Frank Harris Fulford (1868-1943)
Businessman, Musician, Patron of the Arts

Frank Harris FulfordFrank Fulford led a double life. For over 30 years he was managing director of the Leeds-based company supplying the hugely popular and aggressively promoted patent medicines, Bile Beans (pills) and Zambuk (ointment), a business tainted by accusations of quackery. In his private life, he was a dedicated amateur musician, a generous patron of the arts, and a discriminating collector of objects of beauty, some of which he gave to enrich his adopted home city of Leeds.

He was in his early thirties when he arrived in Leeds in 1902 from Canada, with his wife and three children. He had come to set up the UK end of the booming patent medicine business founded in Australia in 1897 by his younger brother Charles Edward, who concocted ‘Bile Beans for Biliousness’, supposedly from a secret native recipe discovered by an eminent scientist – all a myth! Phenomenal sales were achieved through door-to-door leafleting, free gifts, and blanket advertising in the popular press, featuring emotive personal stories of miraculous, life-changing cures, presented as news items. Charles was following in the footsteps of his uncle in Canada who had made millions marketing Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, a commercial and advertising sensation around the world. Now Charles wanted to expand into the British market with Bile Beans and his other ‘secret’ remedy, Zambuk ointment. His elder brother Frank was called in.

Frank had originally envisaged a very different life. Music was his passion; he had studied in Leipzig, was a keen viola player, and had a career as a music dealer in Brockville, Ontario, the family home. His talents came in useful: in 1898 he composed a swinging piano piece, ‘The Bile Beans March’ for Charles to use as a promotional free gift! The opportunity to develop the British enterprise must have seemed too good to miss.  Leeds was chosen as the base for the new company: C. E. Fulford Ltd., with premises in Greek Street and then Carlton Hill. The family settled in a house in Chapeltown Road. Frank soon joined enthusiastically in the rich musical life of Leeds – in particular he was an early subscriber to the series of ‘Bohemian’ chamber concerts held in the Metropole Hotel, and sometimes performed himself.

The company had to face damaging adverse publicity in 1905 when the judge in a case over the Bile Beans name declared that the business was founded on ‘fraud, impudence and advertisement’. But it survived, indeed flourished, expanding internationally. Then a major blow: in 1906 Charles Fulford, only 36, died at his home in Australia, apparently from exhaustion. He left a fortune, including a huge bequest to Dr Barnardo’s homes.

Frank took over the British company. Under his leadership the business continued to prosper, using the same intensive advertising techniques, featuring personal stories, free gifts (the Bile Beans Cookbook!), huge hoardings and slogans painted on walls – their ghosts still linger today. By the 1930s Bile Beans (essentially a laxative with additives) was a household name, increasingly angled towards women, promising inner health, bright eyes, a lovely slim figure. Similarly Zambuk, claimed to soothe and heal every kind of skin condition, was marketed as an essential standby for all good, caring mothers. In those pre-NHS days, sales rocketed. (Both products lasted into the 1980s, after various company take-overs, and Zambuk has recently been revived.)

Around 1909, Frank and his family moved into the grandiose Gothic splendour of Headingley Castle (now apartments), and over the years Frank used his increasing wealth to fill the house with a rich store of treasures. He was a discerning and sensitive collector of pictures and precious objects: gold snuff boxes, enamelled needle-cases, rare Chinese jade. A founder member and sponsor of the Leeds Arts Collection Fund, he served for years on the Art Gallery committee, and was a leading donor to Temple Newsam house, in 1939 providing a magnificent set of furniture for the drawing room. He also donated some exquisite gold boxes; these were later stolen, but the insurance money still provides valuable funding for the House. More precious objects were later bequeathed by him and his daughter – you can see this fine collection at Temple Newsam.

In 1936 he became ill and could no longer play his beloved music; he gave his fine, rare collection of chamber music to Leeds University library where it can still be enjoyed. He died in 1943, aged 75, and is buried in Adel churchyard. His genuine kindness, courtesy, and generosity were warmly remembered, his business life later airbrushed out. Did he believe in the remedies that brought him so much wealth? We’ll never know.

Eveleigh Bradford
April 2014