Memoires of chemist in Holbeach and Spalding

Rex Merchant.
Rex Merchant.
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Rex Merchant used to sell enough cyanide to poison the whole of Holbeach at one time.

He was only doing his job, learning the ropes as a pharmacist with a three-year apprenticeship in the town.

That was back in the 1950s when farmers typically went into Boots to buy the poison by the hundredweight (cwt).

Rex said: “We used to sell copper acetoarsenite and farmers used it as a slug killer. They mixed it with bran and broadcast in on the fields.”

That world, so different from today when many of the chemicals have been banned, is one that Rex reflects on with some fondness in A Country Chemist. Memoirs of a Rural Pharmacist.

When he started out, working at the Boots store in both Holbeach and Spalding, Rex says that wasn’t the only thing that was so very different.

Most of the medicines then were mixtures made up by the pharmacist, rather than the capsules and tablets sold today in child-proof bottles.

“In those days dispensing was much more practical and prescriptions were written in Latin and they abbreviated it, so you had a lot to learn,” says Rex, who thankfully studied Latin at Spalding Grammar School.

He adds: “We used to use apothecaries’ weights and measures in those days and then it changed to metric. That was in about 1964 and for a little while chemists were dispensing in both systems. Parliament said we couldn’t dispense any more in apothecaries’ weights and measures but didn’t tell the doctors to alter their prescription methods so for a little while we were getting prescriptions written in both systems. The chemists sorted it out, but really it was a dog’s hind leg for a little while.”

Those memories of selling strychnine to farmers to kill moles or hydrogen cyanide to get rid of rats are contained in Rex’s book, the latest in his publishing endeavours since retirement.

Rex says he set up his own publishing imprint to take control of his own work and so far has published 30 titles.

Among them are The Spalding Bird Museum and Deeping Fen.

A Country Chemist (ISBN: 9781902474304) is available from or through bookshops.