Chemistry in the early 1960s: a reminiscence.

I started chemistry with a boxed set in 1962. In those days they contained serious amounts of chemicals, but I very soon ran out of most of them. Two discoveries turned what might have been a typical discarded christmas present into a lifelong career and hobby.

The first was 60 Stoke Newington High Street in north London, the home of Albert N. Beck, Chemist (or his son; my information comes from a historical listing of the shops present on the high street in 1921). I would set out from our home in London SW6 on the #73 bus route (top deck) and it would take about an hour to arrive. On entering the shop, I ventured down a set of stairs into the basement to replenish the chemicals with sensible stocks, and purchase the odd glassware, filter paper, etc. And then venture back across London carrying the proceeds of many weeks, possibly months worth of hoarded pocket-money (apart that is from 1 shilling every two weeks which I reserved for football at Craven Cottage). At some stage, health and safety legislated against 12-year-old boys (and certainly also girls) purchasing chemicals in this manner! However, I can assure you all that I never came to any harm with anything I purchased at A. N. Beck and Sons. Apart that is from giving my parents a good fright.

The second was coming across this book by A. J. Mee. I had thought it was well and truly lost; imagine my delight when I recently found it at home, complete with chemical stains, and dated as from a reprint in 1959.

IFOn the inside cover, I found one shopping list from my expeditions to A. N. Beck and Sons. The price 1/6 is the representation of one shilling and six pence (more than the price of a football match, or perhaps £50 in today’s money? I think football was much cheaper then! Oh, 1/6 is 7.5p in the decimal currency of today, or £0.075). Note that iodine was one of the items purchased. And note the wish list at the bottom! I was clearly starting to do organic chemistry.


The pages of this book list 289 experiments, and I assiduously recorded a tick against all the ones I actually did. This is a typical page (click to expand).

IFThus expt 205 is the preparation of 1,3,5-tribromobenzene from 1,3,5-tribromoaniline (ticked), followed by that of o-cresol from o-toluidine (ticked). You can see how all the aromatic rings are still represented by what now looks like cyclohexane. This book gave me many hours of delightful recreation (I have not counted the ticks, but I think I attempted around half the experiments). Note in particular the huge scale these experiments were done at; 18g of product (I suspect I must have scaled them down a fair bit in order to preserve pocket money). Expt 198 was that of benzidine, of which I do recollect preparing  ~2g. No warnings then about the extremely carcinogenic nature of this substance! Chemistry has certainly changed since then.

Lost unfortunately is the laboratory book where I recorded my results, but one or two samples still exist!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

55 Responses to “Chemistry in the early 1960s: a reminiscence.”

  1. I wonder how many other children were given chemistry sets as a child and then went on to study/practice as an adult.

    • Dave Groom says:

      I certainly did, ending up with a Masters from Oxford. I also used to buy from A N Beck in Stoke Newington.

    • John lewis says:

      As a child of 8 or 9 I was given a chemistry set by my father’s employers, the GPO. (This was in the 50s! I’m now 72). My imagination was fired, and a little later I found an ad for Beck and sons in my Boys Own Paper. I found I could order some pretty scary stuff in those days, and with parents’ help I still remember the Xmas days when I fervently opened the packages from Becks
      I took over my parents’ shed, and shocked them with the smells and explosions I created. Nitrogen Trioiodide!
      At 16 I became a lab assistant for a large company, and I stole a fist-sized lump of potassium from their chemical supplies, and threw it in a river. One hell of a bang!
      However, music took over my life, and for the last 50 years I have been a piano teacher, jazz pianist and composer. I name most of my pieces after the Chemical Elements! I have written about 50 so far, and a CD of my piano duets named after the Elements will soon be released on the Convivium label, called ‘Elements of London’ Has anyone read this? All thanks to Beck and Sons,,

  2. Philip Marriott says:

    I remember AN Beck and Son very well and the basement emporium. I loved to journey there from Harlow by train to Liverpool Street and then the number 73 bus.
    They were exciting times and I enjoyed hunting further afield and finding a chemist north of Birmingham city centre, Hoggs by name where I first got my own supply of bromine sodium and the materials to undertake the thermite process with my cousin in Edgbaston.
    They were exciting times when I learnt science in safety.

  3. Nigel Pacey says:

    I remember A Beck and Sons and ordering things by post! The strongest acid you buy was 10% nitric or sulphuric in a small medicine bottle. But my Dad said many years ago in the 1900s you could even buy white phosphorus at a chemist…even Becks would not sell that. As you say, happy times! And I never came to any harm either!

  4. Philip Marriott says:

    I have just come across an old AN Beck& Sons catalogue from 1973

  5. Philip Marriott says:

    Happy Days when we were young and truly able to “experiment with life”
    Indeed being able to bur potassium permanganate enabled me to colour the school and escape detection because it had NOT been taken from the school lab.

  6. JohnWiltshire says:

    In the early sixties I used to cycle 12 miles from Enfield on a 14″ wheel bike to collect chemicals from Beck’s. If you had a letter from your Dad you could get strong acids and I remember riding carefully back with a burette sticking out of the saddle bag and Sulphuric and Nitric acid for making gun-cotton! I am still here to tell the tale and I have worked in laboratories all my life wherein H&S seems to prevent any experiments sufficiently exciting to enthuse new recruits?

  7. Henry Rzepa says:

    Talking of H&S reminds me of some asymmetry in the process of acquiring interesting chemicals from Beck’s. My regular visits stopped at the age of 18 when I went to university, but this did leave behind a small stockpile of the various acids and other stuff that could not easily be poured down a drain. My father eventually contacted the local council to ask how these might be disposed of. I do recollect the council officials being rather mystified by how this might be done, although it was eventually (and at no cost to my father as I recollect, or perhaps he withheld that information from me). I strongly suspect nowadays that such a request of a local council would certainly be accompanied by a very large bill indeed!

    • Hilary Beck Grant says:

      My Father was Kingsley Beck, who ,with his brother Carl, were sons of Albert Neve Beck, all dispensing chemists.  I don't know when they started the Chemistry set business , certainly pre war. I used to work in the shop on Saturdays in the late 40 s and early 50 s.  I remember the smell of the basement where two women did all the bottling, packing and dispatching 

      Thenks to all for your entertaining memories

  8. John Cooper says:

    In 1959 my sister Mary married Hugh Beck, grandson of Albert Beck, who was running the laboratory furnishing part of the business in the basement. Upstairs was an ordinary Chemist shop. I worked with Hugh for a while in 1965/1966 and left to work for Davey and Moore Ltd in Brimsdown, Enfield who manufactured glass laboratory ware. All the equipment A N Beck and Sons sold was proper laboratory equipment unlike the Lotts chemistry sets. The chemicals were in reasonably sized and priced bottles. I may well have served some of you at sometime.

  9. Henry Rzepa says:

    I received a letter recently describing a house clearing where two A. N. Beck catalogues had been discovered, dating from 1937 and 1938. Thanks Anthony for sending these catalogues; very much appreciated!

    The scans below show the front page of the 1938 edition, which I selected because it includes a four-digit phone number to the local exchange and an apology for 10% inflation! Inside, some items marked with a * (e.g. oxalic acid) can be sold only to approved students (one achieved this status I think by presenting a letter from a responsible person, quite likely a school teacher).


    This is their home laboratory, available for 42 shillings (£2.10 in today’s money), and including 80 chemicals (amounts are not described).

    The chemicals list is mostly inorganic; I think the organic items only came later.

  10. David Griffiths says:

    I fondly remember my trips to a chemicals shop in Stoke Newington – I think it must have been A.N.Beck – when on visits to London with my parents in the mid-late 60s when I was a young teenager. I stocked up with the most exotic chemicals I could find without being entirely sure what I was going to do with them – bromine. sodium metal, concentrated acids, potassium permanganate and others. In today’s climate it is surreal and amazing I was able to do this!

  11. David Timson says:

    What a wonderful memory Henry. I was just boring my wife with a story of long bus journeys to A N Beck to stock up with test tubes and concentrated sulphuric acid for my experiments in grandma’s garden shed in the early 60’s. She was doubtful a 12 year old could do that over the counter so I googled AN Beck Chemists. Lo and behold, your blog telling almost the identical story!

    Sadly I failed to be inspired to the same extent as you, Henry, going on to be an economist, then corporate treasurer, then headhunter. Thank you for taking a more useful path.

  12. Henry Rzepa says:

    I will add a further fond memory as a 12 year old of travelling across London by bus carrying odoriferous objects. One of my friends at the time had a father who was a greengrocer. On one occasion, he provided both of us with a very large sack of expired vegetables (might in fact have been cabbages, which have a lovely “aroma” when no longer “fresh”), and off we went on our own on the first London bus of the day to Regent’s Park Zoo, arriving around 06.00. We were allowed in via a side door by the keepers (without paying), and had the place largely to ourselves. I cannot remember the animals we were allowed to feed the cabbages to, but it might have been giraffes and elephants? Then back home, well before the zoo opened to paying customers.

    I was however clearly more smitten by chemicals than by animals. And, like the purchase of chemicals, I doubt 12 year olds are allowed into London Zoo at 06.00 to feed the animals any more.

  13. Russell Shurmer says:

    Reading all the posts which started with that of Henry Rzepa.  I purchased much equipment from Beck which came by post.This would have been in the late fifties. My lab was the kitchen in my parents flat in Sutton, Surrey. I now live in the south of Spain. In Sutton there was a chemist who also sold apparatus and chemicals. I would go in with my list. He would say that Shurmer, you are having arsenic, or cyanide or any these dangerous ácidas!! Happy days indeed over 55 years on …

  14. Philip Marriott says:

    It seems to me that one of the principal learning benefits of home chemistry in the 1950s and 1960s was not only the excitement but the engagement and management of risk. I have to say that I am not aware of any serious incidents nor even fatalities from those days

  15. Henry Rzepa says:

    Indeed so, "risk management" (the term is a recent one) was engrained in childhood in those days. Another phrase might be "street wise", since most children spent much of their non-school time on the streets, in my case some also in tree houses on the banks of the river Thames and in our cases, the rest of it in our "laboratory". 

    I certainly had several fires at home, none serious, and it taught one to remain calm and deal with them, since no-one else would.

  16. Nicholas Shepherd-Barron says:

    My chemistry set, augmented by supplies from A and N Beck, was what led me to science. I'm a mathematician now (that's what happens to scientists whose experiments don't work) but really I'm a closet chemist.

  17. Henry Rzepa says:

    I include here maps of the area of the shop; the nearest station is Stoke Newington and as I recollect it is down the high street (A10) from there.

    Note also Abney Park, one of London’s historic cemeteries. It is wonderfully overgrown, with an abandoned chapel at its centre, and many famous victorians buried there.

  18. ed smith says:

    Likewise, I remember going to AN Beck, in my case by buses from Upton Park, first with my dad and then on a couple of occasions on my own. I was 12-14 (1958-60).

  19. Nick Edgington says:

    I remember it, there was a down stairs as I recall, and retorts I think they were call, I use to buy sulfur there 🙂

  20. Ian Watson says:

    As a teenager in the north of England during the mid-1960s, I used to order chemicals and equipment from Beck’s which were always reasonably priced and promptly delivered. They had a way of making clever substitutions when they didn’t have quite what you had ordered, rather like supermarkets do today with their online shopping services.
    I also went to a local chemist in the town where I lived, who would supply me with practically anything, including concentrated acids, potassium chlorate (for making fireworks!) and quantities of mercury which I wanted for some electrochemistry experiments.
    The expertise I gained in handling these materials and, as has been noted here, the ‘risk management’ learnt along the way were invaluable when I started teaching Chemistry (which I’m still doing after 42 years).

  21. Mike Oakes says:

    I have today found some letters kept by my Mum and Dad from when I was at Uppingham school in the 1950s. One ends with a request list for my 14th birthday:-

    From: A.N.Beck & Sons,
    60, Stoke Nwington High St.,
    London. N.16.
    1 Spirit Lamp. 2/6d.
    1 Tripod stand. 2/6d.
    1 Kipps apparatus (substitute) 3/6d.
    Sulphuric acid (dilute) 4 1/2d.

    Total 34/4d.

    I googled “A.N.Beck chemical supplies”
    and came up with your blog:
    which I greatly enjoyed reading, and finding so many “kindred spirits”!

    The 30 items in that list, so kindly purchased, formed the basis for my bedroom “laboratory”, and probably helped towards my achieving good ‘S’ levels (incl. Chemistry) 2 years later, so schoolboy enthusiasm for science – which I’m sure you shared – is certainly a “good thing”.

  22. Simon Cotton says:

    Not a hark-back to chemical suppliers to students, but a parallel reference to that heroic age, is Lippy and Palder’s ‘Modern Chemical Magic’ (1959) which describes ‘Fired Liquid’ (aka ‘Liquid Match’), a solution of white phosphorus in carbon disulphide (a double-whammy for Health and Safety). The CS2 evaporates in seconds whereupon the phosphorus ignites. I know of one (elderly) demonstrator who still uses it. Other experiments for the brave are described.

    A useful resource on demonstrations is

  23. Henry Rzepa says:

    Ah, we are moving into the topic of memorable lecture demonstrations in chemistry.

    The famous Colonel Shaw used to tour the UK (and possibly further afield) in the 1970s and 80s. I suspect this would have been one of his demonstrations. Another, with possibly a further ingredient as oxidant (could it have been perchlorate) would sit quietly for 30-50 minutes, by which time the audience had entirely forgotten its presence. It would then explode with great gusto, and I can assure that this unexpected shock would quite literally make the audience jump out of their seats. I saw him give several lectures, and once, after the 50 minute mark had been reached, he had to give the game away to the audience by prodding it with a stick. We still all jumped.

    For me at least, an equally memorable demonstration was the release of fluorine gas from a cylinder. It was simultaneously a smell you knew you had never smelt before, but at the same time incredibly halogen-like and “familiar”. Unforgettable (even if the molecules that reached your nostrils were probably not F2 but F2O).

  24. Michael Hallinan says:

    I’ve come across an old box in my father in law’s shed whilst clearing it out. The box is marked MEDICINE -URGENT and is addressed to A.N. Beck and Sons of Stoke Newington. It contains 6 glass apparatus (Wood Bros)with some bungs, a small mortar and pestle, some filter paper, a tube full of ‘chalk carbonate’ and a tube full of ‘copper sulphate’……it also contained lots of saw dust and straw that the mice lived in.

    Can you suggest anywhere that might be grateful to take this? Having seen your posts it seems you know lots about the history.


  25. Alan Bell says:

    I remember ordering many items from ‘Beck’s’ in the mid 1960’s to furnish my attic laboratory at home. Spent many hours testing soils and doing experiments. My father even ran a gas supply up to the attic for my Bunsen Burner! It is true that way back then you could indeed buy anything chemical wise and have it delivered by post. Today it would be frowned on to buy such items for a home laboratory. I eventually came top of my class at Science and worked in the Public Analyst’s Laboratory for a spell. It is a shame that there are no photographs of A.N.Beck’s shop, inside and out, it would be great today to see the premises from where we got our laboratory items from.

  26. for some time now a box of bottled chemicals has been kicking around my garage/workshop getting in the way, today I decided to clean them out but before doing so I noticed label denoting A.N.Beck and sons, so I thought I would google the name, glad I did, a number of these bottles have no labels and some have labels stating poisonous, not sure what to do with them now, will probably dispose of the contents, well those left, and perhaps offer them. kind regards

  27. Steve Roberts says:

    Henry, you remember me as “Soss” from Laurie Phillips group … now when I was a schoolboy aged 15, me and two other boys used to buy stuff from Beck’s in the post, every few months we would put an order together for glassware, chemicals etc. I remeber the excitement when it all arrived, this was what got me into Chemistry (I was good at Classics and my very traditional school really wanted me to go that way). I had a whole room full of chemicals and apparatus! We lived in northern Essex and my father did take me to Stoke Newington once, to buy conc. H2SO4 and other nasty chemicals that could not be sent in the post, I was struck by how small the shop was. But I really remember with pleasure those times perusing Beck’s catalogue and gettng an order together. I did a Google search for Beck’s and that’s how I came to this blog.

  28. I just found this blog when i was searching for the name of the marvellous chemist’s shop in Birmingham (Hogg’s) where as a boy in the late 1960s I would invest my pocket-money in buying all sorts of exciting chemicals for my experiments. I went on to be a biologist and now, in retirement in Thailand, write books on science. I thank Prof Rzepa for his anecdotes and the other comments – actually I ended up as a prof at Imperial too, so that was a nice coincidence. Great memories of a time when you could get tins of chlorate to make rockets and go to the Midland Educational store and buy refills of cobalt chloride.

  29. Ian Juniper says:

    I was also a very frequent customer of A N Beck’s in Stoke Newington High Street when I was a teenager attending the Hackney Downs School in the 1940s. Among my prized purchases were a Woulff bottle with two necks, gas jars and a beehive shelf. I also used to visit Griffin & Tatlock’s in the City and on one occasion picked up a large glass condenser for 3/6d which the bus conductor was rather reluctant to let me bring on to his bus as I was carrying it home. To obtain ammonium dichromate I visited a printers somewhere in Clerkenwell and received detailed instructions for photoetching copper plates, which wasn’t what I had in mind at all!!
    Fings ain’t wot they used ter be – no HSE or HAZCHeM to protect budding scentists in them days! I retired after 45 years a an industrial chemist, still with my fingers and eyes, and with fond memories of my early chemistry.

  30. felix says:

    I’d say the eponymous AN Beck was Albert Neve Beck, who indeed died in 1921, the date of your address list. His address was given as 9 Summerhill Grove, Bush Hill Park, Enfield. His widow died in 1927, her address was nearer to the shop, at 7 Ardleigh Road N1. Probate was to their two daughters – Gladys Greenwood [m 1923] and Constance Dean [m 1921] both born in Southwark, in the late 1890s. It’s not clear if AN Beck had any sons [you’d need to look at the family in 1901/11 censuses] so it may not have been a Beck by name running the business when you were a visitor. A fascinating story and thread, about which I knew nothing.

  31. felix says:

    sorry, ignore my earlier comment, I missed the mention of Carl [1889-1965] and Kingsley above, Kingsley being, I guess, Hugh Kingsley Beck. [1901-1970].

  32. Colin Vine says:

    Just stumbled across this blog, which brings back fond memories of travelling to Beck’s in the mid 60’s with my dad, taking the 29 bus from Wood Green. We would walk across Clissold Park to the shop and I would present them with a list of chemicals and equipment. Amazing to think now what I could purchase back then with my dad’s agreement. Like others I started with a chemistry set and expanded from there. My favourite pastime was making home made fireworks and explosives, which I would use to blow up my Airfix kit ships, set off by dripping warm glycerine down the funnel onto potassium permanganate crystals as I recall. I still have some test tubes, and bits and pieces in the garage and my old chemistry text books. I continued my interest through to 6th form And did well in chemistry, but it never led to anything in that line as I now work in IT.

    I had a few hairy moments, and some unscheduled explosions, but never came to any harm. I think we were allowed to take more risks as youngsters back then, and discover the dangers for ourselves.

    Your comment about Craven Cottage made me smile, because at that time I was making the journey in the reverse direction from North London to Stamford Bridge – I’m still making that journey, but from Enfield.

  33. Trevor Dines says:

    I recall making frequent trips to Beck’s in the mid-1960s. I lived in Peterborough and used to call in there on each trip to London, to stock up my home lab, taking the 73 bus from King’s Cross. Also remember buying large tins of sodium chlorate for 2/6 from a garden shop – more than enough for a big bang! Halcyon days of my youth. Fortunately, I went on to become an academic rather than a terrorist.

  34. Alan K says:

    This brings back so many memories, except…
    With schoolfriends i used to take the old North London line from Wanstead Park station to South Tottenham station, now both part of the London Overground network. Wanstead Park station still had gaslights on the platform back then. More worrying for me though, is I’m SURE that after alighting at S Tottenham we walked just a block south and turned first left into a residential street, Crowland Rd?
    Almost the first building on the left in that street was AN Beck. I don’t recall it selling much (any?) apparatus, but was where we bought all our exciting chemicals in those lovely brown glass bottles and jars. We definitely did not walk a mile and a half south down the High Street to number 60. The building I remember is not visible in Google Streetview today, but Google Earth’s historical imagery facility appears to show the present building being constructed in 1999.
    Can anyone corroborate my recollection?

  35. Henry Rzepa says:


    I last visited probably about 1966 or so and cannot really remember exactly where the shop was. But I am pretty certain I took the 73 bus and that it was a short walk from the bus stop. Crowland Road is a pretty long walk from the 73 bus stop! Looking North, the shop certainly was on the rhs rather than the lhs of the high street (it was a high street, I also remember).

    • Alan K says:

      Henry. thanks for the reply. I think there must have been two AN Beck outlets then. The one we visited was certainly not on a main road and seemed primarily to sell chemicals and reagents. I’ll try to contact some of my reprobate pals and see if they have better memories than mine..

    • Rudy says:

      Just came across this and also brought back memories of a n becks basement and later a small shop just past the seven sisters tube station. I managed to get conc. nitric acid and white phosphorus etc. If I had a letter from my mum.
      This lead me to a career in chemistry (Bush Boake Allen) before I discovered computers and electronics which I continued with until I retired three years ago. I now live in the country and built a shed where I could continue my hobbies that includes chemistry. This has been soured recently by an early morning “visit” from six policemen and sniffer dogs who proceeded to search my shed, house and car and cross questioned about my political views and why I had certain chemicals and electronics etc. After a couple of hours of a very frightening experience they decided I didn’t possess or was engaged in any illegal activities and left.

      • Thomas Perks says:

        Yes Rudy, Unfortunately this is the society we live in today. So many freedoms have gone and individuals like yourself get targeted by the police and other agencies. Through carrying out perfectly innocent pastimes. Which a few years ago would have been encouraged. It appears we are all viewed as potential terrorists. Very sad indeed

  36. D A Chambers says:

    I lived in Hackney back in those days and was studying Chemistry & Biology at A Level. I would often get the bus to Stoke Newington to buy chemicals from A N Beck & Sons. Such memories come back just thinking of those days.
    Thanks for the reminders

  37. Nik Waller says:

    So interested to find Becks Chemist in Stoke Newington mentioned. I spent most of my pocket money there between 1956 and 1962. I lived only a couple of miles away so it was a short bike ride away. Career changed direction but chemistry proved very useful when working in the food industry

  38. I am a retired pharmacist. I loved doing chemistry experiments at home and still have a prized battered copy of Heys (1957) “Chemistry Experiments at Home for Boys and Girls”. I greatly enjoyed reading this fascinating blog. It has been linked into a blog published by the C & D (Chemist & Druggist) magazine (first published in 1859) and may interest readers. The blog entry discusses why community pharmacists today (sadly) seldom supply chemicals.
    Please see:

  39. Sean Davies says:

    I remember getting chemistry sets from Beck’s by post when my family lived near Godalming in Surrey in 1946-7. The previous occupier of the house had been an old lady who had a strong belief in the benefits of sulphur of which there were many cakes of solid in a kitchen cupboard. I was 8 year old and decided that I would try making an explosive device ( a bomb!) out of a mixture of sulphur, magnesium powder and other substances I forget. In the kitchen was a large “range” i.e. a fireplace which could be closed with a shutter. The “bomb” worked very well when I put in the range; the explosion blew two bricks off the chimney which landed in the back yard where my 3 year old sister was lying in her pram. She was covered in soot but otherwise unhurt. Unfortunately, a quantity of sulphur powder blew back into the kitchen and landed on the butter ration which was on the table: I was not very popular with my Mother! but I was very satisfied with my experiment. Luckily, unlike some of your correspondents I did not pursue a career in bomb making but became a sound recording engineer.

  40. Nick Stokes says:

    Dear Henry, thank you for your terrific Blog and the interesting stories in it which have triggered some wonderful memories.
    Like Ian Juniper, I was also a student at hackney downs Grammar School, where my favourite subject was Chemistry, but somewhat later, from 1967 – 1974. I lived in Hackney and with a like-minded friend, from school, discovered AN Beck & Sons when it was located in Stoke Newington and followed it’s subsequent move to Stamford Hill. We would walk and then take a bus (I forget which one) on Saturday mornings and armed with letters from our parents (often forged!) which gave the required permission, we would spend our pocket money on chemicals and the high-quality Lab Apparatus available. Our local high street chemist was also able to supply interesting chemicals to order, and I was blessed with progressive parents who encouraged me in my experimentation, especially my father, who had worked at Bush Boake Allen many years before. Although I did not pursue a career in Chemistry, I never lost my love for Chemistry and with help from the internet, have re-discovered some of my childhood experiments in later life as my children have grown up in the much “safer” and hazard-free environment of today. Keep up the good work!

  41. Giorgio Greening says:

    I received a chemistry set when I was 12, and my father augmented the chemicals by buying anything he could get his hands on at the local chemists. The breakthrough came when I found out about “Beck’s” from a friend. To stock up on chemicals and glassware would take the bus from the Royal Standard in South East London to Bow underground station and then take the tube to Seven Sisters station. My father helped me build a lab in the garage, bringing in water and gas from the house. I made amazing experiments in inorganic chemistry and no serious accidents ever happened. The family moved to Germany in 1975 (the year Beck’s shut down), and I was overjoyed to find a chemistry shop in Darmstadt. I eventually studied chemistry, worked at BASF and recently retired here in Germany. Many thanks for the wonderful shared memories. I have a photo of Beck’s and will try to upload it.

  42. Thomas Perks says:

    I bought chemicals and apparatus from A N Beck in the 1960s. I obtained all my purchases mail order on account of living in Norfolk. It’s a great regret of mine I never got to visit the shop. I also got supplies from a chemist in Birmingham. I believe they were J N Hogg on the Parade in Birmingham. My father had a sister living in Birmingham and we did go and stay once and I was in the shop most days of my stay. They had a great stock of glass apparatus and chemicals. They also provided a mail order service. It’s a great pity that these type of Aladdin’s caves are no longer in existence and that my impression is that home chemistry experimentation is no longer encouraged but rather discouraged with the serious restrictions of what you can purchase. I would love to demonstrate some of the chemical experiments I used to carry out to my grandson. I have still got most of the glassware I amassed over the years. I have also still got a copy of A.N. Beck’s Chemical Formulae and Tables, a great little booklet.


  43. Romilly Cocking says:

    I’m also a former A N Beck’s customer, and am delighted to read of others’ memories.

    I loved Chemistry but had to leave the subject when I specialised in Maths at A level. Luckily I was allowed to sneak into the school’s ‘Extra Chemistry’ sessions for keen students on Thursday evenings.

    I nearly blew the lab up on one occasion, by making Grignard reagents in a boiling Ether solution in a room full of lit Bunsen burners.

    While I was doing O level chemistry my Chemistry Lab Partner was Martyn (now Sir Martyn) Poliakoff, creator of

  44. Colin Watters says:

    I used to order chemicals and glassware from Becks, having found them in ads in the back of Meccano Magazine. Eventually my ambitions exceeded the limits of mail order safety, so one afternoon in about 1969, 2 friends and I took the train to Waterloo, and went to 60 Stoke Newington High St.

    I had a long list of wants, some of which (eg. metallic sodium) were denied me by the assistant. Nevertheless I came away with most of them, including 500 ml each of 98% H2SO4 and 70% HNO3, securely nestling in the bottom of my clutch-top school briefcase. We went to a Royal Institution lecture the same evening.

    We all went on to various university science courses. For me, an attempt at a Biochemistry PhD was derailed by a sudden interest in computing, which still keeps the wolf from my door.

    I still have the bottle that held the H2SO4; the contents went into my swimming pool some years ago.

  45. Les Curtis says:

    I well remember having a chemistry set for my birthday or Christmas present. I remember treating Iodine crystals with ammonia which created a very unstable compound as the crystals exploded when moved, much to my amusement! The set came from Beck’s and I would send for top ups from home in Shropshire. I remember the smells I was able to create and the enjoyment chemistry gave me as a boy. Later, I studied silversmithing, and after some time in industry I returned as technician, later senior lecturer at the School in the University. I retained responsibility for electroplating and my book, Electroforming, was published. Clearly the early lessons in chemistry thanks to Becks formed an important stage in my career. Thank you, A&N Beck and Sons!

  46. Peter Lammer says:

    Delighted to have found this blog! I too have been reminiscing about my pilgrimages to A.N. Beck & Sons as a teenager in the early 1970s. The branch I went to was in Seven Sisters Road as far as I remember – was that by then their main shop? It was a great place, their catalogue seemed to me like a treasure trove, and everything they sold gave the impression of being for serious use.

    What had started out for 11-year-old me as a general interest in chemistry (and a delight in the paraphernalia of it all) quite soon degenerated into a focus on bangs/explosives/etc. So I, like many others, spent much time making nitrogen tri-iodide, plus the same sorts of entertaining gunpowder-like mixes referred to above, and other similar things. I still cherish the copy I bought ca 1972 of Pelican Books’ 1942 “Explosives”, by John Read. It is well-written and informative – from that book I began to understand that so much of the subject is about nitrogen bonds. I’m pleased to see that you can still find copies online.

    Rather than becoming a chemist I ended up studying engineering, but my fondness for the subject of making bangs has always lingered.

  47. john cooper says:

    In the 1960’s used to get things from a pharmacy in Burslem, the Potteries. Had most of what I needed. Still a pharmacy in a town thats hardly recognisable

  48. Henry Rzepa says:

    Posted on behalf of Kinberly G Grant:

    December 21, 2023 at 12:53 am
    I am so excited to have found this blog! My husband is a descendant of A.N. Beck and & Sons. His mother is Albert Neve Beck’s granddaughter, Hilary Beck Grant, her father was Hugh Kingsley Beck who took over the business from his father. We have very few things from the shop (a few jars and his grandfathers scales) and I would love to acquire some as a gift for my husband, Angus Grant who is a scientist by training and has spent most of his life working for pharmaceutical companies in the oncology field. We now live in the States but travel back to the UK often to see friends and family. I can be reached at

Leave a Reply