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As Time Goes By: Old Time Remedies

Eileen Perrin recalls how illnesses were routinely treated before the inauguration of the National Health Service.

The National Health Service bringing ‘free healthcare from the cradle to the grave’ came into being in July 1948, a few months after our first baby was born: 9lb.12oz. I recall taking raspberry leaf tea to help with the labour, and had practised Dr. Grantly Dick Read’s relaxation method in childbirth.

In the 1920’s and ‘30’s when I was small, going to the doctors was not a thing we thought about too much. My Grandma Nanna Harris, used to say that they only gave you a bottle of jallop, - a bottle of coloured water, and that would cost you a shilling.

Families used home remedies and relied on their chemist for pills, ointments and potions to alleviate soreness and pain.

Hospitals were supported by voluntary contributions. Every June in London, there was Alexandra Rose Day (like Poppy Day), when pink artificial wild roses, sold in aid of London hospitals, were purchased and pinned to our coats. This idea was started by Princess Alexandra, wife of King Edward, who had succeeded his mother Queen Victoria. The collection in Islington went to the Royal Free Hospital, then in Grays Inn Road, near Kings Cross.

In summer we used to go down to Westcliff sea front to watch the Southend-On-Sea carnival go by. Young men, women and children in fancy dress walked alongside decorated floats, holding buckets and inviting the crowd of spectators to throw in their unwanted pennies. Money collected was given to the Southend General Hospital.

Uncle Albert, a policeman in Camberwell, ran a branch of the H.S.A. – the Hospital Savings Association, in his spare time. It was founded in 1922, the year I was born, and my Dad joined it.

Mum used to tell me about the time she lost her first baby at birth, in 1920 (who, if she had lived, would have been my sister Kathleen).
After the doctor was called in, who struggled to deliver a full-term breech-birth baby with no other equipment but his hands, she was delirious, trying to eat the egg cup her medicine was in. Afterwards kept in bed for a week or more, she was fed by her mother on gruel, - a thin oatmeal porridge, and cups of teas but nothing else.

I was born two years later in 1922, again a breech birth. The doctor had asked if she wanted this baby, and was told she definitely did, after losing the first. Her mother sat up all night nursing her, while my Dad said he sat in the other room all night, holding me in his arms. Now I am writing this in 2009, more than halfway into my eighties.

When I was quite young Mum bought me fat brown glass jars of Robeleine. This was cod liver oil and malt and I was fed spoonfuls of this nearly every day.

When I was at primary school, if I had a sore throat, I would be told to wind my warm black woollen stocking round my neck when I went to bed. The remedy for a cough was a teaspoon of Galloways or Veno’s cough syrup, and for catarrh a teaspoon of Friars Balsam was swished into a bowl of boiling water, then with a tent–like towel draped over my head, I had to inhale the fumes.

This aimed to clear the chest and nasal passages, and usually did.
Up to the age of twelve I had been given Iron Jelloids. As I was pale and fair-haired I suppose I might have been anaemic. Constipation was treated with a spoonful of Syrup of Figs, and when I was older, there was Ex-lax or a cup of senna pod tea.

Carters Little Liver pills were sometimes taken. I can see them now, small and round, and coated in ochre-coloured licqorice powder.
These must have replaced the Victorian Dr.William’s Pink Pills for Pale People.

We had a black and white cat called ‘Boy’. I was always playing with him and in his annoyance he always scratched the backs of my hands. Mum used Ponds cold cream for that, as I refused to have the T.C.P. offered by Dad; it stung too much.

In the winter we rubbed a Snowfire tablet over our chapped hands, and for the chilblains on our feet we used a Melrose tablet, which was solid and yellow and probably mainly lanolin.

Styes on my eyelids were bathed in boracic acid crystals dissolved in hot water. I believe they are still in use today. It was suggested by Nanna Harris to rub the stye with a gold wedding ring, but Mum didn’t put any faith in that.
Boils occurred frequently and were bathed in water as hot as you could bear it, to bring the bad matter to the surface. Afterwards Germolene on a square of clean white lint was put over the cleaned-out wound.

Dad had suffered with rheumatism after being a prisoner-of-war. He would wrap pink Thermogene wool round his shoulders after Mum had rubbed him with ‘horse oil’, which I have now found is a remedy made from horseradish.

A tin of Andrews Liver Salts lived on our mantelpiece, as Dad was always subject to bilious attacks. A teaspoon of Liver Salts stirred into a glass of tepid water fizzed as you drank it down.

Our health had improved after we moved in 1938 to the leafy suburbs of Queensbury, near Edgware. In our garden we grew blackcurrants, raspberries, lettuce, radish, peas, beetroot, broccoli, tomatoes and scarlet runner beans, - a wonderful change for us, as before we had only a back yard of concrete with window boxes and pots in which Dad grew petunias, geraniums, antirrhinums and calceolaria.

Even when she was very old, my Mum Kit always ate an apple a day. Her favourite variety was Cox Orange Pippin, but she also ate Worcester Pearmain, Charles Ross, Ellisons Orange, Granny Smith and Russet, many now no longer grown for sale, but at ’Apple Days’ around the countryside you still do see old varieties to buy and enjoy.

Whether the adage ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was the reason, Kit did live to be 96.

Now doctors implore us to eat ‘five a day’ of fruit and vegetables for our health’s sake so it seems we are getting our good sense back.


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