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Keeping Us Healthy

Find out how the people of The Black Country kept healthy in this episode...

In this episode we take a look into the world of medicines – from home made and herbal remedies to the Chemists shops of the 20th century.

Medicine in Victorian Times

If you were poor, seeing a doctor would be difficult because you would have to pay.  Even a charge of six pence would be more than many could afford ad medicines would have been expensive too.

As a result herbal remedies were popular in Victorian times, not least as they could be prepared at home, and were relatively cheap. 

Some herbal remedies popular in Victorian Times

Bee balm – an antiseptic, and a treatment for colds and to help people get to sleep.  Steam inhalation was used for sore throats.

Catmint – not just for cats – the Victorians drank it as a herbal infusion, and it was thought to help babies with colic.

Chamomile – with its soothing properties and cheerful white daisy-like flowers with their yellow centres is much-loved when used in tea. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and helps to reduce stress. 

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Lavender – used as an antiseptic to help get rid of spots and to treat headaches and depression.  It was a popular ingredient in some recipes too and used to scent perfumes and soap.

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Dill – thought to help digestive health and relieve ailments such as insomnia, hiccups, and even flatulence. They also believed it relieved arthritis.

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Feverfew – Used by Victorians to treat headaches, arthritis and fever.

Lambs ears – not from the animal – this is the name of a herb! It was used by Victorians for insect stings and as a field dressing and poultice to make an effective bandage when clean fabric was unavailable.

Lemon balm – a facial cleanser for people suffering from acne and was also used to stop the growth of bacteria and viruses. Used in tea, it is said to have a mildly sedative effect and ladies would put leaves into their handkerchiefs to sniff to repel odours.

Mint –  used for insect bites and to revive people who had fainted. It was also used to strengthen gums, to help gout, to “clean foul ulcers” and to treat whooping cough. Commonly used for cases of sickness and stomach problems.

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Rosemary – used in cooking and as a remedy for ailments such as eczema and arthritis. It was also used as a hair rinse for dandruff, as an air freshener, and was even thought to repel rodents.

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Sage – Hugely popular in the 19th century, sage was used to treat sore throats. It was also used to treat dandruff.

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So – what about hospitals?

Whilst there were hospitals, the rich would do anything to avoid going to one, preferring to use a private doctor.  Many hospitals were run as charities by wealthy benefactors and patients would be assessed to see if they were indeed poor enough to be permitted, and the poorer patients would be housed separately to those with more money.

In 1911 a new system called National Insurance was set up where workers paid out of their wages and in return could get some medical help, but it wasn’t until 1948 with the arrival of the National Health Service that healthcare would be free for everyone, “from the cradle to the grave”, and at the point of need.

Some industries and companies had schemes where workers could pay into a scheme that would help them get medical treatment but it wouldn’t have been for all, and might not have included the workers’ families.

Emile Do Chemist Shop

Chemists shops have been around for over a hundred years and we visit the one in our story in 1929 – a time when herbal remedies were still popular and trusted, although the chemist would be stocking a greater range of other medicines, many that he would have made himself.  Not ALL of them would have been terribly effective, with ingredients like arsenic, which is a poison!

Before the formation of the National Health Service in 1948, local chemists’ shops like Doo’s played a central role in the local community, offering free medical advice; babies and diabetics were weighed weekly at the shop, and administering basic first aid. Emile Doo made his own remedies such as ‘Doo’s Infant Preservative’ and also undertook veterinary work and dentistry in the back room.

About the Building

The building housing Doo’s Chemist’s Shop is a replica of the shop owned by Harold Emile Doo at 358 Halesowen Road, Netherton.

The original building was built in 1886 and was originally a tailor’s shop. James Emile Doo began business in Netherton in 1882 and his son, Harold Emile Doo, took over having qualified as a pharmacist in c. 1918. In 1929 he moved the premises across the road to Number 358 and from there he carried out his business until ill health forced his retirement in May 1968. The shop lay untouched until his death two years later and then in 1973 the fittings and stock were donated to the Museum.

Activity – Make a Victorian herbal remedy for sore throats

This simple recipe makes a soothing drink to ease a sore throat – why not give it a try?  Make sure you have an adult’s permission and help – especially when pouring hot water.

In a mug place a tablespoon of honey and add a tablespoon of lemon juice.  Carefully top up with hot water and stir to dissolve the honey.

There’s a version that was popular in Victorian times which was to replace the lemon with cider vinegar – it makes a slightly more sour drink but vinegar has antiseptic qualities (antiseptic means it kills germs), so it may really help!

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Adventures Through Time is made with support from The Black Country Living Museum

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Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

More From Adventures Through Time