The Famous Dr Oliver Of Bath

April 01, 2012     Filed in : Information

Original Bath Oliver Biscuits
Original Bath Oliver Biscuits

Of all the doctors associated with Bath, the name of Oliver is perhaps the most famous, though he might have preferred to be remembered as a physician and poet rather than the inventor of the popular biscuit which bears his name.

William Oliver was born near Penzance on the 4th August, 1695, being the second son of John and Mary Oliver of Trevarnoe, a house in the parish of Sithney, Cornwall. At the age of 19, he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating M.B. in 1720.

He first practised as a physician in Plymouth, where in 1724 he benefited the citizens of that town by introducing smallpox inoculation, still a relatively new technique at the time. In 1728, at the age of 33, he came to Bath with his cousin, the Rev. Walter Borlase. No doubt he was attracted to the city which in those days was something of a Mecca for an aspiring young physician because of the legendary reputation of the healing waters. These were said to be able to cure everything from childlessness to the effects of too much alcohol, as well as gout, rheumatic disorders and skin diseases. No doubt as far as the rich and famous were concerned the waters also had merits in relieving the effects of late nights and self indulgence as well. When Dr. Oliver came to Bath much of it was still a medieval city, for John Wood had not yet got under way with his marvellous schemes of town planning.

When Dr. Oliver came to Bath he probably resided in Westgate Street but as he became more successful he acquired a grand house set back on the west side of Queen Square. The house was later demolished and the site is now occupied by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Not long after coming to Bath Oliver became a friend of Ralph Allen, a fellow Cornishman. As a result of this friendship he met Alexander Pope and other famous people of the day; a prosperous and successful medical practice was set up.

He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Weston (where he owned the Manor house with members of his family). He is said to have bequeathed to his coachman Atkins the recipe for the famous Bath Oliver biscuit, together with a sack of flour and a sum of money. Atkins set up a business at 13 Green Street and became rich by making the biscuits. Later the business passed to a man named Norris who sold out to a baker called Carter. At length, after two further changes of ownership and a period of 120 years, the Oliver biscuit recipe passed to James Fortt. In 1952 the Fortt family business was still baking 80,000 biscuits a day in Bath. Although the biscuits are no longer made in the city, they are still available and are excellent when eaten with cheese.