Yesterday a reader from Trinidad sent me some photos of artifacts recently found on her estate. They included a 1903 ceramic gout remedy container by “Holloways” of London. As a graduate of Royal Holloway College, I immediately realised there must be a connection to the college’s founder, Victorian snake oil entrepreneur Thomas Holloway (1800 – 83) .
Originally hailing from Devonport, Holloway started late as a businessman, in the 1830s. His early attempts to hawk patent remedies were spectacularly unsuccessful, putting him in a debtor’s prison. This was largely as a result of a debilitating feud with his erstwhile partner, the Italian Felix Albinolo, who had introduced Holloway to the lotions and potions business.
On release, he dusted himself down and started again, concentrating on digestive pills from his premises in the Strand. Holloway’s success from this time on was based on newspaper advertising, in which he invested huge amounts. Spending typically £5,000 in the early days on an already decent turnover of £20,000, by his death in 1883 his company was shelling out £50,000 per annum on advertising globally, according to Holloway himself. the business also developed a thriving export market to the colonies, although he was less successful in the USA where one suspects that local snake oil operators provided stiff competition.
When his premises in the Strand were demolished to make space for the new law courts, Holloway moved his operation to New Oxford Street in 1867, now employing over 100 staff. After his death in 1883, the company continued until 1930, when its viable products were taken over by the Beecham company.
Holloway was also a canny investor. It was his policy immediately to sink his company’s profits into loans, acting effectively as a pseudo-bank. He was not known as a sympathetic creditor.
Holloway and his wife Jane had no children, and towards the end of his life his thoughts turned to his legacy. On the advice of his friend the seventh Earl of Shaftsbury (of Piccadilly Circus fame), he first endowed a mental hospital in Virginia Water, not far from his home, at a cost of £300,000. In memory of his late wife, Holloway decided to endow a college for women which became the huge ornate brick edifice in Egham known as Royal Holloway College, by dint of having been opened by Queen Victoria. Both of these institutions opened their doors shortly after the death of their benefactor.
Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry by T.A.B. Corley.