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Many wise people, healers and quacks who were quick to take your money

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 19, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • Old Oxo poster – the foil cubes were part of World War One soldiers' rations

  • Old Bilston Market Hall, pulled down in the 1970s

  • Old cartoon warning of the dangers of quack medicines

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BACK in the days before our National Health Service illness was a real worry. Seeing a doctor was expensive, so most working folk relied on old time cures, home-made remedies, or cheap, over the counter medicines.

And, if these didn't work, there were plenty of "wise" men and women, "healers" and "quacks" on hand to take your money!

Many housewives made tonics and home remedies from plants and store cupboard ingredients. Comfrey leaves could be bruised and applied to sprains and swellings. Likewise, the old trick of applying vinegar and brown paper to injuries was common.

Handfuls of nettles were washed and added to the water when cooking cabbage. This was said to aid longevity – and may have been of some benefit since nettles contain plenty of iron and vitamins A and C. Nettle tonics were something of a cure all, used to treat anaemia, blood impurities, poor circulation, indigestion and skin ailments.

The humble dandelion was another useful plant. The flowers were brewed into a broth to treat consumption – or Tuberculosis, and the stems crushed to extract the milky substance within, to treat warts. Other wart removal methods were more primitive, such as burying a scrap of meat in the ground.

As the meat rotted, your wart was supposed to wither away. Another trick was to pay some obliging – and presumably hard-up soul – a silver coin. Miraculously, the offending wart would then transfer to the recipient!

Anyone suffering with a sty or "powke" on the eye sought help from a married woman. If she was willing to remove her gold wedding ring, and rub it gently over the afflicted eye, the sty would disappear. A more practical Black Country remedy for a sty was to bathe the eye with a decoction made from the herb, Eyebright or House Green, a herb that often grew on brew'us roofs.

Beetroot tonic was another time-honoured remedy for anaemia. Demerara sugar was sprinkled over slices of raw beetroot, which was covered and left for a couple of days. Then the liquid was strained off and mixed with a half pint of ale or stout to make it more palatable. The patient had to swallow a tablespoonful three times a day.

Expectant mothers swore by a brew known as "surfeit water". This could be bought from pubs and outdoors, or made at home by simmering a mix of cinnamon sticks, sugar, cloves, aniseed and water. The mixture was bottled and used to aid childbirth. Pregnant women also made infusions of raspberry leaves to be drunk throughout pregnancy, and to relieve labour pains.

If you had a bad cough, out came the goose fat, to be smeared liberally on to your chest and back.

Some folk swore by an old sock tied around their neck. Others drank a home-made cough mixture made from elderberries, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, water – and chillies! A tablespoonful in hot water was said to do the trick.

Alongside the home-made remedies, our fore bears relied on old recipes for "invalid food". In those days it was a case of DIY medication and nutrition. Whatever your station in life, there were special recipes for nursing patients back to health. Those higher up the social scale could afford to take longer to convalesce and there were countless manuals offering advice on what to serve and how best to serve it.

Better-off housewives were advised to present the food so it excited the interest of the patient, using pretty china with a small vase of flowers on the tray.

Beef tea was thought to be especially strengthening for patients. Home-made versions were easy: half a pound of stewing beef and half a pint of water stewed and the liquid strained off ready for serving. But it did take about four hours to make. Quick to see the potential, various food manufacturers began producing ready-made versions. Bovril appeared in 1870, made originally as a nourishing drink for soldiers.

Marketed as "the most perfect form of nourishment at present known", Bovril could be enjoyed as a sandwich spread, on toast and as a hot drink. Another slogan proclaimed: "Bovril is strength, Bovril is powerful and invigorating." In 1899 Oxo appeared. Cheaper than Bovril, its sales were boosted further when Oxo Fluid Beef was given to athletes in the 1908 London Olympics. The familiar foil-wrapped cubes appeared in 1910 and were included in First World War soldiers' rations.

In earlier times most communities had a range of characters who made a living from selling charms, pills and potions, purporting to cure all manner of ills. To us they appear outlandish, bizarre or even dangerous. Yet for many folk, they were all they could afford.

In early 19th century Wolverhampton, a well-known "wise" woman, sold such cures from the yard of the Hen and Chickens pub in Dudley Street.

According to one rather sceptical witness: "She did a roaring trade in charming warts, painting black eyes and prescribing for babies with the chin-cough. One recipe for the latter was wearing a peppercorn necklace, accompanied by the recital of some ignorant jargon. For very bad cases a bit of hair was cut off the cross on a donkey's neck; or drinking water in which a red hot cinder had been cooled; were considered efficacious."

There were also countless quacks selling their so-called remedies at markets across our region. In The Folklore of the Black Country author Roy Palmer includes an account by Walter White, recalling a visit to Walsall market in 1860. Walter was horrified by the number of quack doctors peddling their gruesome wares.

"Strangest of all was the sight of perhaps a dozen stalls scattered among the others, exhibiting an array of glass jars and bottles, some filled with bright yellow liquid, some with various kinds of worms, some with a green substance looking like a preparation of cabbage leaves, some with bullets.

"By each stood a glib-tongued orator, vociferating the virtues of his vegetable medicines, extolling the efficacy of his pills (which I had taken for bullets) and pointing to the ghastly exhibition of worms as the consequence of neglect of his warnings and recommendations."

Walsall was not alone in having quack medicine sellers. In those days most markets had their fair share. Using the pseudonym, Doctor Dick, Richard Hill plied his trade in Bilston market. Originally an ironworker Dick had a talent for catchy slogans, selling his services with this little jingle:

I'm Doctor Dick who cures you quick,

I've got a pill for every ill.

Dick did a roaring trade, claiming to have remedies for everything, including mending wooden legs. Sadly for him things started to go pear-shaped when he began including the initials MD after his name.

In court he insisted the letters stood for the phrase "money down" and that he was not passing himself off, fraudulently, as a real medical doctor. Dick could always charm a captive audience – but on this occasion the magistrate failed to respond to his wit.

Dick's arch rival in quackery was a character called "Ode Texas", who also frequented Bilston market. Dressed in deerskin coat, Stetson hat, and faking a Texan drawl, Ode Texas (real name Nathaniel Caitlin) sold his quack medicines from a painted wagon bearing the slogan: "Dr. Caitlin, vendor of secret Indian Cures for All Ailments."

His specialities included curing anything from gout to a fractured skull. Dismissing such claims, Doctor Dick retorted that the closest his rival, Ode Texas had been to a red-skin - was a tomato! Whether or not Ode Tex took this to heart we will never know. But, eventually, he hung up his Stetson and opened a herbal shop in Bilston High Street.

What characters! If you have any stories about old cures or characters, we'd love to hear them. Write to us at The Black Country Bugle, Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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