Life & Times: William Ransom, Hitchin

GP Edin Lakasing and complementary therapist Sonia Grover<br/><br/>take a look at the life and work of polymath William Ransom

WILLIAM Ransom, founder of the UK’s oldest independent pharmaceutical company, was born on January 28, 1826, in the family farmhouse in Bancroft, Hitchin. Through his father John Ransom he was descended from a Quaker family of Norfolk origin, millers, farmers and landowners who settled in Hitchin during the reign of Queen Anne.His maternal ancestors were also Quakers. He was educated at Isaac Brown’s academy in Hitchin, where he excelled, showing a particular aptitude for science. Three of his closest friends at school were Birket Foster, Joseph Pollard and Joseph Lister, who were to achieve considerable eminence in art, botany and medicine respectively. Upon leaving school, Ransom moved to Birmingham where he was apprenticed to Thomas Southall, a manufacturing chemist and owner of the Southall’s company. After qualifying as a botanist and pharmacist, he returned to Hitchin where in 1846 he set up his own company in premises in Bancroft which his family owned. He worked tirelessly, converting a 17th-century woolstapler’s barn to a 19th-century laboratory.

A growing businessFrom 1851 Ransom kept a diary, chronicling his life and the growth of the business. Indeed, the latter soon became a major focal point in the town, helping other businesses as a result. Wagons, carts and wheelbarrows would make their way to the distillery six days a week, delivering belladonna, cucumber, poppies, lavender, hemlock and especially dandelions – up to 20 tonnes of the latter on a Saturday morning. Two key events in the mid-19th century conspired to give Ransom’s business impetus. Firstly, there was the coming of the railway, bringing Hitchin into immediate communication with London, and to a man of his progressive views a new world was opening. Ironically, however, the process opened up an old world which also fascinated him, for as the Railway Company was digging to lay tracks and build stations, an unintended archaeological excavation started.Ransom would regularly walk up Wilbury Hill, from which he began amassing his impressive array of skeletons (both human and animal), spears, coins, urns and other collectables. The other event was the Great Exhibition of Industry of Nations, the brainchild of Prince Albert, which opened in Hyde Park on 1st May 1851 to massive public acclaim, one of the most successful cultural and technological exhibitions of all time. Ransom travelled to London, exhibiting his own creations but delighting in the other displays, particularly the Persian section: ‘and the malachite doors and vases exceed in beauty everything of the kind there,’ he wrote in his diary.

Devoted to HitchinRansom remained, however, very much a Hertfordshire man, devoted to Hitchin. Indeed, past and present residents of the market town owe him a huge debt. Viewed with hindsight, the coming of the rail network has been a classic double-edged sword, allowing people from afar to travel to and work in London without living there, but also converting many of the commuter towns of the Home Counties into soulless dormitories.By contrast, Ransom did much, not least by his personal example, to make Hitchin independently prosperous; today, the medieval market and Tudor architecture still survive the onslaught of glass and concrete temples to global capitalism. He held enlightened views for a man of his time and background, supporting better education for the less privileged and for women, and championing progressive womensuch as the writers Clara Balfourand Eliza Sharples.A devout member of the Society of Friends all his life, he nonetheless believed that his fellow Quakers were too disengaged from society, and whilst they undoubtedly faced discrimination and had their numbers decimated by emigration to the United States, he felt participation in public life was the way forward.Ransom himself served Hitchin in numerous roles including as a Justice of the Peace, county councillor, member of the Local Board and Urban District Council, governor of the Grammar School, director of the Market Company, and governor of Hitchin Hospital. The latter was renamed the Lister Hospital in 1943, and moved to Stevenage in 1972. As a philanthropist he sponsored several cultural events in London and Hertfordshire.

Family followingIn 1858 Ransom married Thomas Southall’s eldest daughter Anna Mary; they were to have three daughters and a son. His son, Francis Ransom, followed in his footsteps, becoming, if anything, an even more distinguished chemist. Like his father, he was also apprenticed to Southall’s before returning to Hitchin to help with the business, eventually taking over.He served the Pharmaceutical Society as Honorary Secretary before being elected President in 1910. He published numerous papers, the best known of which was ‘Medicinal plant names, their origin and meaning’ (1899).With Francis’ input, the elder Ransom was able to devote more energy to his other interests. His archaeological excavations earned him a considerable reputation quite independent of his work as a chemist and businessman, and he contributed several papers to learned societies.Among his notable excavations were, in 1879, finding three layers of ancient remains on Pegsdon Common, which proved that British, Roman and Saxon had successively built their cemeteries there. In 1882 he uncovered a Roman cemetery at Great Wymondley, which had 43 urns, and two years later a Roman Villa in whose seven rooms lay a host of household artefacts, including 40 coins. As Ransom became physically frailer in old age, he wound down his excavating and spent more time assembling his collection in his home on Fairfield, which became a museum in all but name. His mind remained undiminished, and in 1913 he lived to see the firm become a limited company. He died at his home the following year, aged 88. Since then the company has thrived, run by a fourth generation of the family.A recent success has been achieving the product license for Alateris�, the first licensed glucosamine for mild to moderate osteoarthritis; the drug had hitherto been within the complementary medicine domain. A blue plaque on the building on Bancroft that was the original pharmacy honours William Ransom’s memory.

AcknowledgementSonia Grover is a complementary therapist and teacher in Letchworth and Edin Lakasing is a general practitioner in Chorleywood.With thanks to the staff of Hitchin Museum for their kind help in obtaining data.

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