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Slugs and spuds: Victorian Manchester's strange homemade remedies
At a time when there was little real support for the sick outside hospital, working people in Manchester relied on some bizarre remedies
At a time when there was little real support for the sick outside hospital, working people in Victorian Manchester often relied on some bizarre homemade medicines.
The situation wasn’t helped by doctors who failed to explain diseases in a way their patients could understand – causing a range of madcap medical theories to pass through the streets of the slums.
“Doctors are credited with saying wonderful and highly improbably things to their poorer class of patients,” a Manchester slum missionary wrote in 1886.
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“For instance, a woman showed me a sickly-looking little boy, who had come from a stay in the country, as proof of the good the change had done to him.
“As I was evidently expected to say something, I remarked he looked pretty well. ‘Ah! He does that,’ the woman replied. ‘My word, wen the doctor see ‘im afore he went away he said he ‘and’t hardly a bit of lung in his body!’
“Gracious! And now he has them? ‘Lor’, yes – they’ve grow’d sin’ he has bin away’.”
Another woman who had a sick husband told the missionary the doctor had said that if he could only bring up his liver he would be alright again.
The same missionary, who penned a series of articles called Afternoons in the Manchester Slums anonymously as A Lady, described how some women had been forced to pin their hopes on recipes from “quacks or old wives”.
She described one Mancunian recipe for dealing with consumption, which went like this:
Water, 2 quarts
Spanish liquorice, 1/4lb
Senna leaves, 3oz
Garden slugs, 1lb
Method: Boil it all together for three hours, strain and bottle for use.
“I need not say the unhappy patient did not improve under this recipe,” the missionary wrote.
“Take another recipe for cod-liver oil,” she added. “One of my visitors, at the mission room, gave me in good faith the following recipe for making what she termed the ‘beautifullest cod-liver oil ever you did see’.
“I do not think she had experimented on the making of it herself, but had received it from a friend, and certainly she was under the impression it was practicable.
“Caterpillars and slugs, a good handful. Put in two quarts of water, shake it well and put in bottles lightly corked. Place on a dust heap for a month of five weeks. You will then have a cod-liver oil, that will do you much more good than the refined, clear sort sold at chemists.”
It had, the missionary said, the advantage at least of not being expensive.
“Another recipe for bronchitis is striking for its simplicity,” she added. “A slice of raw potato, strung around the neck and worn day and night, will ward off attacks of this tiresome complaint.”
The effect on people’s health of being forced to rely on such remedies can only be imagined at.
The real problem though was that in many cases such remedies were the only way people could try to heal themselves when they were unable to afford proper medicines, as the missionary woman understood.
“Although we teach these women that if they bring up their infants on the bottle, milk is the only food they they should give, till the teeth appear, where are the very poor to get it from?” she wrote.
“How can they afford the 4d or 6d a day to buy the milk a child should have?
“It seems to me in some cases that I have met with, when I have advocated this doctrine to a poor woman with a husband out of work, and nine or ten dirty clamorous children all around her, that I was much in the same position as the physician who orders his poor class patients chickens and port wine.”
Don’t try this at home!
I suppose this newsletter should have come with a disclaimer saying: “Don’t try this at home”.
But I’m sure — well, I hope anyway — that no-one will be going out of their way to try a slug and senna leaf cocktail this weekend.
I heard about Manchester slug remedies a few years ago at a talk where a woman told the audience her grandmother used to make them.
I’d wondered since then if it was just one of those urban myths, but the missionary’s article which I came across recently while doing some research proves it was true.
Have you heard of similar recipes?
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