When, in 1892, the distinguished architect Alfred Waterhouse wrote to ‘The Times’ to protest at the vulgarity and volume of advertising posters, murals, sky-signs and other devices which were defacing the appearance of London he received wide support. Often led by soap manufacturers attempting to dominate the new mass market created by a large and emergent lower class made up of office workers, the advertisers took advantage of new technology to develop overlarge advertising signs.

The catalyst for the protest was the hanging sign containing 10’ high lettering advertising Messrs Hudson’s soap at their office on Ludgate Hill, marring the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Before action was taken by the London County Council, twelve other advertisers planned to also put up huge sky-signs on Ludgate Hill.

Patent medicine companies approached their advertising in a different manner, but by also taking advantage of changes in technology, in their case, developments in colour lithographic printing. Among the leaders in this field was Messrs Eno and Company, whose founder, James Crossley Eno had invented and marketed his famous fruit salts. Eno, who lived in grand style in Dulwich at his mansion, Woodhall in College Road, also penned the extravagant claims for his product to accompany the flamboyant coloured advertisements which appeared in the pages of a proliferating number of magazines and newspapers. According to James Eno, his Fruit Salts were a cure for biliousness, feverishness, sleeplessness, headaches and ‘sudden changes in the weather’.

Another company which cashed in on the mass market for health products was the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, and it was this company’s advertising claim which brought two more Dulwich residents to such prominence in the 1890’s. In 1889-1890 a flu pandemic (estimated to have killed a million people) had caused great alarm. Seizing the opportunity to turn the panic into profit The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company marketed a product it called the ‘smoke ball’ which it claimed was a cure for influenza and a number of other diseases. The device was a rubber ball with a tube attached. It was filled with carbolic acid (or phenol) and the tube was inserted in the user’s nose and squeezed at the bottom to release the vapours. The nose would run, ostensibly flushing out viral infections.

The company advertised their product widely and in an advertisement in the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1891 offered a reward of £100 to any person who contracted influenza after having used the ball three times daily for two weeks according to the directions supplied with each ball. They announced that to show their sincerity the sum of £1000 had been deposited with the Alliance Bank, Regent Street It was stated that one carbolic smoke ball would last a family several months, making it the cheapest remedy in the world and was offered at 10/- post free. It could be refilled for 5/- at the company’s offices at Hanover Square, London.

Mrs Louisa Elizabeth Carlill of 30 Park Road, West Dulwich (now Park Hall Road) saw the advertisement in the Pall Mall Gazette and was persuaded to purchase one of the balls and used it three times daily for nearly two months until she contacted influenza in January 1892. and promptly claimed the £100 from the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company. It is perhaps no coincidence that her husband, James B. Carlill was a solicitor and after her initial claim was ignored, he fired off two more letters to the company on her behalf. On a third request for her reward, the company replied with an anonymous letter that if the device had been used properly it had complete confidence in its efficacy but “to protect themselves against all fraudulent claims” they would need her to come to the office and use the ball each day and be checked by a secretary.

Not surprisingly, Mrs Carlill, prompted no doubt by her solicitor-husband brought a claim to court.

In the action The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company was represented by Mr Herman Loehnis, of Toksowa, Dulwich Common (now the site of Hambledon Place), so it was a very Dulwich affair in court. He assisted H H Asquith, the future Prime Minister for the defendants. However, this distinguished team was no match for Mrs Carlill and she won her case. The company appealed straight away and the Court of Appeal unanimously rejected the company’s arguments and held there was a fully binding contract for £100 with Mrs Carlill including offer and acceptance, consideration and an intention to create legal relations.

The case became one of the most celebrated examples of contract law and is often the first legal case a law student studies.