Dr Giles Roberts
Poor Man's Friend
The son of Richard Roberts, Giles L. Roberts was born on 21st April 1766 at 'The Ship Inn' in West Bay, then known as Bridport Harbour. The Ship Inn was known locally as 'The Sloop', but in 1822 was renamed the 'Bridport Arms'. In his early years, Giles Roberts helped his parents run The Ship Inn. However, as his interest in medicine developed, Roberts set himself up as a chemist, opening a shop at West Street in 1788 and his trade and reputation grew. Although he had obtained a licence to draw blood, extract teeth and cauterise wounds, Roberts was criticised for his lack of formal medical qualifications.
Giles Roberts was persuaded to enroll as a student at Guy's and St Thomas hospitals in London, where he obtained certificates to practice as a surgeon, physician and apothecary. Two years later in 1797, at 31 years of age, he was awarded an Honorary Medical Diploma (MD) from the Royal College and University of Aberdeen.
On returning to Bridport, Doctor Giles Roberts established a laboratory where he was able to conduct his experiments and give science lectures. It was at this time, during the 1790's, that he developed the formula for his revolutionary ointment known as the 'Poor Man's Friend', a cure for aches, pains, gout, etc. His prosperity grew as demand for his invention spread among the rich and poor. The ointment first became available in 1798 and, amongst other ingredients, contained lead and mercury for their antibacterial and antifungal benefits, both ironically now known to be highly toxic!
In 1805, Doctor Giles Roberts opened his shop at 9 East Street, formally the Old George Inn where Charles II was almost captured by troops in 1651. Here he was able to set up a laboratory and give lectures. On a panel of the stone seat in Bucky Doo Square, there is reference to a pharmacist shop at 9 East Street.
Roberts married Phoebe Brown from Shipton. They had one child, but died in infancy. In 1807, Dr Roberts was appointed Medical Attendant to the poor in Bridport, taking the opportunity to campaign for better hygiene and during a cholera epidemic, distributed at his own expense, a pamphlet on healthy living. On Mondays he provided free consultations to the poor. Dr Roberts was also a devout Methodist, actively preaching the gospel and opening chapels.
He died in 1834 and was buried in St Mary's churchyard in Bridport, where a large obelisk marks his grave inscribed 'His Memory is Cherished Especially by the Poor with Grateful Feelings'. The pharmacy continued to manufacture his ointment under the names of Thomas Beach and John Barnicott until 1903, then under Edgar Beach until 1946. Dr Roberts Close, off South Street, was named in remembrance of his work.
In the 1970's, a pharmacist bought Dr Roberts' old shop and discovered the original copy of the recipe for the 'Poor Man's Friend' in a sealed envelope marked 'Private'. It was bought by the Bridport Museum in August 2003 for £480. Other key pieces of Dr Roberts paraphernalia purchased by the museum included the dispensing cabinet at £2,185 that used to be in the East Street shop, his Medical Diploma and gas lights, which in 1832 had been the first in Bridport.
The 'Poor Man's Friend' ointment consists mainly of lard and fine English beeswax, plus calamel, sugar of lead, salts of mercury, oxide of zinc, oxide of bismuth, venetian red, oils of rose, bergamot and lavender. It would have been effective for the treatment of eczema and minor skin infections, mainly due to the zinc oxide.