End of the line

burfordchemistEvery day throughout the year, tourists stream into Burford, attracted by its ancient church, the dual rows of higgledy-piggledy shops that line the hill down towards the Windrush and, of course, the famed pubs that have lined the main street for hundreds of years. But there is one pub missing. Few will know where it was. But The Crown, at the junction of High Street and Sheep Street, disappeared in the eighteenth century to be replaced by a shop that is unique, utterly unique.

‘Robert Reavely Chemist’ is the bald and simple name above the doorway; this unprepossessing exterior identifies the oldest pharmacy in England. Few tourists notice it but it can nevertheless claim to be the most distinctive premises in Burford. Dating back to the year 1401, this former pub was bought in 1734 by Nicholas Willett, to be used by him as an apothecary’s. In those days, an apothecary was the poor man’s doctor, dispensing cures and medicines from their own home. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the term apothecary began to disappear, replaced by the title chemist or druggist, at which point the business was run from shops rather than homes.

The premises in Burford house both a shop and a dwelling. On the left hand side of the frontage is the original shop. The old L-shaped counter is still in use and behind it, an array of original dark wooden drawers, labelled with contents including Camphor, Senna and even Opium. The right hand side, once the front parlour of the house, was converted in the 1960s and added on to the shop where it now houses a range of beauty products.

So where did the name Reavely come from? It was in 1918 that Robert Reavely, a native of Jarrow in the North East and grandfather of the present owner, bought the premises; this extended the long local history of pharmacy to a new family. When he handed over responsibility to his son, Eric, and pharmacist wife, Sybil, this ownership was maintained.

The family line was destined to continue when their son, Cedric, trained as a pharmacist. After qualifying in 1974, he worked initially alongside his mother. There he has stayed ever since.
While he remained in place, the business around him changed beyond measure. No longer were strychnine or cyanide sold, nor Dettol by the gallon. The dispensary still sold medicines, tablets and ointments, but behind the scene, extra layers of administration and regulations were often the bane of the pharmacist’s lot. For what is essentially a one-man band, at least as far as responsibility lies, the buck stopped with Cedric. Alongside the additional rules and regulations, training had to be constantly updated.

“They don’t trust us to do a good job anymore,” is surely not just Cedric’s complaint in today’s world.

oldchemistshopIt was Simon and Garfunkel who sang the words: ‘Try to keep the customer satisfied, satisfied,’ and Reavely’s would echo that sentiment. With the increasing affluence of the area and the constantly rising number of visitors, the pharmacy has to meet the changing needs with more up-market products aimed at both locals and visitors. Cedric notes that probably half his trade nowadays is attributable to visitors and it could be argued that without them, this business would not survive.

In November 2018, exactly 100 years since the name of Reavely first came to town, Cedric came to retirement. His 44 years of service as the town’s pharmacist are at an end. Summing up his time at the shop, he gives no eulogy or speech, saying simply.
“It’s been a privilege.”

The business has been sold but the name will be retained, surely a tribute to the shop’s fine local reputation. The pharmacy trade will continue in the same premises but the real ‘Robert Reavely, Chemist’ will be consigned to the history books, a name synonymous with service, quality and friendship; there can be few better qualities to decorate such a book.

February – March 2019