While looking through the Internet Archive today, I came across this odd bit of temperance literature from England. It’s a six-page story published in 1890 to persuade people from partaking of the demon alcohol and instead suggesting Mason’s Extract of Herbs “for the speedy production of herb or botanic beer, a non-intoxicating beverage.” Unsurprisingly, it was published by Newball & Mason, makers of the apparently non-alcoholic beer. It’s called “A Tale of Pretty Polly Perkins.”
The name, I believe, comes from an earlier song called Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green that was first published in 1864. According to Wikipedia, “it was almost universally known in England until around the mid-1950s, when it began to fade as being too old-fashioned.” So here’s the story in full. It’s worth a read.
The back cover shows a bottle of Mason’s Original Herb or Botanic Beer. What was it exactly? I’m not sure, but the Monterey Bay Herb Company has a history of it on their Facebook page:
Herbal History: Mason’s Botanical Beer
“The little busy bee improves the shining hour and prefers Mason’s Extract of Herbs before the laborious old fashioned method of extracting it itself.”
Newball & Mason’s original Extract of Herbs, also known as “Botanic Beer,” was promoted as a refreshing tonic and non-alcoholic alternative to beer in keeping with the Temperance movement which prevailed at the time. The company was formed in 1859 through a partnership between Thomas Ayres Newball and his apprentice, 15-year old Thomas Mason. In 1875, the younger Thomas opened a factory on Park Row in Nottingham, from which he produced his “extract of herbs.”
Advertisements for Mason’s Extract of Herbs appeared regularly in newspapers and on posters and handbills circulated in street railways throughout London. The ads always contained the familiar tagline,”The little busy bee improves the shining hour and prefers Mason’s Extract of Herbs before the laborious old fashioned method of extracting it itself’ and instructed the reader to “Send 9 stamps for sample bottle, enough to make eight gallons.”
In 1880, Thomas took on an apprentice of his own, Benjamin Deaville, who later became a partner in the company. Over the next several years, the company would move twice more until landing in New Basford where the two men established Maville Works, a merging of their names. Here the company diversified to also produce coffee, flavorings, fruit essences, dried herbs and household chemicals.
Benjamin became the sole proprietor after Thomas died in 1911, and he remained chairman and managing director until his death in 1938. Newball and Mason relocated to Staffordshire in 1957, where it continued to operate until 1970.
Wondering what Mason’s botanical beer was made of? Like most formulas of the period, it was a closely guarded secret. But, because few things stay secret forever (and the label’s illustration provides a clue)…the primary ingredients were yarrow, dandelion, comfrey and horehound.
So it’s made with “yarrow, dandelion, comfrey and horehound,” ingredients more at home in a gruit. How exactly did that concoction create a beverage that tasted in any way like beer, enough that they felt comfortable calling it beer, botanic beer or otherwise?
Below is some more information from an advertising leaflet produced in the 1890s.
Newball & Mason’s original extract of herbs or ‘botanic beer’ was promoted as a wholesome, refreshing drink, a tonic. Most importantly (in line with the Temperance movement of the time which disapproved of alcohol drinking and campaigned determinedly against it), it was marketed as a non alcoholic (and much cheaper) alternative to beer.
In the advertisement an image of bees buzzing round a bottle and the clump of flowers to the left (dandelion, white dead nettle, burdock and comfrey) suggest the natural and healthy origin of the extract. Another image shows a smiling, young, male scientist holding a glass of the extract, endorsing the product. Newball & Mason were manufacturing chemists & botanic druggists based at the Hyson Green Works, Nottingham.
I love the line “no other extract makes beer like it.” That I believe. And here’s one more account of the extract, from a local history group in Nottingham, England:
The company of Newball and Mason was originally founded by Thomas Ayres Newball and Thomas Mason. In 1850 Thomas Ayres Newball had opened a chemist shop at 36 Derby Road, Nottingham and in 1859, at the age of fifteen, Thomas Mason became his apprentice. After several years, Thomas Mason opened his own shop on Derby Road and it was at this time that he invented the ‘extract of herbs’, a concentrated essence that could be made up into the non-alcoholic beverage, ‘Botanic Beer’. In the 1870’s the two businesses were amalgamated to form Newball and Mason, chemist and druggist, with premises near the Market Place and at 10 Derby Road (Morris’s Trade Directory for 1877). With the growing popularity of botanic beer, in 1875 Thomas Mason opened a factory on Park Row in Nottingham, to produce his ‘extract of herbs’. Benjamin Deaville joined the company as an apprentice in 1880 and after serving a three year apprenticeship, he decided to concentrate on the manufacturing side of the business, later becoming a partner in the company.
In 1890, the company moved into a larger factory on Terrace Street in Hyson Green and in 1902, they moved again to a former lace factory on Beech Avenue, New Basford. This factory was known as the ‘Maville Works’, combining the names of Mason and Deaville. By this time, Newball and Mason had diversified to produce not only the ‘extract of herbs’ but also coffee, fruit essences and flavourings, household chemicals, culinary and medicinal herbs, the latter being grown on the company’s herb and fruit farm in Bunny. In 1911, Thomas Mason died and Benjamin Deaville became the sole proprietor. In 1925 he decided to form a private limited company and held the position of chairman and managing director until his death in 1938.
THE INGREDIENTS : yarrow, dandelion, comfrey and horehound. All grow wild in Ryde Cemetery so if you fancy taking up brewing…!
Based on this ad from the 1890s, it looks it was also sold in the U.S., as well.