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.

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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.

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When I’m Sixty-four…commercial TV, that is.

Television is almost as old as radio, experiments beginning in the early 1900s. From September 1929, the BBC issued test transmissions “by the Baird process” daily at 11am and on 14 July 1930 sent out the first trial of a scripted play.Regular TV broadcasts in the London area began in 1936, only ceasing when war broke out, as it was feared the signal might act as a beacon for enemy aircraft. Normal service, to quote a common phrase, was resumed in 1946 with broadcasts now relayed across the nation. Of course, news and entertainment could always be had from the well-established wireless (radio) programmes.Before telly – Dad tunes in the trusty wireless in December 1939, wondering if the war will be over soon

The real boost to domestic TV came in 1953 when the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II became the first such occasion to be televised live. My parents were among those who rented a 12-inch set, mounted in a nice walnut-veneer cabinet. This would typically cost around 13s (65p) a week to rent, or about £65 to buy (over 2 months pay for many people). Most chose to rent, being cautious about the reliability of these early sets, not to mention their relatively high cost. By 1960, the same £65 would buy you a 21-inch set, complete with a set of legs.

Independent Television (ITV) made its debut in November 1955 in London and the Midlands, giving viewers two novel experiences – a choice of channels (wow) and TV advertising. The existing BBC programmes used a pair of frequencies, one for the video signal and one for audio, together known as Channel 2. Now, with a new set or by plugging in a ‘channel adaptor’, we had Channel 9 as well.

The new network consisted of four regional franchises, co-ordinated by Associated Rediffusion, who oversaw the relaying of programmes from one area to another. All the broadcasts, of either channel, were in monochrome only, using a 405-line screen scanning resolution (low definition by modern standards but actually quite good quality).

Manchester had to wait until Thursday, 3 May 1956 when Granada TV put out its first broadcast from the brand-new studios on Quay Street, via a regional transmitter at Winter Hill. This prompted another rush to acquire TV sets. My family had recently moved to New Moston from Salford so it gave them the excuse to upgrade to a 17-inch set, with a channel knob!Lying face down in front of the fire, chin on hands, I goggled up at the new set. To be honest, I can’t personally remember what was on, but newspaper reports said it was an introductory live show hosted by American presenter, Quentin Reynolds, who (it turned out) was blind drunk; only some timely ad-libbing by guest Arthur Askey saved the show. Fifteen minutes in brought the first advert (for chocolate) and a quip from Arthur, “don’t worry – it’s not all as bad as this!”

The new channel soon settled into a routine and, as well as a crop of H-shaped VHF aerials, spawned another magazine, the TV Times, launched in 1956 and quite separate from the Radio Times (founded in 1923). They cost 4d and 3d respectively.Covers of Radio Times and TV Times, both from 1956

Programmes on either channel were still very sparse, as a typical listing for Monday, 6 May 1956, shows:-

BBC

3:00pm Countrywise; 3:45pm Watch With Mother; 4:00pm Close Down; 5:00pm Childrens Programmes; 7:00pm News & Weather, with Newsreel and Highlight; 7:30pm Adventures of the Big Man; 8:00pm What’s My Line?; 8:30pm Panorama; 9:15pm Festival of British Popular Songs; 10:00pm News & Weather; 10:15pm Soviet Visit; 10:30pm Close Down

Granada

4:00pm Travelling Eye; 5:00pm Monday Club (Roy Rogers, Space Club and Sportspot); 5:55pm News; 6:00pm Close Down; 7:00pm News, then Count of Monte Cristo; 7:30pm I’ve Got a Secret; 8:00pm Seagulls Over Sorrento (play); 9:30pm Cross Current; 10:00pm Weather, then Liberace; 10:30pm Pub Corner; 10:45pm News; 11:00pm Close Down

“Watch With Mother” was my personal pre-school favourite. This 15-minute afternoon slot had a different theme each weekday. Monday was Picture Book, Tuesday Andy Pandy, Wednesday Bill and Ben, Thursday Rag, Tag and Bobtail, with The Woodentops on Friday. Who remembers Looby Loo, Little Weed and Spotty Dog? Ah, such innocence…Living room TV, 1960s style (photo by Steve Wilson)

In the mornings just a test card would be shown. After the last evening programme, the screen would gradually shrink to a small white dot, followed by blackness and an irritating whine, to remind viewers who may have nodded off to turn off their sets!

Now, we have 24-hour, high-definition colour and over 480 channels. Back on Christmas Day 1953, the first of the Queen’s afternoon speeches went on air. It is perhaps pertinent to reflect on this continued tradition and the huge changes in media technology that have come about during the reign of one monarch.