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Sarsparilla & Mineral Water Sellers

September 15, 2020
by the gentle author

By coincidence, two readers – Christine Osborne & Janice Oliver – both sent me photographs of their ancestors who produced and sold soft drinks in the East End – Brandon’s Mineral Waters of Virginia Rd, Bethnal Green, and Moody’s Sarsaparilla of Rathbone St Market, Canning Town

William Brandon and his mineral water business, 112 Virginia Rd, Bethnal Green c.1887

“William Brandon is my great-great-great uncle, born 10th August 1840 in Bethnal Green as the youngest of seven children. In 1881, he was living with his wife Matilda and their nine children at 112 Virginia Rd where he was a Mineral Water Manufacturer.

I am fascinated by the large framed photographs hanging up on the outside of the building – the one in the centre might be an advertisement as it looks like it says ‘W. Brandon’ and I can even make out ‘Brandon’ stamped on the crates under the table. If you look at the sign at top right of photograph it shows a picture of a bow tie and I believe this is his trademark, as I have obtained an old bottle dug up from a Victorian dump in Stratford with the name ‘Brandon’ and a bow tie symbol.

When William died in 1905 he left £2,343 and Matilda took over the business. A newspaper obituary referred to “William Brandon, who was a mineral water manufacturer of note” and recorded his funeral “was of an imposing character.” He was a self-made man who lived all his life on the edge of the Old Nichol, but he must have had a good life compared to most people living there.” – Christine Osborne

Annie Moody of Moody’s of Rathbone St Market, Canning Town c.1910

“My grandfather, George Moody, was born in Ramsgate in 1879 into a long line of seafarers, and became an Officer in the Navy and travelled the world. After marrying my grandmother, Annie Andrews who was born in Broadstairs, they moved to Canning Town in 1909 where he opened a Herbalists in Rathbone St and started making potions for everyday ailments, using knowledge of herbal medicine he had acquired on his travels. He also offered Homeopathy and local people came for consultations. I remember as a child helping to put  ‘Rathbone’ skin ointment into tins, and there was also ‘Rathbone ‘ cough mixture and various other concoctions.

Soon he formulated a recipe for  making a Sarsaparilla drink – sarsaparilla is a medicinal root which is reputed to help purify the blood. This was sold outside the shop from a stall which was equipped with barrels of the cordial and a water urn. It was served hot in the winter and huge blocks of ice were put into the water barrel to chill it in summer.

As a girl I used to  ‘wash’ the glasses, which merely entailed dunking them into a bucket of cold water after use and leaving them upturned to drain. My mother told me that a famous drinks firm had offered money for the recipe but my grandfather would not part with it and I still have it until this day. So many people have requested it but it remains a family secret. My grandfather George died in 1945, but my mother and then an uncle continued with the business until the late seventies.” –  Janice Oliver

Vera Moody of Moody’s of Rathbone St Market, Canning Town

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 15, 2020

    I have always wondered what sarsaparilla was – it tends to feature in American films and musicals.

    I also wonder what Mr Brandon would make of how sales of bottled mineral water have gone global in recent years…he could have had an even grander funeral!

  2. Wendy Lowe permalink
    September 15, 2020

    G.Baldwins in Walworth Road still sell Sarsparilla. Delicious cold but I must try it hot this winter.

  3. Geraldine Anslow permalink
    September 15, 2020

    My Father and his siblings grew up in Poplar. They would speak revrentially and nostalgically about Sarsaparilla. I did come across some eventually, but wondered if it was quite as it was then. Dandelion and Burdock too, did they make those as well? Surely some modern herbalist can revive these for us.

  4. Vicki Fox permalink
    September 15, 2020

    Many years ago (about 70) there used to be Sarsparilla stall in Hackney Waste – a Saturday market. In the winter months it was sold with hot water.

  5. Robert kearney permalink
    September 15, 2020

    I remember back in the 1950/1960s my parents used to buy me and my sister a drink of usually hot sarsaparilla to warm us up on our occasional visits to Walthamstow market. The stall that sold it (from what looked to me as a child like a giant samovar) was located almost outside Manzes pie and mash shop which we eat in generally on every market visit. I really miss those meals and that hot drink having moved away from the area.

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 15, 2020

    It appears that at Brandon’s, all that framed ‘art,’ tankards, and draperies had to be put in place each morning? And nothing installed on a rainy day?

    Do the tankards mark a ‘take-out/take-away’ window for street sales?

    (I’d love a close-up button to see all the details in these wonderful photos.)

    Ms. Oliver might consider making kegs of that family sarsaparilla given our current plague times!
    Thank you.

  7. September 15, 2020

    I spent the first 3 years of my life in McKenzie Road, North London and I remember my mother taking me to the local chemist where I used to drink sarsaparilla with delight, on the premises.

    How I look forward to receiving your blogs GA!

  8. Bernie permalink
    September 15, 2020

    Vicki Fox may wish to know that the Sarsparilla stall at Hackney Waste (was it really called that?) was still there in my day, i.e. until at least 1959 or 60.

  9. September 15, 2020

    When I was a child, I would visit Hool’s Herbalists in Bolton Market Hall with my mother. She would have a Blood Tonic and I would have a glass of Vimto. The stall passed from father to son the 70s/80s. My son also remembers visiting the stall with his dad. My husband having Sarsaparilla (Blood Tonic) and our son a glass of Vimto.
    The stall moved to the ‘Outdoor Market’ when the gentrified (and ruined) Market Hall became more upmarket. The stall continued for many years but a friend thinks it has recently closed. I have not visited Bolton Market since lockdown. I will be sorry if the stall has closed.

  10. September 16, 2020

    Interesting pictures of the Water sellers.🥰😘😊💖🌹🌺🌻👏

  11. September 16, 2020

    I haven’t had Sarsparilla since I was a little kid (I’m 61 now). We also drank Sassafras tea for colds.
    I’m not so sure Sassafras trees grow in the U.K. It is brewed from roots and bark. The tree is odd as it produces three differently shaped leaves (which also makes it easy to find in the forest).

  12. Akkers permalink
    September 16, 2020

    I don’t have any photos, but mineral water wise, my Great Aunt and Uncle used to have a Mineral water business in Bethnal Green during the 1910s decade and were Emily and Arthur Keep.
    Regarding Sarsaparilla, I still drink this and its Baldwins original sarsaparilla which was mentioned above by Wendy Lowe (it’s available on line, from some supermarkets and in a couple of newsagents in Hackney). My old Nan always used to say it was good for the blood, so in the summer it was to cool the blood down and in the winter it was to warm it up when it was drunk as a hot drink. I always think of my family when I have some. It was available from a couple of markets when I was growing up, but the one I remember the most is like Robert Kearney at Walthamstow. During the 70s when I was a kid if we visited during the winter months we would always have some to warm us up and then we would then go and get our pie and mash in Manzies – Happy days 🙂 Bernie and Vicki Fox – yes there was a sarsaparilla stall down Kingsland Waste in Hackney probably till the early 80’s.

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