We had passed the fried mouse in a stew stage (a sure cure for bronchitis) by the 1930s.
I think we were very lucky growing up in the 1930s. We had passed the fried mouse in a stew – a sure cure for bronchitis, and holding a child over a boiling tar barrel when the roadmen were repairing the road – an equally certain way to cure whooping cough that our grannies used to tell us about! The papers were full of advertisements for cures for every ailment. Beechams Pills, Bile Beans, Phyllisan – which fortified the over forties, all kinds of things with vivid illustrations. I used to love the one with the foot with forked lightening shooting out of the toe – that was somebody’s corn cure. There were so many remedies we never thought about getting ill. Very few visited the doctor and even fewer called him to visit. There were plenty of home remedies for most things and there was usually an old woman who could come and look at a rash or take a turn with sitting with a sick person.
Most children’s ailments responded to home cures. This was in the days of coal fires and round ovens and if you “weren’t clivver” or “all egg shells” (expressions we used when you didn’t feel very well) you were allowed to sit at the dropped down door of the oven, which served as a table and was nice and warm. The solid oven shelf was taken out and wrapped in a bit of old blanket and put in the bed to warm it before you got in. There were usually a couple of bricks in there too and they were well wrapped up and used as hot water bottles. They stayed warm for a long time and you could always scratch your chilblains on a corner.
Every kid had chilblains then and we were told if you rubbed them with snow it would cure them – it didn’t! Everybody had a salt bag. It was a bag made of heavy woollen material filled with salt which also stayed in the oven bottom. You cuddled this if you had earache, or a sore tummy. Some people used a roast onion for earache but I think the saltbag was less messy. I once had goose grease rubbed on my chest for a bad cough. It was horrible and it had bits of black things in it which I was sure were burnt feathers. Vick was a great improvement! I didn’t like the standard bottle of Scott’s Emulsion either, which used to appear at the first sign of a cough. My mother told me if I took it like a good lass I would grow up to be as strong as that big fisherman with the big fish on his back pictured on the bottle, but it cut no ice.
One year I got Virol and Numol – there was no trouble taking that – it was just like toffee. All children were dosed with those patent medicines then – you never hear of them now. Parrish’s Food was another concoction – it made blood. My mother used to tell me not to put too much vinegar on my chips as it dried up your blood and I would have to have Parrish’s Food to put it right. It was very bitter tasting.
If you had a cough a saucer of butter and sugar rolled into balls was put by your bed, in case you started coughing during the night. You sucked one to ‘grease your throat’ and it saved you from disturbing the rest of the family. I don’t think it worked very well either, but then my mother found a remedy used by the gypsies in a weekly magazine she got. “Slice a large onion thinly, sprinkle well with sugar and leave overnight. Strain off the juice and take a tablespoon every night and morning”. It tasted dreadful but, incredibly, it worked every time, so that was the standard cure till I grew out of coughs and colds.
For chapped hands (keans, we call them) was a sticky, green tablet called “Snowfire”. Sometimes if she could get a bit of pig’s lard Mam would melt it in a pan over the fire, add a bit of glycerine and a dash of eau de cologne and beat it up together. When it was set we used that. My father was a bricklayer and he had very bad hands in the winter and he used it a lot – with a bit of sugar added to the sticky ointment. The de-luxe treatment was glycerine and rosewater made up at the chemist. It used to sting like mad and we used to blow on our hands to take the pain away. When I first came to live in Forest Hall, Bell’s the chemist was well known for his pink bottle “Bell’s Poppy Cream” – everybody used that.
For toothache we had oil of cloves rubbed on our gum or a drop of whisky. Tonsillitis or any sore throat was treated with two penny worth of Flowers of Sulphur powder, placed on a bit of paper (usually the Evening Chronicle) and blown down your throat – woe betide you if you moved your head or closed your mouth at the wrong time! My mother said a gargle with hot water was better – I think she had the right idea.
If we saw an ambulance it caused a bit of excitement. We had to hold our breath, count to nine and spit. This protected us from “getting the smit” (catching the infection). For a long time we thought “the smit” was a deadly disease and ambulances were only used for taking children to the fever hospital. This ritual with an ambulance was very widespread, but with different rules. My cousins had to spit and then hold their breath until they saw a four-legged animal, which wasn’t much bother as there were always plenty of cows and sheep in the fields. It might have been a bit dangerous if you lived in a town.
We were all scared of getting the fever and going to hospital. It was the one threat we used to take notice of. You didn’t get to see your Mam for six weeks, you got nasty medicine and the bread was baked with Epsom Salts in it so you would be sure of going to the toilet.
You could get one third of a pint of milk for a half penny at school, but some children got theirs for free. We called this “doctor’s milk” and we all knew it tasted different because it had medicine in it – some said castor oil. Sometimes there was a bottle or two left over and our teacher would offer it to anyone in the class, but nobody ever took it. If a spelk in your finger turned septic, a bit of soap was scraped down and mixed with sugar. This was moistened with boiling water and spread on an old, clean hankie and bound round your finger as hot as you could bear it. There was Slippery Elm Powder, mixed to a thick paste with boiling water and used for more serious things, where the red streaks of poison were already showing. For pleurisy and pneumonia, hot poultices of linseed were used to break the inflammation down. Penicillin must have seemed like a miracle, yet my Dad worked with an old man who would seek out an old cobweb to wrap round a poisoned finger and it healed quickly – I think I might have preferred the poison!
We never had any cures made from plants or herbs, but my Grandad would not let us eat anything the pig refused, as pigs would eat anything. If the pig left it then it must be dangerous and best left alone. It was very rare that the doctor visited, but I remember the fuss. On the morning he was expected the house was cleaned extra thoroughly – even the steps were scrubbed and sandstoned. The whole bed was changed, usually with freezing linen sheets and a fancy pillow case with scratchy crochet lace and the best bedspread. You were washed and changed into a clean nightie and heaven help you if you tossed about and creased the bed – no matter how poorly you felt. Everybody wore a worried expression and spoke in a low voice, but as soon as he was away from the step off came the good bedspread and fancy pillowcase (which was no great loss as they reeked of mothballs). Then in came the neighbours to hear the verdict and spread it around. His word was never questioned – the doctor was always right! Maybe the National Health is not so bad after all.