A Victorian entrepreneur
Thomas Holloway, founder of Royal Holloway College, as it was originally known, was a Victorian self-made millionaire, visionary entrepreneur and generous philanthropist. He built his patent medicine company selling Holloway’s Pills and Ointment with business acumen and a worldwide mass advertising campaign to match no other. As he said himself, the story of his life and work show ‘what small beginnings may lead to, by ability, perseverance, and industry’.
Thomas Holloway was born on 22 September 1800 in Devonport. His parents were of modest means, running an inn and a bakery business. They were well off enough to send Thomas to school and he later became a chemist’s apprentice, which may have been where he got the idea for his pills and ointment.
In 1828 Thomas moved to France, returning to England to live in London in 1831. It was here that he set up his business and made his first batch of ointment in 1837 in his mother’s saucepan. He placed his first advert in three Sunday papers on 15 October 1837, the very beginning of his worldwide advertising campaign.
The first years of the business were hard for Thomas; he would work from 4am to 10pm as he couldn’t afford to employ anyone to help. The business grew slowly in the early years but by 1839 Thomas had an assistant who helped him to make the first batch of pills. The pills were made of ginger, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, rhubarb root and ‘confection of roses’, the ingredients were a closely guarded secret only revealed after Thomas’ death. Between them the two products claimed to cure almost all ailments including rheumatism, aches and pains, disorders of the chest and throat, sores and ulcers.
In these early years Thomas would send his brother to pharmacies to ask for Holloway’s Pills and Ointment and then exclaim disgust at not being able to obtain any. Thomas would follow along a day or so later hoping the shopkeeper would happily buy a supply of pills and ointment knowing that there was demand from customers. This must have been successful as Thomas’ business continued to grow.
His master plan to build up the business through advertising backfired in 1839 as he found himself unable to pay his advertising bill from The Times. Consequently he spent a short time in Whitecross Debtors’ Prison and was bailed out by his mother who paid £600 for his release. He returned from prison undeterred and continued to grow the business through extensive advertising. This experience taught him a valuable lesson though, and later in life he paid his debtors all the money he owed them plus an extra 10 per cent for their trouble. He never again got into debt and preferred to pay his employees daily, rather than weekly, to ensure he never spent more money than he had.
It was around this time that Thomas met and fell in love with Jane Pearce Driver whom he married in January 1840 at St Mary Magdalen Church in Bermondsey. Thomas was devoted to Jane and she worked with him on the business, helping to make the pills and ointment.
The advertising bill for Holloway’s Pills and Ointment grew with the business and by 1845 Thomas was spending £10,000 a year and by 1863 this had grown to a staggering £40,000. Adverts appeared in newspapers, on billboards and on items such as collectable pictorial trade cards, an atlas and a series of drawing books. His adverts were seen all over the world including advertising hoardings at the Great Pyramids in Egypt and Niagara Falls in North America. They were translated into many different languages. By 1867 Thomas was worth a quarter of a million pounds and the business was still growing.
Thomas and Jane remained childless and it was the question of what to do with the money they had amassed without any heirs that lead to Holloway’s first philanthropic project. There were growing fears in society about care for people with mental health issues and it was this which made him settle on building a sanatorium for the middle classes. He decided on a site at Virginia Water, not far from his own home at Sunningdale, and ran a competition for architects to design the new building. The competition was won by William Henry Crossland who had previously designed Rochdale Town Hall. Building began in 1873 and the project was completed in 1885. Holloway’s business mind was still in play as the site he had chosen was visible from the railway and therefore the building acted as its own advertisement.
Royal Holloway College
After building work on the Sanatorium had begun, Thomas turned to his next great work. He had initially planned to build a hospital for incurables but it is thought that he was persuaded by Jane to do something for women and so he settled on building a college for women’s education.
He decided to use the same architect he had used for the Sanatorium but this time he wanted the design to be in the French Renaissance style of the Château de Chambord. The Mount Lee Estate in Egham was picked as the site for the College, making sure that this building was also visible from the railway, and construction began in 1879. Despite the fact that Bedford College had been open since 1849 and both Cambridge and Oxford had begun to admit female students, education for women was still a very controversial topic at this time and it was a bold and visionary move for Thomas to build the College, especially in such an extravagant style with turrets and towers and 700 chimneys!
Sadly both Jane and Thomas died before either building was completed, Jane in June 1875 of bronchitis and Thomas in December 1883 of congestion of the lungs. Thomas’ brother in law George Martin-Holloway (who added Holloway to his name after Thomas’ death) took on the role of overseeing the projects and it was he who welcomed Queen Victoria at the opening of the College in June 1886. After being pleased with what she saw at the opening ceremony, the Queen allowed the College to use ‘Royal’ in its name. The first 28 students started at the College in October 1887 and students continue to live and study in Founder's Building today.