A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Twenty Four


Atkinson & Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative

We have recently become proud grandparents again and whilst the arrival of BoJ2 is a cause for joy all round it does mean disturbed sleep for the parents as the little mite battles with all the maladies that beset the very young. For anxious, if not desperate, parents seeking a good night’s sleep for both themselves and their offspring some form of panacea is an appealing prospect and proved fertile ground for the practitioners of quackery. We have already put Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup which included morphine amongst its ingredients under the microscope and now it is the turn of Atkinson & Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative to share the limelight in what is an interesting example of the art of quackery.

Laudanum, a tincture containing opium, was dirt cheap in the mid 19th century, retailing at about the price of a pint of beer and so its use to induce infants to have what may be euphemistically described as a quiet night was not unsurprising. It was estimated that five out of six working class families in Manchester at the time used it and one druggist at the time sold half a gallon of Godfrey’s Cordial, an appetising mix of opium, treacle, water and spices, and between five and six gallons of “quietness”, of which our Preservative was a leading brand, a week!

Atkinson and Barker, who seem to have been operating in the Market-place of Manchester, were very effective publicists for their tincture and were not modest either! Their advertising copy claimed that it was “a pleasant, innocent and efficacious carminative intended as a preventative against and a cure for those complaints to which infants are liable, as affections of the bowel s, difficult teething, convulsions, rickets etc and an admirable assistant to nature, during the progress of the hooping cough, the measles and the cow-pock or vaccine inoculation”.

Of course, potential purchasers were warned to beware all imitations – only those bottles bearing the signature of Atkinson & Barker on the label were the real McCoy – and the adverts took the opportunity to knock the competition – by reassuringly claiming that “it is no misnomer Cordial – no stupefactive, deadly narcotic – but a veritable preservative of Infants”. It retailed in bottles priced at 1 shilling up to 4s 6d and to add a sheen of respectability it states that duty is included.

Atkinson & Barker pulled off two master-strokes. Somehow – probably by the judicious exchange of folding stuff, they had managed to include flyers promoting their Preservative with vaccination papers that went out to children, vaccination being compulsory for smallpox at the time. This gave the Preservative the appearance of being officially sanctioned. The other was the commandeering of the word Royal – the ultimate celebrity endorsement. Indeed, our Mancunian duo were even more brazen by claiming to be the chemists to Queen Vic in Manchester although it is not recorded whether they were so appointed or whether the queen ever visited their premises for a packet of plasters. Still, you have to admire their chutzpah and I’m sure it boosted sales.

So what was in it? Needless to say, despite all the advertising blarney there was an eighth of a fluid ounce of laudanum in it and whilst this doesn’t sound much it was enough to kill a small babe, as it did in 1886 when a six-week old mite was given six drops of the Preservative causing its pupils to contract, it to become covered with a cold, clammy sweat and for its breathing to slow down. The child died that evening.

By 1912 the laudanum had been replaced by alcohol – so that’s alright then – and the Preservative was sold until the 1940s.


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