Anne Fothergill

by Nick

This post is about a woman called Anne Fothergill, who lived in London in the mid-seventeenth century. I had written the first few sentences of this post before I realised that I had introduced her entirely by way of her relationship to other people – specifically, other men – rather than what she herself did. So let’s start again: Anne was an apothecary.

The fact that we know this about her is unusual. Many women of this period left no trace of their lives at all, and those that did are often defined by their marital status in legal documents: ‘spinster’ or ‘widow’ rather than their profession or what they did. This is certainly the case with Anne’s will, prepared in 1653 and proved in 1665. There she is described as ‘widow of St Giles Cripplegate’. However, we are lucky that the parish clerk for Cripplegate recorded not just the names but also the professions of members of the congregation. Under an entry for the birth of Anne’s granddaughter (also called Anne), we find this:


The context for this entry of 15 September 1639 is that that Henry, husband of Anne’s daughter Mary Walker, was away from London studying at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Sensibly, Mary seems to have gone to her mother’s house in St Botolph’s to give birth. The clerk has recorded not just that Anne was a widow, but also that she was an apothecary.

To discover how Anne came to get this description, we have to go back a number of years to her marriage. She was married to James Fothergill, who had been practising his trade since at least 1606 and who was one of the founding members of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries when James I granted it a royal charter in 1617. The year before, he had been charged by the College of Physicians with giving a pill of ‘aromatibus alephangin’ to a Mrs North. This was a scented pill made from aloe-wood, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and other ingredients, used in the treatment of epilepsy, vertigo, migraine and melancholy. Many apothecaries in this period fought a running battle against the College’s attempt to regulate their drugs.

As with other trades at this time, widows with sufficient qualifications were allowed by London’s guilds to take over their husband’s business after their death. In the case of the Society of Apothecaries, widows had to demonstrate that they had gained sufficient knowledge of the trade when assisting their husbands. Their time doing so was treated as an apprenticeship and they were allowed to join the Society. In James’s will, he left Anne the lease of the premises from which he ran his business in Little Britain, in the parish of St Botolph.

At some point Anne moved from St Botolph’s to the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. This was where her daughter Mary and son-in-law Henry lived for at least the first half of the 1640s. Possibly she moved to be near them, but she may also have had her own reasons for moving. In the 1640s, Cripplegate saw pitched battles between a puritan faction in the congregation against its high Anglican vicar and churchwarden. At that point, Parliament was on its side, but by the end of Anne’s life nonconformity was rather less favoured. Nonetheless, Cripplegate became a centre for puritans after the Restoration and it may be this that drew Anne there. At least a third of her will deals with matters of faith rather than worldly goods, and in terms that hint at millenarian beliefs:

calling to remembrance the […] estate of this transitory life and that all flesh must yield unto death when it shall please God to tell doe make constitute and ordaine & deliver this my last will and testament in manner and forme, revoking and annulling by these presents all and every testament and testaments and wills heretofore by me made and declared eyther by word or by writing and this to be taken only for my last will and testament and none other. And first I being penitent for my sinnes and sorry for the same from the bottome of my heart most humbly desiring to be forgiven for the same I give and committ my soule unto Almighty God, my saviour and redeemer in whom and by the merritts of Jesus Christ I trust and believe assuredly to be saved and to have full remission and forgiveness of all my sinnes and that my soule with my body at the generall day or […] shall rise again with my Lord through the merritts of Christs death passion possesse and inheritt the kingdom of heaven prepared for his best and chosen.

In the meantime, Anne had managed to build up a small property portfolio, with houses in French Alley and Bell Alley in Cripplegate as well as her original premises in Little Britain. The latter she passed on her to daughter Mary. She seems to have managed to run her business and property interests without knowing how to write: her will was signed with her mark rather than a signature, and the fact that a scrivener called James Linwood was one of the witnesses to the will suggests that he may have helped draw it up.

Despite this lack of formal education, what little I have managed to find out about her life suggests Anne must have exercised considerable commercial and confessional agency. She would have had to demonstrate a considerable medical and pharmaceutical knowledge to the Society of Apothecaries in order to be allowed to trade, all of which would have been picked up from observing and assisting her husband. If the wording of her will is hers, then she also seems to have had a developed and individual religious faith. More widely, Anne must have played a very significant role for many friends and neighbours in her parish, dispensing pain relief to help during childbirth and medicines to deal with the stone, fever and other illnesses.

For more on female apothecaries in seventeenth-century London, I would recommend Judith S. Woolf’s article in Chemical Heritage Magazine here, which has three other examples of counterparts to Anne.