying in infancy in 1793. His practice continued to prosper and in 1798 he formulated the “Poor Man’s Friend” ointment, recommended “for wounds, burns, chilblains and eruptions of every description; also for sore and inflamed eyes—sold in pots at 1s-1 1/2d and 2s-9d” according to a medical wholesaler’s catalogue of 1827. Also listed was his “Pilulae Antiscrophule” for impurities of the blood, in boxes from 1s-1 1/2d to 22s. He also supplied “Wainwright’s Staffordshire Cordial” for treatments of diseases in horses at 2s-6d per bottle. John Hunt, FRPS in a talk to Bridport History Society said the ointment would be helpful for skin problems but would not be sold today as it contained oxides of lead and mercury. It was still being produced in 1965 and orders were received from as far afield as Australia. A Street Directory for 1823 lists Giles Roberts M.D. and Druggist at 9 East Street. The building is now a Cancer Research Charity Shop. It is said that King Charles II entered there for a meal when it was an inn.
Dr Roberts was a staunch Wesleyan Methodist and preached in the open at West Bay and local villages, and facilitated several meeting houses. His shop was the first in Bridport to have gas lighting and he experimented with electricity, setting up a laboratory and a Museum of Curiosities and Natural History. He gave scientific lectures in the Town Hall and cured a man who had become dumb by electric shocks to his neck. Rev. Stevens told how Roberts had electrified his shop window to deter rude youngsters, but when he gave a shock to a dog entering his shop it leapt through the window. He vowed never again to shock a dog. Roberts frequently treated poor people without charge. He lived at Providence Cottage on the road to Eype.
Dr Roberts died on 16th September 1834 in his 69th year and is buried at St Mary’s Churchyard, his tomb being surmounted by a sphere on top of a large obelisk. The badly eroded lettering includes “The Good Samaritan” and “His memory is cherished especially by the poor”. Some of his artefacts and his will are held in Bridport Museum. He left many bequests including several houses, with his business to his assistants, Beach and Barnicott, who continued it for some years. Other bequests were to his niece, Mary Anning, to his two servants and the Wesleyan Methodists.
On Tuesday 13th January Bridport History Society will again be transported back in time by Diana Trenchard with “Napoleon’s Coming, what shall we do?” in Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street at 2.30 pm. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £2-50.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.