North Devon in 100 Objects: 12. The Bowden’s Indian Balm Sign

An old sign advertises Bowden’s Indian Balm, a cure-all ointment.

This splendid sign advertises Bowden’s Indian Balm, a cure-all ointment that was made and sold at the end of Butchers Row in Barnstaple until 1973.  It has a fascinating story to tell of missionaries and colonialism as well as medicine.

William Bowden, together with his friend William Beer, were members of the Ebenezer Chapel in Barnstaple, established by Robert Chapman, a charismatic preacher who had dedicated his life to the poor of Barnstaple, a town riddled with filth, cholera, excessive drinking and poverty. They were young apprentices when they attended a meeting appealing for missionaries to India in 1835.

The two Williams swiftly married their sweethearts (two Elizabeths) and set off on the 14 week voyage to India. Once there, they established the Godavari Delta Mission, encouraged by Colonel Arthur Cotton, who was carrying out radical irrigation works in the Andhra Pradesh region of India.

Missionary work was not easy.  William Bowden preached regularly in the streets and weekly markets but it was six years before the first convert to Christianity was gained. As well as churches the missionaries established schools and dispensaries in their efforts to improve the lives of local people.  William gained skills in treating sickness, once nursing a fakir (holy man) through cholera, who thanked him with a recipe in Sanskrit for a curative ointment.

Eventually William Bowden’s son (also William), returned to Barnstaple.  He began making Indian Balm at Rackfield House in 1889.  The Balm, including oils of cajuput, chaulmooga, origanum and terebinth, unguent of althea, castor oil and camphor, proved to be remarkably successful!

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