One hundred and thirty or so years ago you could have walked into one of two Watford shops owned by James Lees, at 217 High Street or the branch at 76 St. Albans Road, and bought The Cassiobury Bouquet.

Mr Lees wouldn’t have given you a special bouquet as he wasn’t a florist, but he had created something rather special of a floral nature. A ‘high class’ dispensing and family chemist patronised by leading local families, he took pride in his "celebrated and recherché" perfume called The Cassiobury Bouquet. No doubt, the Earl of Essex would have given his approval to its name.

James Lees gave a trial bottle to a journalist cooperating with him on an article for "Watford in 1891", a commercial directory of premier shops, manufacturers and retailers. The journalist, who admitted that he was "not much addicted to the usage of such articles", considered the bottle "elegant" and the perfume "of a superior nature". His opinion – or perhaps that of his lady wife – was that it was "lasting, without being unpleasantly strong or faint smelling, the delicate odour reminding one of the close proximity of a bed of violets." He pronounced The Cassiobury Bouquet as "one of the best articles of its kind we have met with," adding for good measure "those of our fair readers who are as yet unacquainted with it will, on a trial, assuredly thank us for having introduced it to their notice."

Watford Observer: Cassiobury Bouquet perfume, 1891Cassiobury Bouquet perfume, 1891 (Image: Nicola Shepley)

The Cassiobury Bouquet was sold in various sizes. Half-a-crown or 2/6d (12p) would buy a 4.7-inch high (12-centimetre) bottle, as pictured. Larger bottles, for presentation purposes, cost from 5/6d (27p) to one guinea (£1.05).

As for James Lee, he was "gentlemanly and professional, in manner polite; he strongly reminds one of those characteristics which are usually associated with the medical profession." The reporter found him "always ready to give good advice and… in possession of a fund of knowledge which renders him an authority on all matters in connection with medicine." The shop at 217 High Street was modern and the exterior, painted terracotta and gold, held a large and diverse stock, with Mr Lees adding "every new discovery which the continual progress of medical science renders necessary." It was "a model of order and neatness".

He was an industrious man. Born in 1861 in Wantage, Berkshire, his father was a Wesleyan minister. He claimed professional qualifications parallel to those of a doctor and was already a chemist in Leighton Buzzard by the age of 19. At 29 he was living above his branch shop at 76 St Albans Road with his wife Annie and three of their ultimate four sons. He took over the premises in 1886 and employed a manager in what was then "rapidly becoming the most favoured and fashionable part of the town." He had telephones fitted in the two shops so that matters could be dealt with immediately.

Watford Observer:

He was kept busy dispensing doctors’ prescriptions, selling chemists’ sundries and surgical appliances, but prominent amongst his other endeavours was his "Watford Specific"; a remedy for coughs, colds, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, difficulty with breathing, spasms and tightness of the chest. The medicine must have helped ease symptoms as his customers were reportedly well satisfied. ‘Watford Specific’ was sold in three bottle sizes costing 1/- (5p), 2/6d (12p) and 4/- (20p).

A busy and enterprising young man, James Lees also created Lees’ Rosemary and Cantharidine Hair Wash which reportedly prevented hair from becoming thin and promoted a good growth. It was "one of the best dressings for hair." Cantharidine, a natural toxin produced by blister bees, is used today as a non-sticky hair oil, but can also be used to remove warts! He sold other "excellent preparations", which the journalist noted were too many to list.

James Lees manufactured his own brand of Acidulated Fruit Syrup, promoted as refreshing and delicious and sold in several flavours, including blackcurrant, cherry, ginger, orange, pineapple, raspberry and strawberry.

He maintained a large stock of fine pebble glasses, or rather spectacles, and eye glasses. His training had included the study of the human eye, so he was considered well qualified to give advice in what he considered his speciality.

Photography was also of interest to him. He sold a complete stock of cameras, lenses, stands, paper, dishes, chemicals and every requisite for the amateur and professional, 2equal to anything that can be procured in Town [London] or elsewhere." And last but not least, he published the Watford Almanac. A busy man!

Nine years after the promotion of his business in the "Watford in 1891" directory and at 40 years of age, he had already retired and was living in Ventnor, Isle of Wight. He passed away at only 46 in 1907, leaving a small fortune to his wife Annie.

Lesley Dunlop

Lesley is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the "Evening Post-Echo" in 1982-83 which have since been published in Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on Two Lives, Two World Wars, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.