Hidden away in the backyard of a beautiful part of Whitebridge is an iron cladded shed storing the most marvellous collection of museum-quality pharmaceutical memorabilia.
The owner, who for privacy reasons we cannot name, is a former second-generation Newcastle chemist who has lovingly collected pieces that date back to the early 1800’s when ‘carboys’ (a large globular glass bottle holding coloured liquids) was a symbol of the early pharmacist.
For 40 years, our collector was a chemist/pharmacist in the Newcastle area, and before that, his Stockton-born father was a chemist who served that community for much of his life.
The ‘back shed’, for want of a better name, could easily be converted to a ‘Pharmaceutical Museum’ such is the expansive collection of all things ‘chemist’ from the early days until the use of modern apparatus, plus photographs from the golden years, telling the tale of his industry in gold mining villages such as Gulgong and Hill End, out in Central NSW, as well as early Newcastle and Maitland.
The former chemist tells of the time he bid online in an Adelaide antique auction for two special Apothecary Specie Jars, one depicting the Australian Coat of Arms on the glass. He duly won the bidding war, jumped in his car and made the trip to Adelaide to pick up new items for his collection. “Too risky to trust them with a carrier,” he said.
A history of Hunter pharmacy tells us that the first pharmacist was a William Lipscombe, who was paid three quid per month to travel by sea as a ships’ surgeon, arriving in Sydney in August 1832. He set out for the fledgling town of West Maitland (pop. 7747, Newcastle with pop. half that of only 3722) in 1834.
The first recorded chemist in Newcastle was Robert C Knaggs, an Irishman, who worked in Sydney for 10 years as a chemist before relocating to Newcastle in 1855. Other early chemists were WJ Hobbs, WH Sproull, FW Reay (Turkish Baths) and Blackall & Hunt (dentistry and pharmacy).
One of the region’s ealy chemists, William Blackall, from Tamworth, opened a successful business in Newcastle in the early 1880’s, subsequently built a large home which he named Blackall House, in a location near Toronto, now called Blackalls Park. He travelled most days by train to his business in Hunter Street, Newcastle; historians suggesting that Blackall ‘was perhaps Newcastle’s first commuter’.
The greater Newcastle area comprised a series of scattered mining villages rather than a central populated area as it is today. Independent, self contained, scattered mining communities developed around the mining pits, and people were served patent medicines often by local store keepers with no training whatsoever. More serious complaints required travel to doctors in larger centres like Maitland and Newcastle.