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THE COUGH MIXTURE FACTORY OWBRIDGE COURT

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Walter Thomas Owbridge was born in 1844 in Haxey, Lincolnshire, the son of Walter Thomas OwbridgeJames Owbridge, a corn merchant, and Eliza. The family were in Hull by 1861, at 113 English Street. Walter became a pharmacist, with a shop at 76 Porter Street, Hull. There were few off-the-shelf medicines and most of what he dispensed would have been pills and potions that he made himself on the instructions of doctors. In about 1874 he invented a cough mixture, and concocted it in his shop using a two-gallon bottle and a half-gallon pan. It sold well, becoming popular among fishermen who had to face the Arctic waters.

Owbridge's Lung Tonic did not have to contend with a Trades Descriptions Act or any effective consumer protection legislation. It could be advertised as a cure for “all affections of the chest, throat and lungs”, including asthma and tuberculosis!

Walter married Jane Dibb in 1867 and in 1881 the family lived at 47, Great Thornton Street, Hull. Walter Owbridge prospered. By 1875 he had a warehouse on Adelaide Street. In that year there was an accident on the premises which resulted in the death of his assistant, William Harper. Owbridge had to give evidence at the inquest, but no blame was attached to him.

He realised the value of advertising, and spent large amounts of money on it; but in 1888he resisted the idea of registering “Owbridge's Lung Tonic” as a trade mark because it would have cost 3 guineas for 14 years' protection. He was persuaded when he was told that big names like Beecham's and Reckitt's had registered.

Owbridge's lung tonic advertThe firm outgrew the existing premises, and Owbridge bought a site on Osborne Street, near the corner of Midland Street, in 1894. The site had been built up for about thirty years, with a terrace of small houses and a few shops. These were demolished to make way for the new factory, which was opened in 1895. The shops on Midland Street were left intact. In the Directories of 1889 these are listed as a confectioner, two tobacconists,two temperance hotels, a shoe shop, a fried fish shop, an oyster dealer and a loan office. The North Eastern Tavern on the corner of Midland Street and Osborne Street was at that time run by a James Bell.

In 1896 and 1900 there were minor additions to the factory. It was known as “The Laboratory”, a title which Owbridge had transferred from his old premises on Porter Street.

Walter Owbridge had become on of Hull's élite. In 1896 he was made Sheriff of the city,and a portrait of him in this office is in the Guildhall. The following year he lost his seat on the Corporation – the result, said his obituary, of “the ingratitude of public office”. By this time he was living at The Grange, Cottingham, and in 1901 he stood successfully for a seat representing Cottingham on the East Riding Council.

In June 1903 Walter Owbridge died. His obituary in the Hull News paid tribute to his hard work, his “wide-awake activity and unsleeping energy”. As a businessman he had “a fine appreciation of the necessities of the times”. It also described him as “one of the most genial and kind-hearted of men” who had subscribed to many charities.

Walter's nephew, Fred Owbridge, became the new head of the firm. Under his leadership expansion continued, and in1919 a large extension to the factory was built northwards, taking in what had been stables and shop premises. Owbridge's Lung Tonic, with its secret recipe modified over the years, continued to be a big seller.

In 1969 Owbridge's was sold to Organon Laboratories Ltd,a subsidiary of the huge Dutch pharmaceutical group KZO,at a price of £350,000. Organon said that they intended to increase production and sales and to introduce new products; but in 1971 production came to an end. The Corporation wanted the site for re-development, and the Medicines Act meant that a great deal of money would have had to be spent on upgrading the factory. So Organon pulled out, and the factory finally closed in January 1972.

In 1990 the William Sutton Trust took over the site and the now derelict shops adjoining it in Midland Street. At a cost of £1.3 million a new development of 35 flats was built. The façade and clock tower of the old factory were retained to remind us of the past.

Copyright © 2005 Ann Godden


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