Canadian Red Indians, Shakers and Leigh, 1860

What is the connection between a Red Indian medicine, manufactured by the Shakers in the 1860s and Leigh.  The answer is the Powder Mills and the chemical company which took over the factory site in 1856 – Menley and James.

The story officially starts in 1868 when Andrew Judson White, an American, formed a company to market a potent medicine “Mother Seigal’s Curative Syrup”.  He was clearly a man of great invention in the advertising field and it was claimed that the recipe came from secrets handed down from a Canadian Red Indian tribe which had been used by the Pennsylvania Shakers.  Mother Seigal – who was said to be a wise old German lady – turned out to be an invention and her famous picture on the bottle a figment of an advertising artist’s imagination.

However, the firm, A J White, was immensely successful with the syrup and associated pills, selling in vast quantities all over the world – including the UK.  Mr White and his wife had a house off Park Lane in London.

The history of the firm becomes a little more complicated towards the end of the nineteenth century.  Its next generation of Board members realized that to have all one’s eggs (in this case medicines) in one basket was not a good idea.  Consequently in 1908 they formed a separate company which would manufacture ‘proper’ medicines which would be sold to doctors, rather than the general public.  They gave the new company a fictitious name, Menley & James, primarily registered in the UK but successfully trading all over the world for the next forty years.  In particular by the 1950s they were manufacturing over a dozen different products for a Philadelphia company, SmithKline and French (SKF).

In the period after World War II, it was difficult for firms to find new sites and buildings and this must have contributed to Menley & James wanting to buy the very run down Powder Mills site from the owners, the East family.  They arrived in 1948.  One of the early workers there was the 17 year old Margaret Spender who was there for 38 years before retiring in 1994 and from whom much of the information in this article comes.

Initially, the 5-10 staff used some of the old buildings on the northern bank, most erected in the lead up to the First World War but there is a photograph of the building in which Margaret worked which dates from the inter-war years because it is not on the main 1916 map.

Soon after this time Smith, Kline and French Laboratories bought Menley & James (March 1956) and gradually the staff expanded and the old Powder Mills buildings were replaced – although two fairly large towers were not demolished until the mid 1960s.

In these years the factory was actually producing chemicals and various medicines but gradually the site became a research centre and now under Glaxo Smith Kline it has become, as it was in its gunpowder days, the largest employer in the village.  With the current sad rumour of the works in danger of closing, we can only hope that some Red Indian magic formula can be found to help.

Parish Magazine Article: Apr 2010: by Chris Rowley