In the early 20th century, Mr Samuel Wilson held a secret. His ancestors lived in a small village in England where a local doctor was not available at short notice so it was up to the residents to keep themselves and others healthy. They developed a medicine which proved to be useful in preventing a number of ailments.
Mr Wilson inherited the recipe and brought it with him when his family came to New Zealand. He made it for his family, and their health and strength generated interest amongst friends and associates, so he started making it for them as well. Several locals were so impressed with the panacea that they implored Mr Wilson to sell it, but he refused, insisting on making it himself and providing it free of charge.
After living for about two years in the Whanganui district, Mr Wilson finally agreed to put his pills on the market. A syndicate was put together, and James Alfred Young began the process of sourcing quotes to have the pills manufactured and packaged ready for the market.
While in town on 10 July 1907, Mr Wilson was thrown into a lamppost on Victoria Avenue when his horse shied. He died the next day, but his wife Lavinia took on the project and worked with Mr Young to continue marketing the pills.
Mr Young was sure the pills would bring great riches. His sales pitch was so effective that he raised too many investors, and the syndicate was legally required to become a registered company.
While waiting for official registration, Mr Young ordered the first batch of pills from the Dunedin branch of Kempthorne Prosser and developed a marketing plan. He commissioned artist Benoni White to design an advertisement and was in contact with 40 newspapers about advertising.
Another tactic offered a more personal approach, outlined in a letter dated 16 July 1907. “It has occurred to me that a good idea to work Wilson’s Pills would be to get a really smart girl, who could talk, to interview each store, chemist etc … It seems to me that a ‘taking’ young woman could do this work better than a man and what is of very great importance she would not cost so much.”
The Wilson Pill Company finally began business on 18 November 1907 with 70 shareholders, £5,000 of investments and no debt. The pills were distributed to shops and pharmacies throughout the North Island, accompanied by an intense advertising campaign.
The pills claimed a myriad of cures: biliousness, constipation, boils, carbuncles, eczema, backache, indigestion, liver troubles, headache, dyspepsia, lumbago, rheumatism, as well as curing blood and stomach disorders and stimulating the liver and kidneys. The original recipe no longer exists, so testing these claims is not possible.
In January 1908 Mrs Ramsay became the Company’s Lady Canvasser and distributed the pills to throughout the North Island, earning £2 per week (around $330 today).
By the end of 1908 the Company was chasing debts. Mrs Lavinia Wilson had moved to Perth to live with family there, and received a letter from the Company stating there was little demand on the market for her family’s pills and they had not sold enough to cover marketing expenses.
Things went from bad to worse. In June 1910 the Wilson Pill Company was summonsed to a legal hearing over incomplete registration of their annual list and summary with the Joint Stock Companies. The matter was eventually resolved but some expenses were incurred.
The Company encountered problems with employees claiming for advertising work they had not completed, and then had to write off over £19 ($3,000) of bad debt for goods dispatched to their canvasser who then disappeared. Shareholder meetings were not meeting quorum and the Company was only gaining 6p per box of pills sold, with their total income at the end of 1913 sitting at a little over £17.
The Directors were loath to spend any more shareholders investments. The Wilson Pill Company was formally wound up on 26 May 1914 with £214 in the account which, after paying legal fees, was returned to shareholders at around 10s per £1 invested. The remaining stock and the rights to the formula were sold to the Manager of the Wanganui Chronicle for £17/2-.
Written by Sandi Black, Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.