It’s amazing how often an innocent question leads to a brewery. In this case, it was wondering about the origins of the name of Herapath Street, not far from our new house.
It’s from ancient Greek, surely; Hera was the wife of Zeus, queen of heaven; and the suffix ‘path’ we know from telepath, sociopath, psychopath… Whatever it means, why on earth would a backstreet in a Bristol suburb have a name like this?
It turns out to have been named after one William Herapath, a local boy who made a big name for himself as a chemist. But he commenced his career in the family trade – as maltster, brewer and publican.
Before Herapath’s birth in 1796 his father, also called William, was the proprietor of the Horse & Jockey on Marybush Lane in central Bristol.1 In 1800 he took over the Packhorse Inn and its attached brewery. When he died in 1816, young William, at the age of 20, inherited the business.2
Though The Packhorse has a fairly modest footprint today, maps from the 19th century show it taking up most of the block with a substantial brewery and/or malthouse behind. (We’ve known to look out for ‘P.H.’ to spot pubs on old maps for a while; we now know that ‘M.H.’ is ‘malthouse’, too.)
This might have provided quite a living for a young man but, according to an obituary notice from 18683, having been encouraged to study chemistry as part of his training as a maltster, he discovered a taste for it and decided to pursue it as a career.
He co-founded the Bristol Medical School, where he was appointed professor of chemistry and toxicology from 1828, and, in 1841, was one of the founders of the Chemical Society of London.
To normal people not obsessed with beer and brewing, the most interesting thing about Herapath’s career is his involvement as an expert witness in criminal cases. His particular speciality was identifying the victims of arsenic poisoning and finding traces of arsenic in foodstuffs and on kitchen implements.4
Despite Herapath’s illustrious career in chemistry he seems to have maintained an interest in malting and brewing. He gave lectures on the science of brewing, among other subjects and, in 1829, was a delegate of the Committee for the Protection of the Malt Trade, challenging the terms of an act designed to regulate the industry.5
He also ran a sideline in the chemical analysis of alcoholic drinks and as late as 1874, several years after his death, his name was invoked in a posthumous testimonial for a brewery in Devon.
It’s fascinating that someone routinely described as “the most eminent chemical analyst in this country” should be so little known. Barring a plaque on The Packhorse, installed by the local civic society in 2017 and, of course, obscure, unremarkable Herapath Street, there’s very little to remember him by in his own city.
We’re not even sure that street is named after him. His son William Bird Herapath was also a chemist and discovered Herapathite; he also died in 1868. And their cousin, John Herapath, was a noted physicist who – this is getting weird now – died in 1868, too.
When the street came into being (it’s not on maps from the 1870s, but is there by the 1890s) who knows which of them it was named for. That it was across the road from a giant chemical works must surely be a clue, though.
You know what would be a good tribute? If someone were to brew a beer in his honour and get it served at The Packhorse.
UPDATE 10.04.2021: Maybe don’t rush that tribute beer into production just yet… Pete Forster was kind enough to email us with some of the material he found when researching William Herapath – specifically notes of his 1853 court case. He was accused of forcing a kiss on a young woman, Mrs Wildgoose, who came to his office to discuss the sale of some property on behalf of her husband. You can read more in the Bristol Mercury for 2 July 1853, on page 8, if you’re keen to know more.
Main image: we think this is William Herapath – it’s reproduced all over the internet without source information, with his name attached. But it might well be William Bird Herapath, his son. Further information welcome.
- Matthews’ New History of Bristol or Complete Guide and Bristol Directory, 1793, via ancestry.co.uk
- ‘The Lives of Two Pioneering Medical-Chemists in Bristol’, Brian Vincent, The West of England Medical Journal, Vol. 116 No. 4, 2016.
- Western Daily Press, 15 February 1868.
- Numerous newspaper reports but notably a piece on the murder of Clara Ann Smith by Mary Ann Burdock, Bristol Mirror, 11 April 1835 – apparently his first criminal case.
- Various newspapers from June 1829, via The British Newspaper Archive. It feels as if we should know more about what was going on with malting in 1829 – reading suggestions welcome.