By local historian Susan Butler
Ever since J K Rowling featured mandrake root in her Harry Potter books, most people have heard of it. In her stories, mandrake roots are depicted as having the appearance of human babies with leaves growing out of their head. When they are removed from the ground their cry is fatal to anyone who hears it.
In fact, the mandrake plant has been used since ancient times as a medicinal plant and was traditionally associated with magical activities. The root can be up to eighteen inches long and often resembles a human figure. For centuries it has been used as a painkiller and a sedative and, when rubbed onto the skin, was said to help cure rheumatism. But what connection does the mandrake plant have with our local history?
In late Victorian times, Mr Joshua Barrett and two of his sons moved to Snaith from London. Joshua was a farmer’s son from Bluntisham near St Ives. He was originally a commercial traveller selling lace but, in the 1880s, he went into business producing and selling his ‘Barrett’s Mandrake Embrocation’, which he said would cure ‘Headache, Earache, and Toothache instantly … also Sprains, Sciatica, Lumbago, Gout, Neuralgia, Chilblains and Bronchitis’.
Joshua also made other products, such as Mandrake Liver Powders and Mandrake Tonic. He probably used English mandrake, sometimes known as white bryony, and grew it on his family farm. Joshua mainly sold his ‘cures’ at fairs and shows, and advertised in newspapers.
In the 1890s, Joshua moved into a house on Gowdall Lane, which he promptly named Mandrake House – it still bears the name. His wife remained in London.
Many years later, in 1993, a book named Fragments out of Time was published; it was a lightly disguised account of life in Snaith (renamed Priors Ings in the book). The author was the former Sadie Nash, writing under the pen name of Sarah E. Francis.
Sadie lived in Mandrake House from the 1930s onwards with her younger brother, John, and parents, John and Sarah. Her father had come to Snaith before the war as the chauffeur to Mr and Mrs Roderick Shearburn of Snaith Hall and had fallen in love with Sarah Fairbairn. After the war he worked as a chauffeur in Pittsburgh, USA for a director of the steelworks there and earned enough money to come home, get married and buy a piece of land on which he erected the garage near Carlton Bridge.
In her book, Sadie describes how ‘in the early part of the year many people took their Sunday walk down Gowhill [Gowdall] lane and stopped to peer over the hedge of Owd Mandrake’s garden. There in the middle of the lawn, picked out in yellow and purple crocuses, was the shape of a drake’s body with a man’s head wearing a top hat. Owd Mandrake himself was an impressive figure in his striped trousers, frock coat and top hat. He wore a tea rose in his button hole and his thick white beard was neatly trimmed.’
She also writes of the visit by Harold Barrett from Australia. He was Owd Mandrake’s son. Harold explained he and his brother were at boarding school (probably the school at Drax), but, during the holidays, were looked after by the housekeeper, Martha, who was a ‘real tartar’ and kept a diary of their misdemeanours, which she read to their father every evening.
Harold also described how his father, Joshua, made ‘the elixir of life’ from the mandrake roots which grew in the garden. He brewed his medicine in a workshop in the orchard. Harold said his father was living proof of the efficacy of the medicine as he drank bottles of it himself.
Joshua Barrett eventually left Snaith just after the war and moved to Blackpool. There he married his housekeeper, Martha, and, again, named his new house Mandrake House. He died in 1931.
Sadie’s book (still available online) is an evocative look at Snaith. Before moving to Mandrake House, her family lived in the middle of the town. She writes of the High Street being full of stalls on market days which were ‘lit at night by flaring naptha jets’ and how the fogs in November were so bad that two people meeting in the street could only just recognise each other in the pool of light thrown down by the mantle of the gas lights.
She also writes of the Snaith clog sole mill (now a brewery premises) which supplied clogs all over the country. A particularly large number were bought by Lancashire cotton mill workers as the wooden soles were waterproof.
Before the First World War, the timber for the mill, mainly beech or alder, was brought up the River Aire by boat. Later it arrived on large articulated lorries. The air was often full of sawdust around the mill, which ran six days a week and employed many local people. Those living in the town would set their clocks by the clog mill buzzer, rather than rely on the ‘fickle church clock’.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is about how Snaith was affected by the terrible floods of 1947. Mandrake House was flooded up to the first floor and Sadie, her mother and elderly uncle had to be carried by her young brother through the rapidly rising waters to the nearby railway cottage.
People stood at street corners ‘watching the water ebb and flow past the clog mill’. The army brought amphibious ‘ducks’ in but they were apparently useless in the narrow streets and one had its bottom ripped out when it ran over a submerged car.
Sadie’s brother and a friend made a raft and sailed back to Mandrake House to rescue their chickens by chopping a hole though the shed roof with an axe and lifting the birds out into a tea chest.
The family were able to return home after a month, and the house and furniture dried out during the hot summer which followed.