Many people are familiar with Bath Oliver biscuits, the hard dry cracker-like biscuits often eaten with cheese, but few are familiar with the biscuit’s inventor and namesake; Dr William Oliver, who resided in Bath in the 18th century. Incidentally, Oliver should not be confused with an earlier Dr William Oliver who was involved with the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 and escaped to mainland Europe.
William Oliver, of Oliver Biscuit fame, was the younger son of John and Mary Oliver, descendants of a Cornish family of that name who were landowners in South-West Cornwall. William’s parents leased a small estate called Trevarno where he spent his childhood and attended a local school. He loved hunting with the hounds and engaging with other country pursuits. He developed a close friendship with his cousin, William Borlase, who lived at Ludgvan about five miles west of Trevarno and in which parish William Oliver was born. The cousins were related through their mothers, Mary and Lydia Harris, and were born six months apart. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
At the age of nineteen, William commenced his university medical education at Pembroke College Cambridge. Unlike Oxford University, a 5-year preliminary training in arts was not necessary, so William was able to embark on his medical studies as soon as he entered the university. As a medical student, William would have had to view two dissected corpses, demonstrated by the Professor of Anatomy, George Rolfe. He was also expected to study chemistry which was taught by Professor Vigani and after his death, Professor Waller. The course for Bachelor of Medicine took six years to complete, and after a further five years (eleven years in all) Oliver finished the course and took the degree of M.D.
Students could incorporate studies at foreign universities as part of their M.D. course in addition to getting clinical experience away from the university. In Oliver’s case, in 1720 at the age of 25 he attended lectures and bedside teaching at Leiden, then the leading medical teaching centre in Europe where Hermann Boerhaave held the chair of medicine. He appears to have spent a year at Leiden and then set up in practice in Plymouth.
While in Plymouth, he described the case of a woman with a malformation of her genitalia who gave birth to a live baby after a surgical operation performed by a local surgeon John Bonnet. The description was sent to the Royal Society and appeared in their Philosophical Transactions in 1723. Curiously the same case was published in the Transactions by another Plymouth physician, John Huxham, but his account was substantially at variance with Oliver’s. A year later, John Bonnet, who had delivered the child, wrote to the Royal Society complaining that Oliver’s account contained a number of errors. Despite this, Oliver was still admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society seven years later.
Oliver collected his M.D. degree from Cambridge in 1725 and appears to have moved to Bath soon after. He took lodgings in Westgate Street and quickly developed friendships with influential people including Ralph Allen, a fellow Cornishman, and Alexander Pope with whom he had a regular correspondence and acted as his medical adviser. Oliver’s connection with his cousin Borlase was important for Pope who was busy creating a grotto at his Twickenham property and required a supply of coloured rocks and other geological formations which Borlase was able to supply from tin and copper mines in Cornwall.
William and his wife Elizabeth’s second daughter, Charlotte, was born in Bath in 1728. The Olivers had at least 6 children, mostly girls. A son, William, was born in 1740 and became a doctor in Bath, making him the third Dr William Oliver to have practised in the city. The girls married into west country families and Charlotte married Sir John Pringle who eventually became physician to King George III. The marriage was a disaster and the couple separated after a year. Charlotte died shortly afterwards.
William Oliver was an extremely successful physician in Bath and at an early stage took over the practice of one or more of the leading physicians (possibly Charles Bavé, John Beeston or Richard Bettenson all of whom were involved in raising money for the new General Hospital). His success was largely due to his engaging personality. This becomes evident as early as 1713 when he wrote a letter to his cousin about a coach journey from Ely to London where two fellow female travellers were captivated by his charm. He inherited property from his parents after their death and the death of his brother John who had moved to a small estate called Treneere now part of Penzance.
He moved from Westgate into a newly built house designed by John Wood on the west side of Queen Square. There is some controversy over the exact house he inhabited. Of Wood’s three houses built on the west side, only two survive as the central house was demolished in the 19th century and replaced by a neoclassical building now occupied by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute. A plaque on this building claims that Oliver’s house was the one on this site. However more recent research (Ison1980) has found that the central house was built for Sir John Buckworth who paid rates from 1736 to 1754. Oliver paid rates for the house on the north end (Numbers 18a-20) between 1742 and 1754. The plaque should therefore be on that building.
In 1746 Oliver acquired a country cottage near Bathford which he named Trevarno to remind him of his childhood residence. The cottage has disappeared but the water mill which was on his land and was rebuilt in the last century and now a paper manufactory was called Trevarno Mill.
Towards the end of his life Oliver acquired the lordship of the manor of Weston with all the obligations that title bestowed on the holder. His descendants remained Lords of the Manor until 1882 when the title passed to the Carr family. It is uncertain how much time Oliver spent in the Manor House but he may have died there because he was buried in the parish church along with his wife and some other family members.
As well as his private practice in Bath, Oliver became very involved in establishing the General Hospital, which eventually opened in 1742, and continued to treat patients until 2019. He was appointed as one of the treasurers to the hospital and in July 1739 he became a deputy president. In 1740 he was elected physician to the hospital, together with Jeremiah Peirce who became senior surgeon. Oliver drew up the rules for the admission and discharge of patients and played a major role in the hospital’s administration, regularly attending the weekly meetings of the management committee between 1739 and his death in 1764.Although he published a treatise on the use of bathing as a cure for gout and a description of some of the cases treated at the Bath General Hospital, he contributed little to advancing the scientific basis of medicine and his knowledge of anatomy and therapeutics were questioned by some of his contemporaries, notably Drs Baylies and Lucas, and by Archibald Cleland, a surgeon at the hospital who was dismissed from his post after accusations of professional misconduct.
His lasting fame rests principally with the biscuit he invented as a digestive aid for dyspeptic patients. Its recipe was reputed to have been passed to his coachman, a man called Atkins, who set up a manufactory in Bath. Since then, the business has been transferred to new owners on several occasions but the biscuits are still produced and remain a popular accompaniment for cheese and wine.
Article by Dr Roger Rolls