Robert slade Colmer
Herbalist and . . . . Paedophile (got off on that one), Back-Street Abortionist, Tried for Manslaughter, a Bankrupt, an Adulterer and . . . . oh yes - a Murderer ! An all-round 'bit of a lad'.
Robert Slade Colmer was born on 6 January 1816 at Crewkerne, the son of sail cloth weaver John Slade Colmer (1793-1853) and Martha née Wheadon (1795-1863). On 16 May 1836, at the age of 20, Robert married Jane Allen of South Petherton, daughter of Robert Allen and Sarah née Best, at St Bartholomew, Crewkerne. They were to have eight children; Sarah Anna Maria born 1838, Ptolemy Samuel Henry born 1841 became a physician and surgeon, Amanda born 1844 became a tobacconist, Cleopatra Malvina Robina born 1847 became a herbalist, Cornelius Agrippa born 1849 became a surgeon, Messalina Lucina Augusta Louisa born 1854, Bernice Jennett Josephine born 1855 and Christopher Augustus Robert Alexander born 1858 became a dental surgeon.
On 9 December 1844 at Taunton winter assizes, Robert aged 27 was tried on the charge of "Carnally abusing a girl between the age of 11 and 12 years". He was found not guilty.
Robert Slade Colmer was listed in Hunt's 1850 Directory as a herbal doctor and in the 1851 census Robert and Jane, together with the first five children, were listed living in Middle Street. Both Robert and Jane gave their occupations as 'medical herbalist'. In the 1861 census Robert and Jane, together with their children, were living in Middle Street immediately next door to the Castle Inn - see photograph below. Both Robert and Jane listed their occupations as 'Chemist & Botanist'.
At left is a pot-lid from one of Colmer's creations - a quack 'cure-all' called "Colmer's Sufferer's Friend or Universal Ointment" which was claimed to be a "Sure remedy for King's Evil, Sore Brests, Chapped Hands & Scorbutic Eruptions, Chilblains, Burns, Cuts, Scalds and Wounds of every description."
Ever the self-proclaimer, in 1859 Robert had an advertisement placed in local newspapers wildly extolling his virtues including the following "In the small borough town of Yeovil, in Middle Street, resides a herbalist of the name of Robert Slade Colmer, a native of Crewkerne, in the same county, who, by close study and research, has discovered a remedy for that dreadful disease, namely the Scrofula, or the King's Evil, in all its various forms, Diseased Joints, Glandular Swellings and Ulcerations, White Swellings, Scorbutic Eruptions, Scurvy, Leprosy, &c., &c., &c., and Consumption in all its early stages.
In accomplishing this desirable object, Mr Colmer has had to range the woods, hills, mountains and valleys of Great Britain, studying the virtues of trees, herbs, roots and plants, investigating into their balsamic and healing virtues. When but a youth, he was found deeply studying the medical qualities of the lofty poplar, the majestic oak, and the wide-spreading elm, and the small but not less magnificent plants growing by the hedges and pathways of our own native land, even down to the lowly hyssop and the moss on the wall. The medicinal properties of these herbaceous plants, by a judicious mixture, have obtained for Mr Colmer a world-wide reputation, and thousands of our afflicted sufferers testify to the great benefit they have received by this benefactor of humanity and his Herbal Medicines."
It would seem that many herbalists, whether formally listed in directories or not (both he and Jane were listed in the "Black Sheep Index"), also covertly dabbled in the occult and there were also professional herbalists who did a sideline in astrology or fortune-telling. Robert Colmer, was one such man who got himself into very serious trouble in 1863.
The Manslaughter of Elizabeth Fox
The next occasion I found Robert in the records was in the 1871 census where he was a visitor at a house in Guinea Street, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. He described his occupation as 'Herbalist Medical Student'. At this time Jane, listed as a herbalist, was still living in Middle Street with three of the children and a general servant.
But worse was yet to come....
On 18 May 1875 Robert Slade Colmer, listed as of Trinity Road, Weymouth, Dorset, Herbalist, was made bankrupt in the County Court at Dorchester.
Robert and Jane later legally separated and he had an establishment at Bristol - at 77½ Old Market Street - where he lived with another woman. The name on the shop was "Anglo-American Institute of Eclectic and Progressive Medicine, &c, Eclectic and Botanical Dispensary. Advice Free." Then it set forth that "Dr Colmer, MD (United States America)" may be consulted with regard to various diseases. He returned to Yeovil each Friday for 'medical' consultations at Jane's house/shop in Middle Street.
But worse was yet to come....
Suffice to say the back-street abortionists (well, actually Middle Street abortionists) Robert and Jane Colmer were both arrested, tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty and convicted for the willful murder of Mrs Mary Budge at Yeovil, by illegal operation. On 3 August 1880 both Robert and Jane were sentenced to death. On the 19 August 1880 the Home Office commuted the sentence of death on both Robert and Jane to one of penal servitude for life.
In the 1881 census Robert Colmer, aged 66, was listed as a convicted felon in Pentonville prison, London. Jane was serving her sentence at Millbank prison, London.
Robert Slade Colmer died in prison at the age of 73 in the winter of 1889. This was most likely at Rochester prison, originally built in 1874 on a former military site above the Medway River. Jane, however, was somewhat luckier than her husband and was released from prison. In the 1891 census she was 'living on her own means' at 5 Peter Street with her herbalist daughter, Cleopatra. Jane died later that year, aged 76.
Robert Colmer's newspaper advertisement of 1859.
An advertisement placed by Jane Colmer in the Western Gazette's edition of 4 January 1867.
Courtesy of Tony Rendell
A pot-lid of "Colmer's Sufferer's Friend or Universal Ointment" all but identical to the illustration at the top of this page but this example was made by Mrs Jane Colmer.
This sepia-toned photograph looking east along Middle Street dates to about 1875 and is probably one of the earliest photographs of the Castle Inn, seen at left. The Colmer's house and herbal shop was the three-storey building next to it. This is also the only photograph I know of that shows the original narrow entrance to Union Street opposite the Castle Inn. Note also the stovepipe hat of the man pausing with his barrow outside Colmer's shop.
The death sentence imposed at the Old Bailey on both Robert and Jane Colmer in 1880.