Cinnamon Cures and Cosmetic Concoctions

William Potter Townend owned Townend’s Chemist and Druggist Store in the Crystal Palace Building on Colombo Street, at the corner with what was Chester Street and across the road from the Oxford Hotel. In the same premises was the medical practice of his younger brother, Joseph Henry Townend.

William (1845-1934) and Joseph (1847-1902)  grew up in Nottingham, England, sons of Joseph senior, a well-to-do local businessman who had a carrier and wharfinger business before he have it all away in 1852 to become a Baptist Minister. They were part of a large family by modern standards, the younger children were under the care of a nurse maid and the older ones educated by a governess.

Colombo Street, looking towards the Port Hills, with Chester Street on the left and Market (later Victoria) Square is on the right. The Crystal Palace Building is on the left, circa 1870. [1]
Joseph was sent away to Chestnut House Academy, a boys’ school in Arnold some 4-5 miles north of the family home in Warser Gate. He went on to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital in London, passing the necessary examinations to be admitted licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.[2]

A London partnership followed with Dr. Thornton Gerald Simpson, [3] as general practitioners at No. 233 Hackney Road which lasted until they dissolved it in May 1873. [4]

A Pleasant and Happy Voyage

Not long after Joseph came out to New Zealand as the surgeon-superintendent on board the ‘Rakaia’, in charge of the health and safety of 504 immigrants. He arrived in Lyttelton on 26 April 1874. Although there were deaths during the 96 day voyage – all children of ‘a tender age’ –  the saloon and free passengers found him a kind and gentlemanly doctor. On their arrival at Lyttelton they presented him with a ring as a token of their appreciation and a memento of a pleasant and happy voyage.

He didn’t stay in New Zealand long, however he returned once again to Lyttelton in July 1875 as Surgeon Superintendent on board the immigrant ship ‘White Rose‘. This time his brother William came out also. [5] Joseph took no time in settling down into colonial domestic life; three months later he married Harriet, the twenty year old daughter of William Cox. [6]

Much less is known of William’s early years, training and emigration to New Zealand. As a fifteen year old in 1861 he was the youngest child living at home with his retired parents while Joseph was away at boarding school. The family then moved to London, living in Dalston, over the river and five miles north of Guy’s Hospital where William, then later Joseph, studied. Whilst Joseph qualified as a doctor, William (who did not gain any qualifications) pursued a career in obstetrics. As an ‘accoucheur‘ (male midwife) he attended some 1500 births over a period of eight years before emigrating to New Zealand. [7] He also followed in the footsteps of his oldest brother, George Frederick Harvey Townend, who had become a chemist. [8]

Liver Pills and Teething Powder

Townsend Cinnamon Cure
Townsend Cinnamon Cure Ad, circa 1890s. [9]
William Townend created typical medicines of the day to treat the common ailments Victorians suffered from. Fellow Christchurch chemist George Bonnington had his popular Irish Moss  product and William Townend had “Cinnamon Cure” – guaranteed to cure all common throat and lung ailments. Such was his confidence in its ability to cure, like Bonnington with his Irish Moss, William would espouse its qualities in newspaper advertisements in the Christchurch Star and stack his shop window to the top with boxes of the product.

His other notable medicines were Townend’s Bilious and Liver pills and a children’s teething powder. An advertisement in February 1879 ran in the Christchurch Star as follows:-

“These pills quickly penetrate to the Seat of Disease, and speedily and effectually removed Nervousness, Headache, Acidity, Heartburn, Pains between the shoulders, Palpitation of the Heart, Interrupted Sleep, Harassing Dreams, Tendency to Start, to be Frightened, Spasms and Flatulent Distensions, Feeling of Fullness soon after eating with a weight or oppression, Impaired Appetite, & c, and all Diseases arising from Indigestion and Inactivity of the Liver.

The Proprietor confidently recommends these Pills as being especially adapted for that particular form of Dyspepsia and Derangement of the Digestive Organs so prevalent in the colonies.”

“Townend’s Tasteless Powders, for Children Teething, &c. These Powders are the best and safest form of Medicine for most of the ailings to which children are liable.”

In later years he moved into making cosmetic concoctions, advertising in the Star on 24th June 1902 a product to restore hair colour:-

“Townend’s Sulphur Hair Restorer will positively restore grey or faded hair to its natural colour; it is not a dye.”

However it was not the medicines he sold which lead to his notoriety but his association with his brother Joseph.

‘Reckless Persons Professing the Art of Healing’

After his arrival in Christchurch in 1875, Dr. Townend went into partnership with Dr. John Steele Park in the Crystal Palace Buildings and very quickly established a thriving business.

Press, Volume XXIV, Issue 3155, 11 October 1875, Page 2
Press, Volume XXIV, Issue 3155, 11 October 1875, Page 2.
Source: Papers Past. Timaru Herald, Volume XLV, Issue 4121, 23 December 1887, Page 2.
Timaru Herald, Volume XLV, Issue 4121, 23 December 1887, Page 2.

Joseph employed his brother William to assist him with his patients. During the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for busy doctors to refer cases to ‘offsiders’ who were unqualified doctors but knew enough to handle simple or common cases and to act as midwifes. It wasn’t until the opening of maternity hospitals like St Helen’s in Sydenham in the early 1900s that working class women could have safer deliveries in a sanitary and professional environment instead of in their homes under the care of unqualified midwives. Unfortunately it was in his role as midwife that William came to be charged with the manslaughter of a newborn baby named Charles Harris Isaacs born to Mrs. Amelia Isaacs of Colombo Street. [10] Initially Mrs Isaacs had made plans for Doctor Townend to attend her in labour however on the night of 10th May 1876 Dr. Townend was otherwise engaged and William went instead. Mrs Isaac’s prolonged and difficult labour lead to William fearing for her life. Having no forceps with him he asked for a large pair of household scissors which he used to hasten the birth and fatally injure the baby.

To the Dead House

An inquest was held at the Christchurch Hospital on 26th May 1876. The Coroner informed the jury:

“Gentlemen, you have been called together in consequence of the death of a child whose body you will see. There are wounds on the head which are said to have been given prior to birth or at the time of birth. You will observe those wounds, and hear the evidence to be brought before you. I will now go with you to the dead house to see the body of the child.”

The jury proceeded to the morgue where the body of the baby lay. On returning to the court room, Elizabeth Englefield, who had been engaged to attend Mrs Isaacs during her confinement, gave evidence describing how on examining Mrs. Isaac, Townend had said the baby was coming feet first. She said he had administered a powder to Mrs. Isaacs that had ‘made her pains so great that they did not leave her‘. She said he had taken a large sized pair of pointered scissors and used them internally, after which the baby had been born head first.

“I washed the child, and there were two cuts down the forehead, extending into the corner of one eye. Before I washed the child, Mr Townend’s brother came and fastened the cuts together with a needle and cotton. The child, though still bleeding from the forehead seemed to go on all right until Sunday afternoon. No matter what I put on, the child continued to bleed. At 4.30 on Sunday afternoon the child took convulsions. We could only get it to take the breast once, and it died at 11.30 on Monday morning.”

Source: Papers Past. Otago Witness , Issue 2308, 26 May 1898, Page 20.
Published in Otago Witness. Issue 2308, 26 May 1898, Page 20. Papers Past.

Other witnesses, including the child’s father Harris Isaac, corroborated this story, adding that Mr Townend had threatened he would leave if Mr Isaacs went for another doctor “and in five minutes your wife will be a dead woman.” Instead Townend sent him to his brother to obtain “a kind of doctor’s instrument that he wanted.” Isaacs had set off immediately in Townend’s horse drawn buggy and, after some delay locating Dr Townend as he was not at home, the pair returned to the Isaacs’ house on Colombo Street south. By the time they arrived the child was born and the fatal damage done. “I heard it once make a noise more like a cat or an animal of some kind than a child,” Issacs told the court of his baby, corroborating Englefield’s earlier testimony that “it made a sort of wheezing noise when it was born; it was not like a child’s natural cry.”


Further evidence was given by other medical experts to the effect that apart from the wounds on the baby inflicted by the use of the scissors, it had been born as part of a normal labour in a healthy full term condition. A post mortem had identified near the angle of the right eye “two distinct well defined wounds – the one in the centre of the forehead, three quarters of an inch long, and the other not quite so large.” The wound at the eye was deep and penetrated the skull and brain. Dr. Donald Campbell, who performed the post mortem, concluded his evidence with the statement “I have no hesitation in saying that the child died from the effects of the wounds in the skull and brain.”

Townend Gives Evidence

Mr Townend expressed a desire to give evidence and the Coroner cautioned him that whatever he said would be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence against him.

“Wanted Known” Townsend Chemist Ads, 1880. Star, 28 August 1880, page 2. Papers Past.

Townend explained the difficulties of the labour, how his brother had not been available and he had offered to go in his place. How on arriving at the Isaacs’ house he had examined Mrs Isaacs and concluded ‘that it was a feet presentation’. He had administered half a drachm of ergot ‘which I believe is usual in such cases’. More labour pains followed and he discovered that the child was coming face first. Mr Isaacs had come to him and wanted another doctor, he had told him that it wasn’t necessary but he would wait and hand over the case if Mr Isaacs wanted to fetch another doctor, but he would not leave as it would result in Mrs Isaacs death. He then tried turning the child, which one witness had called ‘butchering the woman’. The baby’s head had appeared, jammed in the pelvis. More severe labour pains had followed with a now delirious patient throwing herself about. He had feared for her life, and believing the child dead from the severe pressure of the contracting uterus, he had attempted to save the life of the mother by relieving the pressure, performing a craniotomy on the child to ‘let out some of the brain’.

I had learnt prior to this, from the woman that in her first confinement, the child had to be destroyed by craniotomy and in the second she had a seven months’ child. From this and the constitution of the woman, I came to the conclusion that the operation was necessary to save the mother’s life.

I have been in the habit of attending midwifery cases for nine years. I have not a diploma. In face presentations, even with natural delivery, the child often dies.

With the shocking details of the evidence concluded the room was cleared for the Jury to consider the verdict. After the lapse of only some fifteen minutes the public were again admitted, when the Coroner read over the decision arrived at by the Jury – a verdict of “Manslaughter against Townend.” [11]

Before the Supreme Court

The case then went before the Supreme Court where Townend faced a charge “That he did feloniously kill and slay a male child born of the body of Amelia Isaacs, on or about the 20th day of May last.”[12] If found guilty Townend would face a sentence ranging from a fine or a short term of imprisonment, to penal servitude for the remainder of his natural life.

Much the same evidence was given as was at the inquest. This time, however, the mother, Amelia Isaacs also appeared as a witness:

“In the month of February I engaged Dr. Townend to attend me in my confinement. I was confined on May 20. I sent for Dr. Townend at a little before nine o’clock on that evening. He did not come, but the prisoner came instead. When he came in I said, “You are not the doctor I engaged; you are Dr. Townend’s brother, and I have no knowledge of you: but at the same time it does not signify so long as you are skillful.” He said, “We are all good doctors. I’ll do the best I can.” He afterwards gave me a powder which I at first refused, as I thought it was an overdose. I had taken three doses of a similar powder on my first confinement, but they were much smaller doses. (The witness here described the mode of her delivery). The child lived for thirty six hours. I saw it the morning after it was born. It was then bleeding from the eyes, the forehead and the mouth. Dr. Townend arrived after the child was born, and in time to bind up the wound that had been inflicted by the prisoner.

W. P. Townend's Chemist,1897
W. P. Townend’s Chemist,1897 [13]
Although his brother Dr. Townend spoke of William’s competence, how he had successfully attended over 150 cases of midwifery since he had arrived in Canterbury, as did new mother’s Emily Jennett, Jessie Fawcett and Mary Ann Fry who had been attended by William Townend during difficult and dangerous confinements, Judge Johnston found him guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Lyttelton Gaol but was ‘spared the degradation of mixing with the common criminals’.

“… I must pass upon you the sentence of a term of imprisonment for the purpose of keeping down rash and reckless persons professing the art of healing. I don’t know that I am justified in passing upon you so light a sentence, but I trust it will be a warning against a reckless and negligent disregard for human life.” [14]

Townend had a large amount of public support and five thousand people signed a 250 foot long petition which was presented to the Governor in Wellington by W. S. Moorhouse, in an attempt to have the sentenced remitted. [15]

After his release William married Rosa Perkins on 6th February 877 at St. Johns Anglican Church in Latimer Square. The couple had three daughters: Etta, Ida and Harriet. Ida died at only six months old and Etta, newly married, died age 24 at the family home, ‘Fifield’ in Opawa. [16]

Dr Townend’s Mortality Rates

At the same time that William’s case was before the Supreme Courts, the court of public opinion was playing out in the Press between supporters and detractors of Dr. Joseph Townend. Townend had written to the Press complaining about his treatment by authorities over a death certificate he had issued for a patient. It had been referred to the Police, calling into question his abilities and causing distress for his patient’s family. [17]

His detractors called into question the number of deaths he had registered during the six months ending 30th June 1876 – a total of 63 – whilst the remaining fifteen Christchurch doctors signed only 211 during the same period, an average of 14 each. Dr Townend’s supporters accused them of professional jealously and claimed the high numbers merely reflected the fact that he was a popular doctor (who charged a fair fee, implying others charged exorbitantly) and had far more patients than the rest of the practitioners! [18]

Joseph dissolved his partnership with Dr Park in October 1876 and continued the business in his own name. [19] He was a popular and busy Christchurch doctor who visited his patients in his fashionable English-style brougham – the first of the kind built in New Zealand.[ 20] Joseph and his wife, Harriet had four girls and three boys, but Harriet died in February 1893 at the age of 38. Joseph married again in 1900 to Annie Quayle Moore who would later become the richest woman in the South Island and the owner of ‘Mona Vale’. [21] Unfortunately the marriage was a short one as Joseph became ill and died in 1902 at his home in Park Terrace. [22]

William Townend’s wife, Rosa died on 16th October 1926 and William died on 1st October 1934. They were buried together in Row O, plot number 266 at Bromley Cemetery. [23]


  1. Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0027.
  2. The Standard (London, England), Saturday, November 04, 1871; pg. 5; Issue 14746.”Apothecaries’ Hall – At a court of examiners, held on the 2nd instant, the following gentlemen, having passed the necessary examinations; were admitted licentiates of the Society of Apothecaries – Joseph Henry Townend, of Guy’s Hospital.”; Press, Volume XXIV, Issue 3111, 12 August 1875, Page 4.
  3. Simpson had passed his exams in 1865, and was still practising as a physician and surgeon at the same address in 1921.
  4. The Medical Times and Gazette – Volume 1 – Page 271, 1865; Street Directory of London 1921
  5. Joseph and William travelled on board the ‘White Rose’, which left London 14 February, 1875 with 166 emigrants. En route, Captain T. G. Thorpe was found dead in his cabin from apoplexy, and the chief officer took command. It arrived in Port Lyttelton on the 21st July, 1875. There were six births (two stillborn) and three deaths (one adult and two children) during the voyage. The passengers wrote of Dr Townend: “our passage as been associated with sickness and death, sorrow and tribulation, we have had much need of a medical officer, protector, and guide… in your appointment, our wants had been anticipated; your great experience and professional skill has been equalled only by your kind, humane, and generous disposition, which has associated your name high in the rank of your noble profession,…” Source: Press, Volume XXIV, Issue 3093, 22 July 1875, Page 2
  6. Marriage notice, Press, Volume XXIV, Issue 3168, 26 October 1875, Page 2.
  7. Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3381, 5 July 1876, Page 3.
  8. England census 1851, 1861 and 1871
  9. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library ID: Eph-B-PHARMACY-1890s-01-front
  10. Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3381, 5 July 1876, Page 3.
  11. Star, May 26th 1876.
  12. Star, Issue 2582, 4 July 1876, Page 2.
  13. Source: The Weekly Press, 15 Sept. 1897 p. 47. Image: Christchurch City Libraries Reference CCL Photo CD 6, IMG0081.
  14. Star, Issue 2583, 5 July 1876, Page 2.
  15. Star, Issue 2613, 9 August 1876, Page 2.
  16. Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11226, 18 March 1902, Page 1 and Press, Volume LX, Issue 11498, 3 February 1903, Page 1.
  17. Press, Volume XXV, Issue 3377, 29 June 1876, Page 3.
  18. Press, Volume XXV, Issue 3377, 29 June 1876, Page 3; Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3382, 6 July 1876, Page 3; Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3383, 7 July 1876, Page 3.
  19. Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3463, 11 October 1876, Page 1.
  20. Dr Townend’s ‘Circular Front Miniature Brougham’ was made by Christchurch coach builder Mr A. G. Howland. It had a circular glass front, and the body was painted olive green lined with orange. The interior was trimmed with dark blue cloth, edged with wide silk lace, the cushions, back and front squabs made of American buffalo hide. Sources: Press, Volume XXVI, Issue 3420, 22 August 1876, Page 2 and Star, Issue 2628, 26 August 1876, Page 2.
  21. Harriet Townend died 12 February, 1893. Source: Press, Volume L, Issue 8412, 20 February 1893, Page 2.
  22. Star, Issue 7451, 11 July 1902, Page 3 and Press, Volume LIX, Issue 11323, 12 July 1902, Page 5.
  23. Additional Sources: “Woolston / Heathcote Cemetery Tour” Compiled by Richard L. N. Greenaway, June 2007.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Wendy says:

    This is a tragic tale reported in such sensational detail. It must have been very harrowing for the Isaacs family. Harris Isaacs was an illiterate boot finisher, born in Poland, and the son of a shoemaker. He married Amelia Binns in 1870 at Bethnal Green, England before the family made their way to New Zealand via Tasmania. Infant mortality rates were high in those days and families generally large. The couple had about eight other children, including six born after this tragic event.


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