Bile Beans or Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness
Today when marketing is king no one would launch a product called Bile Beans but at least there was no doubt as to what they were and what they were supposed to do. Astonishingly, despite their chequered history which we will discuss below, they were still available to buy in the 1980s, some ninety years after their launch.
Bile Beans were first sold in Australia in 1897 as Gould’s Bile Beans by Charles Fulford and Ernest Gilbert. Attentive readers may think that the surname Fulford rang a bell – yes, he was the nephew of George Taylor Fulford who had launched Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People on to the unsuspecting world and had travelled down under to flog his uncle’s medicament. Quackery, it seems, can run in the family.
From Australia Fulford and Gilbert came to England, establishing the Bile Bean Manufacturing Company in Leeds in 1899. Whatever were the origins of the bile bean product by the time it had got to West Yorkshire it had undergone a miraculous transformation. The intrepid duo claimed that the formula for their product was based on a vegetable source known only to the poor put-upon native Australians and which had been brought to their attention by one Charles Forde. As you might expect, Charles Forde didn’t exist, being an alias for Fulford, doubtless to hide his lack of scientific qualifications.
In the quack tradition the product was heavily marketed, Fulford’s company spending upwards of £60,000 a year, a prodigious amount of money, on advertising in newspapers, on placards and special pamphlets. He was inventive in his marketing approach, getting his elder brother, Frank, to compose the Bile Bean March, the sheet music for which was available if you sent your name and address. In 1933 when Radio Luxembourg started running English language commercials, the first advert it broadcast was for Fulford’s Bile Beans.
Inevitably, the adverts were fulsome in their praise of the product, often taking the form of testimonials, claiming the efficacy of the pills which provided miraculous life-changing cures. Letters from customers claimed that the beans had cured lost appetites, severe headaches, indigestion and biliousness. The ads were particularly targeted at women, promising them health, bright eyes and a slim figure if taken regularly.
The first set-back came as early as 1903 when the British Medical Journal published an analysis of the ingredients of the pills. Far from being made from the extract of some wondrous Australian vegetable, the chief ingredients were to be found in any self-respecting chemist’s at the time, namely cascara, rhubarb, liquorice and menthol encased in gelatine-coated pill.
Worse was to follow in 1905 when Fulford sued an Edinburgh chemist, George Davison, for passing off, the common law tort used to enforce unregistered trade marks. But the judge and the Court of Appeal found against our quack, saying that his business was founded on and conducted by fraud, there being no secret ingredient and no connection with any plant found in Australia. In summary, he had defrauded the public by making false factual statements about the product.
Astonishingly, the product survived this damning judgment, some commentators believing that the newspapers were so reliant upon Fulford’s advertising revenue that they suppressed (and were required contractually to do so) any adverse reporting on the product. Fulford’s estate, when he died in 1906 was valued in today’s terms at £125m and Frank, who took over the business, bought Headingley Castle in 1909 and donated works of art to the museum at Temple Newsam.