Barrett's Mandrake Embrocation


Unequalled for Sprains, Bruises, Overstraining of the Muscles, Cramp, Rheumatism, Sciatica, Lumbago, Gout, Neuralgia, Chilblains, Bronchitis. To be had retail of all Chemists, 1s. 1½d., 2s. 9d., and 4s. 6d., postage 3d. extra ; or direct from the Sole Proprietor, JOSHUA BARRETT, 21, Beresford Road, Highbury New Park, London, N. London Wholesale Agents—Messrs. Newberry and Sons, Barclay and Sons, Limited, and all wholesale houses. SPECIAL NOTICE.—For the convenience of those at a distance from Chemists, J.B. Will send Three Bottles, post free, on receipt of 8s. 4½d., stamps or P.O.
To Mr. Joshua Barrett.—Dear Sir,—About twelve months ago, I, in playing football, had the misfortune to break a large muscle of my leg, which prevented my being able to walk, much more to play again. I may say that I have been under no less than three doctors, all of whom have failed to cure me. I was recommended by a fellow athlete to try your MANDRAKE EMBROCATION, and, I am pleased to say, with good result. I am now playing and running again as if nothing had happened. I shall have exceedingly great pleasure in recommending same to my numerous friends. If you like to make use of this, by all means do so.—Yours faithfully, H. G. THOMPSON, Captain, Kent Rovers Football Club, Kent County, and Sydenham Athletic Association.

Source: The Sportsman, 30 March 1889


Go to a country show, craft fair or exhibition, and chances are you’ll see at least one stall flogging health products that ‘can help with’ whatever happens to be wrong with you.

In the 1880s and 90s, Joshua Barrett used the same method to sell his Mandrake Embrocation and subsidiary products such as Mandrake Liver Powders and Mandrake Tonic. He also seems to have entered the Embrocation for the competitions prevalent at such shows, winning medals and diplomas of honour.

Barrett didn’t advertise much in newspapers, preferring to meet punters in person and give out handbills and free samples. This independence from the press meant that he didn’t need to be based in London, and in the 1890s he relocated to Snaith in Yorkshire – a sensible move bearing in mind he had previously travelled as far afield as Edinburgh to exhibit his product.

The advert above pre-dates the 1889-1890 Russian flu pandemic, and as you can see it makes no mention of influenza. Once outbreaks reached the UK, however, the Embrocation suddenly became ‘Scientifically Proved and Practically Demonstrated’ as a cure. The handbills explained why flu had never been mentioned before:

This remedy has only just been discovered, and the following directions are not with the Thousands of Bottles now in the hands of the appreciative public.

To ward off the early symptoms of flu, one had to

…take a piece of sponge the size of an egg, damp with the Embrocation, and hold it to the open mouth, inhale steadily, then close the mouth, swallow the fumes, and return them through the nostrils: repeat often.

Although an egg-sized piece of sponge was adequate, there was also a special inhaler available – a simple glass tube to hold an embrocation-soaked piece of wadding, and it was cheap at only a shilling. In the more advanced stages of influenza, Barrett also advised rubbing the oil on all achey parts of the body.

The most unusual thing about the Mandrake Embrocation is the absolutely terrifying trademarked logo. This grotesque coalition of man and anatid does not inspire much confidence in the product, but it is certainly eye-catching – and rather appropriate too, as the Russian flu pandemic was an avian strain originating in ducks. The man’s head is supposed to be a likeness of Joshua Barrett himself.

Mandrake logo


  1. After “Cameron the piss-prophet” I was hoping for something along the lines of “Clegg the piss-taking prophet”.

    However, the manatid logo undoes my disappointment, and the ManDrake will go into my file of potential avatars.

  2. Michael, thank you for mentioning “Man-Drake”- the meaning of that trademark never occurred to my my brain (perhaps I should inhale some embrocation)

  3. Thanks for the comments everyone – have been away so apologies for the delay in replying.

    Barrett certainly claimed that the products were made from mandrake root – top quality stuff that he grew himself – but I don’t know of any analyses that would confirm or disprove this.

  4. I have a small farm just outside Snaith in Yorkshire, part of our land was once quarried for clay. I have regularly unearthed old glass bottles from a part of the quarry which at some period of history has been infilled. Today I unearthed a small green glass bottle in perfect condition embossed with the words ‘Barrett’s Mandrake Embrocation’. The picture of the mandrake is also embossed on the bottle. I was amazed to find through the google search the interesting history of this company which was right on my doorstep!

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