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Sir  Joseph Beecham (1848–1916), by unknown photographerSir Joseph Beecham (1848–1916), by unknown photographer
Beecham, Sir Joseph, first baronet (1848–1916), manufacturer of patent medicines, was born at Wigan on 8 June 1848. He was the eldest of the family of two sons and two daughters of , founder of Beecham's pills, and his first wife, Jane Evans (1811/12–1872). Educated from 1859 onwards at Moorflat Church of England school, St Helens, in 1863 he entered his father's business, which produced digestive and cough pills. Until the late 1870s, they ran it jointly with only a few employees; he later claimed to have worked daily from 5.30 a.m. until midnight, occasionally escaping to Liverpool for an evening in the gods at a concert or opera.

In 1873 Beecham married Josephine (c.1850–1934), daughter of William Burnett, a silk dealer of St Helens. Of their ten children, two sons and six daughters survived childhood. With a narrow provincial outlook, she failed to unlock his deeply introverted nature, caused by an overbearing father and domestic tension in early life. Then, in 1882, he met the eighteen-year-old Helen McKey Taylor (1864–1920), a Scottish girl who had been brought up in New York. In 1889 he installed her in a London suburb. Their relationship lasted until his death, and although childless provided the emotional and domestic support he sought as he pursued his entrepreneurial activities.

Having appointed the publicity-minded Charles Rowed (1855–1933) as his general manager, Beecham increased the firm's advertising outlay to £109,856 in 1890. Light-hearted advertisements, such as ‘What are the wild waves saying (Try Beecham's pills)’, printed on boats' sails and billboards stretched over beauty spots, offended the fastidious but sold his pills—no fewer than 250 million, or a quarter of all factory-made pills in Britain, in 1890, and 366 million in 1915. Exports over that period rose from 14 to 28 per cent of turnover. In 1890 he established a manufacturing subsidiary in New York. By then he had become a cosmopolitan, claiming to have bought his tie in Cairo, his coat in Australia, and his boots in San Francisco.

In 1899 Beecham had Josephine secretly committed to an asylum in Northampton. Later discovered by two of their children and released, she obtained a judicial separation and an allowance. The elder son, , the conductor, broke with his father over this cold-hearted act. By the new century Joseph was concentrating on his outside interests. He was mayor of St Helens three times between 1889 and 1911 and a very active chairman of the town's electricity committee. He also acquired a large collection of British landscape and other paintings. Having in 1909 become reconciled with Thomas, between 1910 and 1914 Beecham subsidized, at a reported cost of £300,000, a sequence of brilliant grand opera and ballet seasons at top London theatres. For these and philanthropic services (he gave £30,000 to Bedford College, London), Beecham was knighted in 1912 and in 1914 made a baronet; he was also created a knight of the Russian order of St Stanislaus.

In 1914 Beecham was induced to underwrite the purchase for £2 million of the Covent Garden estate and market in London. The deal went awry when the outbreak of the First World War prevented the flotation of a company to sell off the properties. After two years of increasing anxiety, he died of an undiagnosed heart complaint; he was found dead in his bed at his Hampstead home, West Brow, 9 Arkwright Road, on 23 October 1916. He was buried on the 27th at Denton Green cemetery, St Helens. His estate had to be put in Chancery, and was finally wound up in 1924 with a valuation of £1,479,447.

Unimpressive in appearance, with a reddish moustache and grey eyes, Joseph Beecham combined shyness and inarticulacy with a hankering after the grand gesture. By inspired publicity he made his firm one of the best-known in Britain, but he did almost nothing to modernize its products or organization; it was not even a limited company until 1924. He was at ease only with a few close associates; an unselfish love for his son, Thomas, was repaid with condescension. Helen Taylor was loyal to him until the end but few such men of achievement can have enjoyed so little affection in their lives.

T. A. B. Corley


T. A. B. Corley, ‘Beecham, Sir Joseph’, DBB · A. Francis, A guinea a box (1968) · A. Jefferson, Sir Thomas Beecham: a centenary tribute (1979) · C. Reid, Thomas Beecham: an independent biography (1962) · T. Beecham, A mingled chime (1944) · Daily News and Leader (24 Oct 1916) · Liverpool Courier and Times (24 Oct 1916) · Chemist and Druggist (28 Oct 1916) · C. R. Grundy, ‘Sir Joseph Beecham's collection at Hampstead [pt 1]’, The Connoisseur, 35 (1913), 69–78 · C. R. Grundy, ‘Sir Joseph Beecham's collection at Hampstead [pts 3–4]’, The Connoisseur, 38 (1914), 223–34; 39 (1914), 75–84 · ‘Patent Medicines’, BPP, 9 (1914), 414 [HC] · The parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, Survey of London, 36 (1970) · Burke, Peerage · d. cert.


PRO, chancery records, J4 8853–9621 (1917–24), J15 3417–3691 (1917–24) · St Helens Central Library, St Helens Local History and Archives Library, Beecham Group archives


photograph, St Helens Central Library, St Helens Local History and Archives Library [see illus.] · photographs, St Helens Central Library

Wealth at death  

£1,479,447: PRO, chancery records, J4 8853–9621 (1917–24), J15 3417–3691 (1917–24)