Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: October 04, 2019
Webpage updated: October 04, 2019




The Plymouth business house of Messrs Balkwill and Company, chemists, were located at 106 Old Town Street before the Second World War and in Cornwall Street from 1958 until closure.

The origins of the business go right back to Mr William Cookworthy, the father of English porcelain.  He was a member of the Quaker family of Kingsbridge, Devon.  While he was a teenager his father died and his mother lost the family's money in the South Sea Bubble fiasco of 1720.  The family were living in poverty when another Quaker, one of the Bevan brothers and a partner in an apothecary's business in London, came to visit.  Impressed by the intelligence of young William, the eldest son, he invited him the opportunity of becoming an apprentice with the firm.  the lad started his apprenticeship by walking from Kingsbridge to London because they could not afford the coach fare.

When he had completed his apprenticeship, he returned to Plymouth and opened up a business as a pharmacist under the name of Messrs Bevan and Cookworthy.  It is not known exactly when this happened but it is thought to have been before his marriage in 1735.

Having given young William Cookworthy a good start in life, the Bevans withdrew from the partnership in 1746, allowing William to be joined by his brothers, Philip and Benjamin.  Whether they were qualified similarly to their brother is not known.  But the business operated on a wholesaler rather than retail basis so William travelled the counties of Devon and Cornwall on horseback calling on doctors and surgeons to promote their pills and potions.  It was during these excursions that he discovered large quantities of kaolin and he henceforth concentrated his time and effort on the development of the first English hard pottery.

Mr William Cookworthy died in 1780 and the business was continued by other members of his family and one of his grandsons. a Mr Francis Fox.  In 1795 they opened a retail shop in the Old Mayoralty House in Whimple Street.  It is at this point that the Balkwill family entered the scene.

Mr Benjamin Balkwill was born in 1772 to Mr Francis Balkwill and his wife, the former Miss Sarah Kemp.  Francis was a farmer at Ashley, in the parish of Tamerton Foliot, and several of his sons were farmers at Marsh Mills and in the South Hams.  Benjamin, however, became a pharmacist, learning his trade, it is believed, under a Mr Thomas Ryder, one of only three qualified chemists in the Town at that time.  However he soon tired of working in a shop and took off to Calstock, in Cornwall, and became a corn chandler.

But Mr Benjamin Balkwill married Miss Elizabeth Hancock, who was a cousin of both Mr Francis Fox and the Cookworthys so when they opened their shop he was invited back from the banks of the river Tamar to manage the business.  Whether that was before or after they moved the shop to 65 Old Town (as it was then) in 1811 is not clear.  After Mr Fox died in 1812, the partnership consisted of Mr Joseph Cookworthy, Mr William Prideaux, Mr Charles Prideaux and Mr Benjamin Balkwill.

Slowly the partnership broke up and on October 10th 1826 Benjamin issued a public notice that announced: 'B Balkwill, late partner in the old-established firm of Cookworthy, Fox, Prideaux and Balkwill, begs to inform his friends, that though the partnership is dissolved, yet he still continues the business on the same premises, in Old-Town-Street, which they have occupied for several years, and hopes, by a strict attention to the purity of the Drugs and Chemicals, to obtain the continuance of their support.'  This is thus the true start of the business as Balkwill's.

Soon after this his sons, Mr Charles Balkwill and Mr Joseph Hancock Balkwill, joined the firm and the business became Messrs Balkwill and Sons.  At the time of the census in 1841, Benjamin and Charles were living in Old Town Street, while Mr Joseph Hancock Balkwill, who had married Miss Anne Payne, was living at 3 Portland Square with their son, Alfred, and two female servants.  There was no sign of Sarah.

Mr Benjamin Balkwill had retired from the business so when Mr Joseph Hancock Balkwill died in 1844 and his brother, Mr Charles Balkwill, withdrew from the business, it was left to Joseph's widow to continue the business.  At the time of the census in 1861 she was living at Swilley Lodge, North Prospect, Devonport, and was listed as a chemist and druggist.  She was assisted in the business by her son, Mr Alfred Payne Balkwill, and two daughters, 21-years-old Miss Anne Hancock Balkwill and 19-years-old Miss Helen Balkwill.  The firm was now titled Messrs Balkwill and Company, and in addition to the manufacturing, dispensing and wholesaling of drugs, they also manufactured and exported arsenic.

Another of her sons, Mr Frederick Pryor Balkwill, had been a partner in the business for a couple of years but during the 1860s he became a district manager for a life assurance company and eventually moved to the Midlands.

Mr Alfred Payne Balkwill was born in Park Street, Plymouth, on September 2nd 1834.  He married Miss Sophia Newman, the daughter of Mr Josiah Newman JP, of Leominster, Herefordshire, in 1875.

In 1890 he was joined in the business by Mr Freeman William Hunt, of Aldeburgh, in Suffolk.  He had gained valuable experience with Messrs Savoy and Moore and later become a partner in the firm of Messrs Clare and Hunt, of Scarborough, Yorkshire.

When Mr Balkwill retired in 1911, Mr Hunt was joined by Mr Bernard T R Shelton but they retained the name.

Mr Alfred Payne Balkwill died on Monday June 1st 1914 at his home in Lipson Terrace, Plymouth.

Mr Hunt retired in 1924 and the business was then continued solely by Mr Shelton.  In 1930 he took on a young assistant by the name of Mr Ernest Charles Burrow.  Born in Bodmin, Cornwall, in 1910, Mr Burrow had left school at 15 years of age to earn money to support his parents and their family.  While working at Balkwill's, Ernest studied at night school and later at the Plymouth School of Pharmacy.  He was registered as a pharmaceutical chemist in 1937.

On the night of March 21st 1941 the premises were destroyed by the same fire that consumed Messrs Spooner and Company Limited.  The business moved to number 5 Bedford Row, Tavistock Road, Plymouth, between Deptford Place and Bedford Terrace.  The name had been changed by then to Messrs Balkwill and Company (Chemists) Limited.  In the early 1950s they also had a branch at 171 Pike Road, Efford, which was also a sub-post office.

Although Mr Burrow was called-up for war service on several occasions, Mr Shelton managed to get it deferred repeatedly on the grounds that his work was important to the civilian community in Plymouth.  Mr Burrow did, however, serve as an ARP Warden and as a Gas Identification Officer.

In 1958 the business moved to new premises in Cornwall Street.

Eventually Mr Burrow became the sole owner and gave talks on the local radio as well as providing fascinating displays of pill making and other pharmaceutical skills at the Merchant's House in Saint Andrew Street.

Messrs Balkwill and Company (Chemists) Limited ceased trading in 1974 when Mr Burrow retired through ill health.

Mr Ernest Charles Burrow died on January 5th 2009 at the age of 98.  The funeral took place at Efford Cemetery on January 21st 2009.