The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Object in focus: majolica pharmacy jars

Majolica pharmacy jars dating from the 18th century. On display at the Museum of the Order of St John in London.  Sang dracon means dragon's blood, and refers to a deep red plant resin used for many centuries in medicine for intestinal and respiratory problems. These days it's mainly used to varnish violins.

The Order of St John grew from a group of 11th century religious soldiers who cared for the sick and wounded in Jerusalem. Its modern day equivalent is, of course, St John Ambulance.  The Anorak is descended from two generations of Serving Brothers of the Order, and the current Mr Anorak is a regular first aider in the same organisation,

In the early 11th century a hospital was set up by a group of monks in Jerusalem. The monks cared for travellers on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The monks became known as the Hospitallers and their new religious order was officially recognised by the Church in 1113. They cared for anyone, regardless of race or faith. During the Crusades the Hospitallers took on a military role and eventually became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

In 1291 Palestine was recaptured by Muslim forces so the Order was forced to move, first to Cyprus then, in 1309, to Rhodes. The Order stayed there until 1522, when Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the island and they were forced to move again.

The Order moved to Malta and took an active part in its defence - including during a siege by Suleiman in 1565 - until 1798, when Napoleon took control of the island.

In the 1140s the Order set up an English headquarters in Clerkenwell, but when Henry VIII split up from Rome the lands and property were seized by the crown. Henry's daughter Elizabeth I dissolved the Order completely.

Following the dissolution the abbey buildings had many different uses, including the office of the Master of the Revels during Elizabeth's reign. Thirty of Shakespeare's plays were performed there.

Artist William Hogarth's father Richard ran the gatehouse as a coffee house in the 18th century. Samuel Johnson was employed there to write for the Gentleman's Magazine. The gatehouse later became a pub called the Old Jerusalem Tavern and Charles Dickens was among its customers.

The current Order of St John was established by Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1888. It operated the first ambulance transport system as well as offering first aid services to the public.


  1. How interesting, I must go and have a look at the Museum. I have visited the Temple Church which belonged to the Knights Templar, also fascinating.

  2. Fascinating insight. I love anything to do with pharmacies, apothecaries etc. That dragon's blood sounds very exciting!
    Am I right in thinking the modern St John Ambulance still use the symbol of the Maltese cross because of their time in Malta?
    All the best :)

    1. Quite right. Their badges still feature the Maltese cross.

  3. So beautiful and so interesting, as always.

  4. Absolutely fascinating. I've learned so much from this post. I've always admired those majolica pharmacy jars. It makes you wonder how much good the contents of those in your photo were for patients if it is now used as varinish!:)

  5. I'll never look at a violin in the same way again. Thanks for a very informative post. B


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