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Henry Wellcome: The socialite

30 October 2008. By Penny Bailey.

Having moved to London from the US in 1880, Wellcome hosted some of the most spectacular parties of the day. This social networking not only brought him into contact with celebrity figures of the day, but also boosted the image of his company and its products.

From 1880 to 1900, the pharmaceutical firm Henry Wellcome founded with Silas Burroughs - Burroughs Wellcome & Co. grew into a successful business.

During the first six years of the company’s operations, until around 1886, Burroughs was mostly abroad, establishing the contacts that would later help to make Burroughs Wellcome & Co. a global business. Back in England, Wellcome marketed the company to the cream of English society, becoming a London socialite himself in the process.

He had taken the house of a former Indian Rajah in Marylebone Road next to the Tussauds' private residence. From there, he launched an ambitious programme of banquets, entertainment and elegant hospitality for people of influence. He also joined the right clubs and gave generous support to good causes.

At first Wellcome's social contacts were mostly fellow American expatriates, but his network soon broadened and flourished. He was a great fan of the American comedian Frank Lincoln and organised an event to showcase his act - a project that brought him into contact with members of the theatre world such as Oscar Wilde and George Grossmith. He soon numbered among his friends famous researchers such as Joseph Lister and Patrick Manson - as well as explorers and travellers of the calibre of Henry Morton Stanley.

A series of photographs taken in 1885 capture a light-hearted side to Wellcome's personality, showing him dressing up in a number of different costumes, including those of a sailor, a monk and a huntsman.

Genial and courteous

In 1884 he was described by the magazine 'Society' as "the genial and courteous host", and he appeared to genuinely enjoy himself, writing to Burroughs in 1882: "I wish very much you could have been with us on 17th July. We had some magnificent singing and instrumental music, recitations, etc. Among our friends present were many eminent in literature, music, drama and art, but what would have most pleased your fancy - so many really handsome girls."

Yet there was a serious purpose to this social networking: Wellcome knew that the personal endorsement of leading figures in society would boost the image of both his company and its products. Prefiguring the celebrity endorsements of modern advertising, he supplied anybody of consequence - royalty, politicians and explorers - with free ‘medicine chests’ packed with his company’s compressed medicines.

As well as impacting on his business, the friends and contacts Wellcome made socially also furthered his broader, philanthropic interest. He became acquainted with the explorers and travellers of the day, most notably Henry Morton Stanley (pictured right) - and the tales he heard of Africa eventually took him to that continent where he funded tropical research laboratories and hospital dispensaries, and oversaw archaeological digs.


Yet despite the fun and glamour of a very active social life, Wellcome had a reserve that made it difficult for people to get to know him well. He was a public man who enjoyed spending time in large groups more than with individuals.

He once said, “Never tell anyone what you propose to do until you have done it”. And Sir Henry Dale, one of his closest associates in his last years, wrote in his obituary for 'The Times': “Henry Wellcome…was curiously lonely. It may be doubted whether anyone knew him with sufficient intimacy to do more than speculate as to his real feelings and motives.”

Although he held people at arm's length, they realised his greatness. One of his staff said, “He was a great man and I was proud to work for him.”

Stanley became the nearest thing to a close friend that Wellcome ever had. They had much in common: Stanley had achieved fame from even humbler beginnings, brought up in an orphanage in America. And they shared a passion for travel to remote parts of the world alongside a deep interest in Africa.

When Stanley lay dying in 1904, Wellcome sat at his bedside every day. After Stanley’s death, his wife asked Wellcome to silence a blackmailer who was threatening to reveal her husband's illegitimate birth. He also wrote the foreword to her husband's memoirs.

In the preface to her husband's autobiography, published in 1909, Lady Stanley expressed her gratitude to "Mr. Henry S Wellcome, Stanley's much-valued friend, for the great encouragement and sympathy he has shown me throughout the preparation of this book for the press." In 1931, Wellcome established the Lady Stanley Memorial Hospital and Welfare Centre in Makona, Uganda.

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