Tuesday, 20 January 2009
It didn't do to get sick . . .
I mentioned in my last post how epidemics would sweep through a small community and rob families of their loved ones, and the children were particularly vulnerable, as my g. grandmother discovered when she lost all three children in the space of a week. I would have gone mad with grief, and I'm sure she did as it was eight years before my grandfather was born.
In my husband's family, his mother, born a century ago in 1909, remembered when the four children came down with Scarlatina. She was probably the first to take ill with it, and can remember helping her mother nurse the others. The Dr insisted on a sheet being fastened over the doorway, which was sprayed with some noxious substance in the hope of preventing the spread of the infection. Yet it is a disease one scarcely hears of these days, and certainly not with a fatal outcome. The full blown version is Scarlet Fever and it is basically when the Streptococcus germ which normally lives in the throat, gets onto the skin and causes a general infection with the accompanying red rash. In my late m-in-law's day it also carried the risk of Rheumatic Fever and indeed, her younger sister did contract this, and was treated like an invalid the rest of her life and yet she lived to a grand old age despite the presumed "weak heart" which was the likely result of the Rheumatic Fever.
In Pamela Horn's "The Victorian Country Child", she writes of Scarletina sweeping through schools, and of course, as one had to pay for the Dr to call in those days, things would have to be pretty desperate before that happened (often too late to save the affected child). Home remedies were the first resort. Children who had long journeys on foot to and from school, would be sat around with wet clothing and shoes in the schoolroom, and it was noted that these were the children who often fell prey to illnesses such as Diptheria, and the ill-ventilated classrooms only helped to spread infection. There was an outbreak of Scarlatina at the Cholsey School in Berkshire in 1877-78, and the school log book noted:
16 November - a few scholars absent with scarlatina. Warned all the scholars that if any of their brothers or sisters were taken with scarlatina THEY were not to come to school.
19 November - Three more cases of probable scarlatina. Warned Jesse Corderoy and his brother not to come to school for a fortnight as Rhoda, his sister, seems to be taken with it.
29 November - Still a few cases of scarlet fever . . . The sanitary inspector for this district came this morning and made enquiries about it and precautions taken to prevent it spreading.
4 December - A few more cases of scarlatina.
20 December - Attendance still very low in consequence of illness. Walter Smallbones - scholar in the third class - died and was buried during Christmas week . . .
Whooping cough was also a killer, especially of little girls. One Wiltshire doctor at the turn of the 19th century, noted that "I never remember a boy dying of it." This same doctor recalled that pneumonia was particularly dangerous . . ." it had a dreadful crisis, during which the patient very often died. During this crisis they would have a very high temperature, would be blue in colour with a hacking cough. . . If they lived, their temperature would suddenly drop, and an hour or two later they would be sitting up in bed and demanding a beef steak; but even then they needed careful watching, and stimulants had to be kept handy, to see they did not slip away . . ."
In most households, prevention was deemed better than cure, and Saturday night was not looked forward too, as that was when such remedies were usually administered! In the spring, the blood would need cooling with treatments such as brimstone and treacle or nettle tea. Malt and cod liver oil and Epsom salts were regularly administered, as were senna pods to "regulate the bowels"!
Quack doctors plied their trade at Fairs and the weekly markets, and in Banbury, Oxfordshire, a boy at that time remembered that a Mr T J Norton, a "Botanic Electric Practitioner", was "primarily a herbalist, selling such things as juniper berries, ginger and cough mixtures, but he also tried to cure people of various complaints by electric shock treatment."
Home remedies were the main treatment for illness. Earache was often treated by binding half a cooked onion against the affected ear, or placing a (smaller) cooked shallot in it - a measure which appears to have worked. In my own household, a local herbal Dr (qualified) advised a neighbour to use the leaves of Navelwort, steeped in a little boiling water and then ground with a pestle and mortar, as an effective earache treatment. I tried this firstly on myself and then on the children and found it to be successful, though whether I would have had the nerve to take them to the official Dr afterwards, with green inner ears, was never put to the test!
For mumps, goose oil and flannel was used and for a chest cold, the patient would have a shield-shaped piece of brown paper placed on the chest and spread with hot tallow, which was left in place until the cold and cough disappeared. Onion gruel was a remedy for sore throats and coughs and mistletoe berries considered a "shure cure for the Hoping (Whooping) Cough". In East Anglia, a fried mouse was considered the only cure for Whooping Cough - even up until the 1920s! Horehound mixed with honey was also a sovereign remedy for sore throats and chesty colds (you can still buy Horehound tablets in some sweet shops - the one in Lyndhurst I visited last year stock it). Camomile tea was taken "to ward off colds, soothe the nerves and as a general tonic." Celendines were said to cure "weak eyes", a fast-bleeding cut could be staunched by a handful of cobwebs (I have found this in stable books too for helping ease a wound on a horse), but if you were out in the fields, then the best thing was to find a horse and rub the cut on it - presumably the scurf aided the clotting. Treatment for diarrhoea was acorns - dried and grated and the powder taken as necessary.
To be continued . . .