Street Life: Your Very Good Health

1948 saw the launch of the NHS, but the concept of free medicine took a little time to get into the nation’s psyche. In the 1950s, ‘prevention’ continued to be the household watchword. Cod Liver Oil was common, but thankfully the custom of basting children in goose grease before sewing them into their vest for the winter had become obsolete.

Patent medicine manufacturers were relentless in their advertising of nostrums, which at best were little more than a placebo, and at worst contained some highly questionable ingredients. Nevertheless, they remained popular, even when prescription drugs came free.Grandad was asthmatic, so we knew all about ‘bad chests’ in our house. He accepted his NHS inhaler gratefully, but he continued to wear Thermogene next to the skin for luck. Pink in colour, Thermogene’s texture most resembled modern roof insulation, with a smell that was redolent of a chemical weapons establishment. But for those who were put off by its pong, there were always Do-do tablets. Also known as Chesteze, they contained caffeine and ephedrine to relieve breathlessness, wheezing and other symptoms of asthma.

Children have always caused alarm to parents with the onset of sudden and inexplicable symptoms. In our house, liquid Fever Cure, or Cooling Powders (both made by Fennings) were administered for a high temperature. And until a positive diagnosis was made, spots were painted with Calamine lotion. The cardboard ointment box of Fullers Earth came out for rashes, and drawing ointment (magnesium sulphate) was applied to splinters, boils or infected cuts. The preparation and application of Kaolin poultices was still being taught to St. John’s Ambulance cadets when I joined in 1959.

Back then, even the tiniest corner shop would find wall space for a display of small bottles and packets of patent remedies attached by elastic to a card. Cephos and Beechams powders or Little Liver Pills had their brand names in bold lettering, while the mysterious composition of the products was something a customer had to take on trust.Aspro were sold in a distinctive cellophane strip (the inspiration for bubble packs perhaps?). Many regarded them as superior, purely because of the brand name, but their ingredients were actually the same as generic aspirin tablets.

There were almost as many prudish euphemisms for constipation as there were for the WC. But whatever we called ‘it’, laxatives played a significant part in many people’s lives – especially those who had a dark, frosty yard to cross for a visit to the lav. The switch from brimstone and treacle or turkey rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum) to preparations freely available at corner shops began in the 19th century.

In the fifties, astute manufacturers used advertising to persuade modern mothers they should abandon the old fashioned Syrup of Figs for children’s weekly ‘dosing’. It was replaced by such products as Feen-a-mint which looked and tasted like Beech Nut chewing gum, and Ex-lax that might be passed off as chocolate to the gullible.

Some adults loyally stuck with their old-fashioned Senna pods, Cascara or Epsom salts to ensure ‘regularity’. The more susceptible to brand names transferred to Sedlitz powders, Shure Shield tablets or Beechams Pills – worth a guinea a box, according to the advert…

And then there were Bile Beans! Originally marketed as a cure for ‘biliousness’, they contained cascara, rhubarb, liquorice and menthol, rolled in powdered charcoal and coated in gelatine. Soon this apparently universal panacea was also claiming to cure headaches, piles and female weakness.Advertising drives would see men blitzing a neighbourhood with Bile Bean flyers containing testimonials from satisfied customers. One of the most extreme was from a mother who claimed she had been preparing her daughter’s grave clothes, just prior to said daughter’s recovery, due entirely to Bile beans!

The manufacturers also produced ‘give-aways’ of cookery and puzzle books, as well as sheet music for the Bile Bean March. In spite of their foul smell and questionable efficacy, Bile Beans continued to be sold until the mid-1980s.

A number of us have managed more than our allotted span of three score years and ten, despite the smearing, dosing and poulticing with medieval sounding concoctions we had to endure. Perhaps there is something to be said for the ‘old magic’ after all.

Related Stories

Street Life: Holly, Handel and QC Port

For me, Advent meant nativity plays, Father Christmas in his grotto, a church fair and the school Christmas party. But it also had its low points.

When choosing Christmas cards, mum read every single one to find the verse exactly suited to each recipient. I consider the amount of time spent standing at the card counter in Woolworth’s basement was borderline child abuse.

The place to be at Christmas was Lewis’s. In the fifties, the sales floors surrounded an atrium known as the dome. Throughout December it was strung with fabulous decorations that twinkled and swirled above the shoppers. Gazing up, enveloped in the scent from the Bromley lemon soaps, made it seem like wonderland.Queuing for Father Christmas was an annual ritual, but the cardboard and cotton wool grotto was something of a let down after that amazing dome. However, the ‘gift’ of a toy sweet shop, post office, or bus conductor’s set, was some consolation for that interminable wait.

Our girls school was small, but the nativity play we put on was not the usual tea-towel headgear and shaky rendering of Silent Night on the recorder. We pulled out all the stops – three performances on a proper stage, with girls playing male characters transformed by real wigs and beards. My debut role was as a page, but I gave up ‘the’ stage’ in favour of music when I was twelve.

The orchestra’s chief function was to accompany the choir; however the musicians were allowed their own moments of glory. I still recall the thrill of playing The March from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, as the 3 kings and their extensive entourage processed down the centre aisle.At home, twisted streamers, paper chains (homemade) and a few balloons constituted our decorations. For the ‘Christmas tree’, picture a piece of dowel stuck into a 6-inch diameter block of wood, painted red. Then imagine stiff, dark green bottle brush ‘branches’ in a shape something like a fir tree. The bare wire ends of the branches were once tipped with artificial berries, but they had long since disappeared. My job was to roll red plasticine into little balls and stick them onto the wire, to avoid anyone’s eye getting poked out.

The notoriously unreliable lights went on first, followed by tinsel, glass globes, chocolate decorations and candles in clip-on holders. My wish for a real Christmas tree came true when I got married, but I still have fond memories of that old bottle brush relic.

My sister and I raced to the doormat to collect the 4 or 5 deliveries of Christmas post per day. Mum’s rule was, cards could be opened and read but our totally uninterested father must be allowed to see them before they were put up on the picture rail. When the last card went up on Christmas Eve, the halls were deemed well and truly decked.

Certain food stuffs only appeared at Christmas. Nuts in their shells, russet apples and tangerines were displayed in the best fruit bowl. A small weekly amount paid into the grocer’s Christmas club provided luxuries such as a large tin of assorted biscuits, crystallised fruits and Roses lime juice. And in case of unexpected visitors, there was a tin of Old Oak ham on stand-by.Alcohol wasn’t routinely found in most homes, but at Christmas we pushed the boat out with a bottle of QC port and a sherry. By the end of the decade, Babycham had made an appearance, and one year we even had advocaat (ugh).

I recall our delight when the Co-op divi stretched to a beautiful, Christmassy country cottage. When the cotton wool snow-covered roof was lifted off, there were small presents and paper hats inside. Possibly it replaced the crackers which, along with festive paper serviettes, were all that distinguished the Christmas table from every other meal time.

With turkey now relatively cheap and plentiful, it’s difficult to imagine that in the fifties, there were families who had never tasted it. Generally our bird was a large capon with plenty of stuffing to make it last out the two day holiday. Fresh cream was unheard of, so pudding was served with hot custard.

Mince pies were baked at home, but the iced Christmas cake came from the local bakery.

On Christmas afternoon, the family gathered for cold meat tea at the grandparents. This was followed by games, with our perennial favourite being roulette. For ‘gaming chips’ we used the pennies and ha’pennies set aside for the gas meter or bus fares. Croupier granddad made sure nobody ever lost more than a few coppers before we were sent off to bed.

The country’s war debts had resulted in an export drive that kept goods in short supply on the home front. It wasn’t until the mid fifties that ‘luxury’ and consumer items began to appear in the shops again.

Thankfully you don’t miss what you’ve never had, so we youngsters were blissfully unaware there was any other way to celebrate Christmas than the one we knew.

Related Stories

Street Life: Remember, remember the 5th of November

If the 1605 plotters had made the attempt on the life of James I with a dagger, would it still be commemorated 400 years later?

Round our way, Halloween came a poor second to logging and ‘penny for the guy’. Enterprising lads shone torches into back yards and gardens, looking for discarded furniture and old wood. The occupant of the house would be approached and politely asked if they wanted it removing. Too curt a refusal could result in the ‘liberation’ of said article, along with a section of garden fence.

The brick back yard air-raid shelters had a flat roof that was ideal for keeping wood out of sight of rival loggers. An alarm system consisting of a string of strategically placed tin cans was supposed to alert one of the gang whose bedroom overlooked the back yard – a triumph of hope over experience if ever I heard one.My recall of actual bonfires in Moston is rather sketchy, but fireworks are another matter. Dad chose ours individually and I spent days sorting through the collection stored in the biscuit tin under my bed (what’s Health and Safety?).

Rip-raps were my favourite and, along with Snowstorms, Golden Rain and other tamer fireworks, cost about three halfpence (approximately half a decimal penny). Pin wheels, rockets and sparklers varied in size and were generally more expensive. Roman candles could cost as much as a shilling (5p each).

My specific bonfire memories come after our move to New Moston in 1956. Because of its close proximity to Failsworth and Chadderton, the Manchester ‘penny for the guy’ and Oldham’s ‘cob o’ coaling’ co-existed in New Moston. Collecting with a guy was a static activity while ‘cob ‘o coalers’ went door to door chanting…

“We’ve come a cob ‘o coaling, cob o’ coaling, cob ‘o’ coaling, we’ve come a cob o’ coaling for bonfire night.”

The sleeves and trouser legs of old clothes were tied with string and stuffed with screwed up newspaper. With a mask and hat on a pillow case head, you had your guy. My dad was allocated new uniform trousers once a year, so Guy Fawkes often met his doom wearing a third best pair of GPO issue pants with red piping down the seams.For reasons best known to city planners, our large back garden formed a cul-de-sac completely enclosed by those of all the neighbours. It was so far from the house, mum couldn’t chance hanging out washing if it looked like rain. The only way to reach ‘our back’ was via a long, narrow unmade path, snaking around 5 or 6 other gardens. The result of this anomaly was that from 1957 onwards, we hosted the street’s communal bonfire.

A couple of dads would be deputed to let the pooled fireworks off at a steady rate. Most adults brought themselves a kitchen chair to sit on but one memorable year, someone donated an old leather-cloth three piece suite. We took turns sitting on it until it was the only combustible item left. Then the furniture went onto the fire with Guy Fawkes sitting on top.There was always a plentiful supply of things to eat. If you took your own basin, you could help yourself from the large brown jugs of black peas seasoned with salt and vinegar. And there was no shortage of parkin and treacle toffee, both home-made and shop-bought. The obligatory sooty, half raw potatoes were fished out of the ashes, and an unspoken conspiracy proclaimed them delicious.

Trousers were not our family’s only contribution to the proceedings. Dad brewed ginger beer from one of those strange plants in vogue at the time. The bubbling demi-john had to be racked off regularly, and the larder soon filled up with various vintages that were universally vile. But judging by bonfire consumption rates, less discerning palates than mine appreciated it.

For some inexplicable reason, the sticks from rockets, spent firework cases and sparkler wires held a strange fascination for the kids who dashed out to collect them on November 6th. 

The annual aftermath of bonfire night was a week of damp, evil smelling smog. Naphtha flares that can only have added to the pollution, burned at the junctions of major roads. It was black as night by half past two and children were sent home from school early. Buses crept along at a snail’s pace. And rather than waiting for the designated stop, passengers ‘decked off’ the open, rear platform at the nearest point to home.

It’s many years since I was at a communal street bonfire, but as a gesture toward the tradition, I shall be making black peas and parkin, as usual.

Related Stories