Quackery and an Atcherley

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A ‘North Wilts Herald’ reporter has had the opportunity of inquiring into and verifying a veritable escape from the jaws of death. Miss M. A. Atcherley, who resides with her mother at 43, Albion-street, New Swindon, gave a full description of her escape. …

Born in Swindon in 1877 to Edward Richard Atcherley and his wife Elizabeth (Weeks), Martha Ann was one of the first members of the now well-established Wiltshire branch of the Atcherley family. Her father and her paternal aunts and uncles were all natives of Staffordshire, and at the time of her birth Martha’s grandparents were living in Wolverhampton. This is where Martha was baptised, on  7 July 1878, at St Andrew’s church, as her older siblings had been before her. By the time the ceremony took place however, Martha’s grandfather Edward Atcherley had passed away. It appears that Martha’s was the last Atcherley baptism in Wolverhampton.

In Martha’s day ‘quack’ medicines abounded. Newspapers were rife with advertisements for pills and potions which, despite the claims made for them, typically provided little if any relief. This was not a new phenomenon. In an article published in their journal in 1841, William and Robert Chambers stated: “Shrewd as the English are in every matter of business, they may be described as children in all that pertains to the curing of disease. It would appear that any man, no matter who, will be almost certain to realise a fortune by manufacturing and selling pretended specifics for bodily complaints, provided he possess a sufficient share of impudence, advertise well, and keep up an imposing personal appearance.”

The authors also noted that “The number of quack medicine advertisements in the English provincial papers is remarkably stationary; it usually varies from twenty to twenty-four in each newspaper, and you may observe the same announcements keeping their place for years. … It is not denied that an advertised medicine contains a substance which may serve a good purpose in certain complaints. But the absurdity is, that in most cases the medicine is put forth as a specific for a wide range of diseases. We have pills offered to us which are to cure all kinds of  ‘coughs, colds, asthmas, shortness of breath, oppression of the chest, dropsy, and consumption.’”

The marketing campaign for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People certainly had all the hallmarks of the quack medicine advertisements described above. The rights to the brand were purchased from Canadian physician Dr William Jackson by George Taylor Fulford, of Brockville, Ontario, in 1890. Jackson received $53.01. Fulford went on, to use the words of William and Robert Chambers, “to realise a fortune.”

Dr Williams’ Pink Pills were nothing remarkable, the active ingredients being iron oxide and magnesium sulphate, with starch and enough sugar to help the medicine go down. They were essentially an iron supplement, but with a lower content, and a higher price, than the iron tablets prescribed by physicians. They sold – in 87 countries around the world – because of their memorable name and extremely effective publicity. To quote from Wikipedia:

Fulford was an innovative advertiser. He relied heavily on testimonials, submitted by customers, of miraculous recoveries. He would have these printed in newspapers in [such] a way that it was difficult to differentiate news articles from the advertisements, so readers would see headlines proclaiming these miraculous recoveries, and read on to learn that they were saved by Pink Pills.

This is where Martha Ann Atcherley came in. In November 1896, ‘reports’ headlined “A Verified Escape” appeared in newspapers across Britain. The earliest example I have found was published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 24 November. Within days, the same piece was appearing in places as far apart as Bristol, Hull, Hastings, Dundee, Liverpool, north Devon, Ipswich, Aberdeen and Wrexham. The opening paragraph (quoted at the head of this article) was followed by Martha’s testimonial – and by a series of remarkable claims concerning the curative powers Dr Williams’ pink panacea:

‘About the end of January last,’ said Miss Atcherley, ‘I was taken ill. The symptoms were faintness and swelling of the body, chiefly after meals; this was attended with pains in both sides and across the lower part of the body. My doctor told me I was suffering from indigestion and lowness of spirits, and prescribed for me. About the middle of February, thinking a change might do me good, I went away, but was glad to return home, for I felt worse instead of better. In fact I was so ill that I had given up all hope of recovery. Then a friend spoke of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, and having read comments in several papers on the remarkable cures effected by this medicine, which had attracted public attention, I determined, as a forlorn hope, to obtain some. I procured a box and immediately began to feel the good effects. My health continued to improve, until now, after having taken the fifth box of pills, I am better than I have been for years.’

Miss Atcherley’s statement was confirmed by her mother, who was emphatic in her praise of Dr. Williams’ Pills. She had, she said, quite abandoned any hope of saving her life, and is profoundly thankful that she was persuaded to try Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People when all other remedies had failed.

‘Our neighbours,’ remarked Miss Atcherley, ‘look upon me as a wonder, for they thought it was impossible for me to recover.’ Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills are praised amongst all classes as a strengthening and tonic medicine, for men, women, or children. They are not like other medicine, nor can they be imitated, as is sometimes dishonestly pretended; take care that the package bears the full name, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, and in case of doubts send direct to Dr. Williams’ Medicine Company, 46, Holborn-viaduct, London, E.C., as the pills can be had post-free at 2s. 9d., or six boxes for 13s. 9d. They have cured numerous cases of rheumatism, paralysis, locomotor ataxy, sciatica, influenza, anaemia, palpitations, and the disorders which arises from impoverished blood, such as muscular weakness, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, pain in the back, nervous headache, early decay, and all forms of female weakness.

Martha was 19 years old when these advertisements were first circulated (they made further appearances from 1898 to early 1900). Her father had died nine years earlier in 1887, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, with Martha and nine other children aged from one to twenty years of age. Perhaps because of an inadequate diet, Martha had quite possibly been suffering from anaemia. The iron content of Dr Williams’ Pink Pills, such as it was, may have improved her condition. If a financial inducement had been offered to the family in return for using Martha’s testimony to market Dr Williams’ pills (I have no evidence that such an offer was made), there can be little doubt that it would have been very welcome.

Around the beginning of 1900, Martha married George Wheeler, a farrier from Slough in Buckinghamshire who found work as a striker or smith in the Great Western Railway locomotive works in Swindon. The couple lived with Martha’s mother in Albion Street until at least 1911, and had no children. The death of 66-year-old Martha A Wheeler was registered at Swindon in the June quarter of 1944. Some 45 years later in 1989, G. T. Fulford & Co., the company which manufactured Dr Williams’ Pink Pills and other patent medicines, went into receivership.

Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People could not possibly have cured all the conditions for which they were claimed as a remedy. It is also extremely unlikely that they saved the life of Martha Ann Atcherley (or of anyone else come to that). Yet ironically (if you will excuse my use of that word, given the content of the pills), because of Martha’s widely published endorsement of them, the Pink Pills have ensured that she lives on – in our thoughts at least – today.

Image: Facsimile of Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pale People label, by the author.


[1] Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 Nov 1896.
[2] Birth of Martha Ann Atchersley (sic) registered at Highworth, September quarter 1877; volume 5a, page 27.
[3] FamilySearch shows baptism of Martha Ann Atcherley, parents Edward Atcherley and Elizabeth. Batch C01198-9. Film 1517619. Ref. no. item 12 p 82.
[4] Marriage of Edward R Atcherley and Elizabeth Weeks registered at Highworth, December quarter 1866; volume 5a, page 37.
[5] Death of Edward Atcherley registered at Wolverhampton, Dec quarter 1877; vol 6b, p 345; age given as 64.
[6] William Chambers, Robert Chamber (1841), Medical Quackery. In: Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, vol. IX, pages 309-10.
[7] Wikipedia: George Taylor Fulford.
[8] Wikipedia: Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.
[9] Dominic Carone (2012), Pink Pills for Pale People. The Medfriendly Blog, 30 May 2012.
[10] Bristol Mercury, 25 Nov 1896; Hull Daily Mail, 25 Nov 1896; Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 28 Nov 1896; Dundee Courier, 28 Nov 1896; Liverpool Mercury, 25 Nov 1896; North Devon Journal, 26 Nov 1896; The Ipswich Journal, 28 Nov 1896; Aberdeen Journal, 28 Nov 1896; Wrexham Advertiser, 28 Nov 1896.
[11] Tamworth Herald, 22 Jan 1898 and 17 Feb 1900; Worcestershire Chronicle, 11 Feb 1899 and 17 Feb 1900; Bury and Norwich Post, 18 Jan 1898 and 8 Aug 1899; and others.
[12] Death of Edward Richard Atcherley registered at Highworth, December quarter 1887; volume 5a, page 16; age given as 46.
[13] Marriage of George Richard Wheeler and Martha Ann Atcherley registered at Swindon, March quarter 1900; volume 5a, page 33.
[14] The National Archives: Census of England Wales, 1901 and 1911.
[15] Death of Martha A Wheeler registered at Swindon, June quarter 1944; volume 5a, page 40; age given as 66.

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David Atcherley’s World War II (Part 1)

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In July 1939 Squadron Leader David Francis William Atcherley found himself in Belgium, in charge of some of the best of Britain’s military aircraft: a Vickers Wellington, a Hawker Hurricane, and a Supermarine Spitfire. Men and machines from seven other European countries including Germany were there too. They had not gathered to fight however. Instead, practically on the eve of World War II, representatives of Europe’s air forces and aircraft manufacturers had assembled for the Brussels Aero Show. We can only guess what the atmosphere must have been like.

David was at that time Commander of 85 Squadron, which was based at Debden near Saffron Walden in Essex and equipped with the new Hawker Hurricane. On 27 June 1939 this Squadron and No. 87 were brought under the command of 60 (Fighter) Wing, which itself was part of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. In the event of war breaking out, the BEF’s Air Component was to move to defensive positions in France. With tensions in Europe escalating, 85 (along with other Squadrons) was mobilised on 24 August. A and B Flights were brought to readiness, with their Hurricanes stationed around the perimeter of Debden. War was not long in coming.

A bridge too low?

On 4 September, the day after war against Germany was declared, an advance party from 85 Squadron set off for France. Within five days they had prepared an aerodrome at Boos, near Rouen, which would act as the base for the two Squadrons of 60 Wing. The rest of 85 Squadron was then led from Debden, across the Channel to Boos, by David Atcherley.

Boos was only a temporary home for the Squadrons of 60 Wing, which relocated to Merville, close to Lille and the Belgian border, on 22 September (and then to nearby Seclin on 5 November). Before the move to Merville, the Commanders of 85 and 87 Squadrons decided they would take a look at the base. The story of that day’s events was later told by one of the participants, W J “Spanner” Hendley, then Warrant Officer, Engineer in 87 Squadron:

“… before moving, the two squadron commanders, Squadron Leaders David Atcherley … of 85 and W. Coupe of 87, flew Dan [Newton, of 85] and me over there to ‘case the joint’. We were wined and dined sumptuously at a hotel named the Seraphim. This was renamed the Paraffin when the squadrons arrived. After farewell salutes and handshakes, we left in our two Magisters for the run back to Boos, travelling at nought feet and scaring chicken, cattle and peasants as we went. Approaching Rouen, David Atcherley pointed to the transporter bridge over the river, obviously intending that we should fly under it. … When we got to within 300 or 400 yards of the bridge, I noticed that the transporter was moving slowly, but inexorably, from left to right. My pilot had spotted this too and yanked viciously back on the stick, clearing the right-hand tower by only a few feet. 85 squadron got through with little to spare.”

High jinks (or perhaps in the example described, low jinks) apart, the squadrons of 60 Wing were of course engaged in serious work. Both 85 and 87 carried out defensive patrols over cross-Channel shipping. The first enemy aircraft destroyed by 85 Squadron, a Heinkel He 111, was shot down into the sea on 21 November by Flight Lieutenant Richard “Dicky” Lee during a patrol near Boulogne.

Back from the front

On 8 January 1940, David Atcherley was transferred from his position as Officer Commanding of 85 Squadron, to the Staff of 60 Wing. He was promoted to the temporary rank of Wing Commander on 1 March. Although there are references to David being attached to 349 Squadron in May that year, this seems unlikely as 349 was not formed until 1942. References to David joining 253 Squadron as Officer Commanding in May 1940 however are more reliable, as John Greenwood (a fighter pilot with the Squadron at the time) recalls Atcherley’s brief tenure with that unit.

253 had fought in the Battle of France, and had suffered heavy losses – half of the squadron in fact, including the Commanding Officer and both Flight Commanders. The survivors were evacuated from France on 19 May and returned to their base at Kenley close to London’s border with Surrey. Within days they were off to Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire, to reform the Squadron. David Atcherley was the new Commanding Officer. John Greenwood remembers David’s frustration at being unable to take on the enemy over France, a frustration which was not shared by those under his command! Mistakenly referring to David as Batchy (the nickname of his brother Richard), John recalls:

“Each day, as Dunkirk was going on, Atcherley was on the phone trying to get our squadron back down into the fighting, as he wanted to get into it himself, but we didn’t want to go back at all! However, Air Ministry soon got on to that and Batchy was only with us for about five or six days and he was posted north to Wick.”

Did David Atcherley really get on the Air Ministry’s wick? (Pun intended.) Or was he seen as the right person to be the first Commanding Officer of a strategically important and newly-established RAF station? Either way, Wing Commander Atcherley found himself heading north, arriving at Castletown in Caithness to take command on 8 June 1940.

Commander Atcherley on the deck

RAF Castletown had officially opened on 28 May 1940 as a satellite of RAF Wick. On 7 June however, the day before David’s arrival there, it became an operational station in its own right, part of 13 Group. Although seemingly a long, long way from the action that David sought, the station was a vital part of Britain’s defences both during and after the Battle of Britain. The reason for this was the close proximity of the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, for which RAF Castletown was to provide air cover. It was from Scapa Flow that British ships patrolled the North Sea, and this made the naval base a prime target for German air attacks (and potentially even land invasion). This was particularly so after the fall of Norway on 8 June 1940.

The station in its early months was basic to say the least, described by one author as “little more than three grass runways and a centralised collection of wooden and Nissen huts”. Conditions were particularly difficult during the severe winter of 1940-41. The bitterly cold weather prompted David to order the twice daily issue of a tot of rum to all the men.

The first squadron to be based at Castletown was 504. Their stay, which lasted until October 1940, is said to have been uneventful. However, with an Atcherley in command of the station, life was rarely dull for long. During the stay of another unit, 801 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, its naval pilots were instructed to practice deck-landing on a carrier then cruising near Orkney. Station Commander Atcherley decided to fly on ahead in a Miles Magister and try a deck-landing himself, having never performed one. He timed his departure so that he could introduce himself to the carrier’s captain and then be on hand to greet the pilots from 801 when they arrived. He did not however communicate his intentions to the ship and arrived unannounced. His landing was perfect – up to the point where his aircraft disappeared down an open lift shaft and into the carrier’s hangar. Atcherley emerged none the worse for his unscheduled inspection of the ship’s innards. Sadly, the same could not be said of his aircraft. The lift operator sent both plane and pilot back up to deck where, before the wrecked Magister was dropped over the side, it was photographed. David used the picture for his Christmas cards in December 1940.


Other Atcherley antics at Castletown were prompted by the fact that David’s brother Richard was then commanding another Scottish RAF base, at Drem near Edinburgh. In a bout of friendly sibling rivalry, the twins set about outdoing each other in improving the defensive capabilities of their stations. Ultimately David trumped his brother with typical Atcherley resourcefulness.

David had, while flying along the coast one day, discovered a beached ship on which was perched a 47-inch naval deck gun. He wasted no time in rounding up some men to board the stricken vessel and recover the weapon. The gun was hauled away and mounted on a concrete base at the west end of Dunnet Beach within about a mile of the RAF station, where it was christened “Big Bertha”. Although one source (which attributes the acquisition of the gun to Richard Atcherley) states that 500 rounds of ammunition were recovered with the gun, the Atcherley twins’ biographer John Pudney states that David somehow managed to obtain 130 rounds from the Royal Navy at Chatham.

Responsibility for firing Big Bertha fell to a corporal of the Pioneer Corps. The corporal had arrived at the station, along with the rest of his company, by way of an unfortunate mix-up which David Atcherley took full advantage of. The Pioneers turned up at Wick by train one day and were unsure where they were to go next. Once David heard of their plight, transport to Castletown was soon arranged and the company was put to work around the RAF station. The Pioneers should in fact have been sent to Hampton Wick in London! When the mistake was discovered and the company was re-routed to its correct destination, the gun-firing corporal remained – in exchange for a bacon slicer from the Castletown officers’ mess.

It is said that when the ammo ran out, Atcherley put in a requisition to the Royal Navy for more. At this point “the Admiralty investigated, got quite huffy and demanded their gun back. [Atcherley] at first refused, on the grounds that it was his by right of marine salvage. He gave in when it became apparent that, if necessary, the Navy would send the Home Fleet.” I suspect the use of a little poetic licence in the conclusion to that account.

The gun’s ‘tour of duty’ at Castletown certainly came to an end at some point, as did that of David Atcherley who moved on to take command of 25 Squadron at Wittering in February 1941. Big Bertha’s concrete mount, with its ring of bolts and the letters ‘RAF’ picked out in pebbles close by, remains on Dunnet Beach to this day.

Image: Hawker Hurricane, by ‘Arpingstone’. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Flight, 6 Jul 1939, page 18: Britain in Brussels.

[2] The Battle of Britain London Monument (website): F/Lt. J E Marshall.

[3] W J Hedley, quoted in: Laddie Lucas (1985), Out of the Blue. The Role of Luck in Air Warfare, 1917 – 1966. Page 48.

[4] Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation (website): Air Vice Marshal D F W Atcherley.

[5] Royal Air Force (website): 349 Squadron.

[6] London Gazette, issue 34866, 7 Jun 1940, pages 3435-3436.

[7] Battle of Britain 1940 website: Come One – Come All.

[8] Andrew Guttridge (undated), A brief history of RAF Castletown. In: Castletown Recalls: 1939 – 1945.

[9] Wikipedia: RAF Castletown.

[10] John Pudney (1960), A Pride of Unicorns. Richard and David Atcherley of the R.A.F. pages 167-8.

[11] Scott Young (1963), The Atcherley Legend. In: The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 4 Apr 1963, page 6.

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