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Robert Battiscombe (1752-1839) – Royal Apothecary

The Battiscombe family moved to west Dorset in 1452, when John Battiscombe purchased the farm at Vere Wotton (sometimes called Verse) about a mile from the market-town and sea-port of Bridport.  It was here on the 3rd of October 1752 that a boy hesitantly came into the world, apparently showing little appetite for life and unimpressed by the prospect of being born into the Dorset gentry. Ahead of him, though, was a long and prosperous journey that would include over forty years of service to his sovereign, King George III.
Peter and Lydia Battiscombe, the boy’s parents, were so concerned their son would not survive the day that they sent for the vicar. Sensing the urgency of their message, he hurried to the child, who had been given the name Robert. At a private ceremony in the family home the clergyman received Robert into the church. Before leaving, father and churchman held a whispered conversation about burial arrangements for the child. Several weeks later, having won his battle for life, Robert Battiscombe was presented by grateful parents to the congregation of the Parish Church of St. Mary’s, Bridport, and baptised.

For his early education Robert was sent to a school at Crewkerne, then in 1766 he went to Eton as a King’s Scholar; he stayed for three years. At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed for five years to the apothecary George Hailes of Hill Street, Berkeley Square, Middlesex, for a fee of £157.10s.0d.

Sometime before 1780 Robert moved to Windsor, where he set up in business and opened an apothecary’s shop in the town. Here he married and brought up five sons: Richard, Robert, William, Henry and Christopher, all of which followed their father to Eton and were ordained, except Christopher, who died in infancy. There was also a daughter, Myra. From time to time Robert would return to Eton to celebrate the achievements of his sons, for there is a note in his papers: “Attended the Speaker at Eton….their Majesties and the Princesses were present”.

A memoranda book and some of his accounts have survived; they reveal he was supplying medicines, attending and treating the King and other members of the Royal Household from 1780, several years before the onset of the King’s malady, which these days is often referred to as the madness of King George.

The quarterly account of bills for services to the Prince of Wales was regularly over £50. There were similar accounts for the Queens: from April 1782 to July 1784 the total was £346.14s.3d. Bills for the following quarter amounted to over £400. In 1810 the Queen’s and Princesses accounts came to a little less than £600; Princess Amelia was very ill and the apothecary attended her until her death in November and received £300 from the King for his services. The memoranda book records that in 1786 he had bled Princess Amelia six times. In 1787 he bled the Prince of Wales in April and in June he bled the Princess Royal twice and Princess Amelia three times and in July he also bled Princess Mary.

October 1788 saw the onset of the King’s illness.  At the suggestion of Dr. Warren the apothecary attended the King on 30th of October and the 1st and 4th of November, when he “cupped his Majesty” and on the last visit “applied blisters to the head”. On the 5th of November and then at regular four-nightly intervals Robert Battiscombe was on duty and always noted in his diary which doctor was in waiting.  In December he several times had to dress the blisters on the King’s legs and on the 25th he played drafts with the King.  Battiscombe was on duty all through January and notes that on the 13th “saw the King, talked of having his music sent down to him”; a fortnight later he “talked about his horses, music etc.” By mid-February he notes “thought him much better”. He had an hour’s conversation with the King on the 14th and noted “appears nearly well”. On the 27th the apothecary was told through an equerry “that my further attendance at Kew House is from this day dispensed with”; yet on 2nd of March he bled the King again. He goes on to record that for these and other services “his Majesty made me a present of £100”.

In 1793 there is a note about another of the Princesses: “Princess Sophia has had hysteric fainting for weeks. Tried all kinds of private medicines without effect”.   From time to time in his memoranda book it is noted that he felt the King’s pulse.

In May 1805 Robert Battiscombe was sworn in as Apothecary in Ordinary at a fee of £38.13s.2d. From this time he received many presents from members of the royal family: from Princess Amelia a silver watch and a bread basket;  from Princes Sophia a silver tea caddy; from Princes Augusta  a silver inkstand  and Princes Mary gave him an egg cup and four spoons and on another occasion a coffee pot stand and lam. Princess Elizabeth presented him with a muffin dish and cover. He also received from King George a watch and from the Queen a kettle and a lamp, for his care of Princess Amelia.

Bills rendered for services to the Royal establishments were usually paid four months in arrears. However, in 1808 Robert Battiscombe had to chase-up payment of his bills.  To the King he wrote “With the most profound respect….to lay my case before Your Majesty and to state that my bills for medicines for the use of your Majesty, their Royal Highnesses, the Princesses and your Royal Household are twenty quarters in arrears. That the bills have been delivered into the proper office vouched by Sir Frances Millman….I presume to suppose there may be some delay in the official department, which encourages me to lay my case at your Majesty’s feet.”

During 1810 Robert Battiscombe sat with the King every fifth night. This attendance started in October and lasted till mid-April 1811, when his salary was increased to £300. In 1811 he gave up his business at Windsor but he continued to serve as Royal Apothecary and his appointment was confirmed by King Geoge IV, though there are few entries in his memoranda book for his later years.

The Apothecary could afford to extend a little credit to his Sovereign. He came from landed gentry and in 1798 inherited property in Dorset and Somerset. His papers show he was a shrewd businessman who occasionally invested in shares. He was no stranger to the county of his birth and frequently travelled to Bridport on family business.

Robert Battiscombe’s death was registered at Windsor during the first quarter of 1839. On his death the gifts he received from the King and members of the Royal Family were weighed and divided equally among his children.

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