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 . . .


Preseli Mags said...

I found this blog and the previous one about cottages totally fascinating. I think we're so lucky these days - to think I was worried about my children's vaccinations when they were babies. The alternative was so much worse.

I once worked with a really old fashioned groom who told me about the cobwebs for wounds thing. He said they had a young horse with a terrible injury and the vet couldn't come out (they might have been snowed in, memory fails me on that point). Anyway he filled his flat cap with cobwebs from the haybarn and they bandaged them onto the wound. The horse (of course) made a miraculous recovery without even the faintest scar. Fortunately it's something I have never had to resort to!

See you later, Mags.

Arlene Grimm said...

My grandmother lost two of her little girls to diptheria in the 1930s...my father almost died at the same time. So when my kids would get their Diptheria vaccinations, I would just remember those two little girls. Like you Jennie, I cannot imagine losing one child much less several.

Posh And Trendy Back to Basics said...

I wasn't quite born in the dark ages but my mother was and she use to tell me tales just like this.. about women breast feeding their children till they were school age to help prevent them from getting sick.. her father putting warm piss in her ear for ear ache.. my grandmother came here along with her husband and 6 children and lost all of them to the colera.
We just don't realize how lucky we are these day.

Goosey said...

Yes, the last two blogs have been fascinating and makes us realise how easy we have everything now.Hope you are well and looking ahead to spring.

LBP said...

We are so lucky today to live in a society with medical advances that have almost rid us of those dreaded diseases.

Just a note, I had mumps when my mother was pregnant with my sister. My mother got them and my sister was born with them!



Aunt Amelia's Attic said...

Totally fascinating. Makes you wonder how mankind survived.

And of course I remember Horehound drops or tablets. In fact, our {very old} drugstore may still carry them. :-)

Aunt Amelia
"So let us welcome peaceful evening in."
~~William Cowper, "The Winter Evening"

Wild Somerset Child said...

I discovered your blog last night and intend to sit down for a good read the moment I have a minute. It is fascinating - and I have added you to my list of favourite blogs.

GeraniumCat said...

I remember whooping cough being a very frightening thing, though the mouse would have made it even worse! When my son had it he was prescribed belladonna drops, a very old-fashioned remedy, I think, though they worked very fast.

Bovey Belle said...

Whilst I write to please myself, about things which fascinate me, it is always gratifying when they interest other people too.

WSChild - greetings and glad you'll be back. I do witter on a bit sometimes though!

Amelia - I have a feeling they taste blardy AWFUL! But I'm a big baby about anything that is GOOD for you!

Goosey - we're all over the Christmas cold now, though I still sound as if I have a 40 a day habit when I cough. Happy birding and roll on SPRING.

LPB - I had mumps when I was 34 and I don't recommend getting them that late, boy did I have a fat face but my darling beloved looked after me, fat chops and all!

Posh and Trendy - I have never heard of that cure for earache, only for Chilblains (but my daughter - who has chilblains) says NO WAY mum . . . I breast fed two of mine till 15mths and 18mths. The middle one delighted in BITING me so she got weaned early!

Arlene - how sad to read that. We take medicine for granted these days so much so that death is almost a stranger, especially where little ones are concerned.

Mags - lovely seeing you and B again today (and darling Itsy too of course). So the cobwebs really DO work (dust 'n' all). This sort of social history fascinates me - doing family history research started me properly off on the Victorian period, but anything about the countryside and history has always had appeal.