Long before the NHS was founded, many households in 18th and 19th century Britain relied on home remedies to help them cope with various ailments. Healthcare was less accessible, especially for the poorer sectors of society and quack doctors would take advantage of this fact, often lying in wait to scam anyone who came to them in desperation. Home remedies on the other hand were a much less expensive, safer alternative, and families would often rely on them to cope with numerous ills. The ingredients needed for some of these remedies such as oil and laudanum, would have been readily available and could be bought over a counter quite easily. Laudanum, which was less regulated at the time, was often used to numb the pain of ailments such as toothache. Other plant based ingredients, especially herbs could be grown at home in a garden. All that would be needed is a pot of boiling water to make these ingredients safe for human consumption.
Not much is known about Hannah Neal (nee Burton) and her son John, but from information that is available it appears that Hannah was born in 1783 and died in 1855. It is believed that her son John (1816-1859) continued his mother’s book on home remedies as his handwriting has been spotted in parts of the book (NRO, MC 3291, 1067×1). As medical knowledge would been limited, they probably would have had to conduct various experiments with these remedies to test their effectiveness. Some food recipes are included in the book too such as ginger pop and lemonade. The recipe included for jugged hare contains tips on how to create the perfect garnish for it and how to boil the meat properly. The dish was largely popularised in Britain by the work of Hannah Glasse in ‘The Art of Cookery’, one of the most influential cookbooks in the 18th century. Pudding recipes are included too, such as various cakes and tarts, a rather simple variety included are Shrewsbury cakes, a small dough cake. It is recommended they are baked in a stone oven.
Lavender is listed as an ingredient in an antidote to help ease fever. In the 19th century lavender was often regarded as a therapeutic property, much of the time it was kept in little bags under pillows to create a sweet aroma, creating a calming effect, it could also help clear nasal passages. Also mentioned is sage, throughout history it was one of the most commonly used herbs in Britain and was also regarded as having positive effects. Beeswax is one of the more commonly used ingredients, likely because it is effective when it comes to skin treatment and is even today still popular in cosmetic products such as hand cream.
In a cough remedy liquorice is mentioned, which is ironic as it was well known for being added to tobacco to enhance flavour. While it is generally associated with sweets that children tend to avoid, it was commonly used in medicine. A type of resin called Dragon’s blood is one of the ingredients for making a plaster. It is known for being effective at stopping bleeding and for healing wounds. In the 19th century when superstition was rife it was regarded as a good omen by various cultures around the world. In American voodoo for instance, it was said to ward off ‘negative energy’ and it is still acknowledged for its healing properties.
Various alcohols such as wine and brandy are used often for various ailments and white wine vinegar is even recommended to cure a horse of a cold. Honey is also commonly mentioned, today it is regarded as a natural painkiller and can soothe sore throats. A medicine recommended for a consumptive horse advises that the remedy should be administered with 2 spoonfuls of it. A similar method is mentioned in curing the cold of a horse, most likely to create a more tolerable taste. It can also be seen in a remedy for green sickness, a condition in which red blood cells appear paler than normal.
One interesting remedy mentioned is a ‘certain cure’ to be used after being bitten by a mad dog. It involves the powder of crab’s claws and periwinkle being boiled in milk. It is recommended that a dose or two is taken for a period of 8 days after being bitten. Recipes for rabies have varied throughout history. Another guide for a cure appeared in an early 18th century guide (NRO, COL 5/19), this time involving the use of rue leaves, treacle and garlic among other things which would have been boiled in a strong ale, and recommends a dose being taken for 9 days after receiving a bite. According to a report written after the recipe, the solution allegedly did work on a number of people attacked by a mad dog in Lincolnshire.
In 1742 Dr. Mead wrote letters for various treatments of mad dog bites depending on who was bitten (NRO, HMN 4/8/1-2). The general solution involves bleeding first, a common medical practise at the time when the concept of the four humours was still taken seriously, before taking the powder in half a pint of warm milk. It is then recommended that for the first month since the bite, the patient spends around three minutes under cold water covering the head and ears. For a dog, the solution involves something similar to hiding a pill in peanut butter as it recommends that the powder is rolled into balls with some fresh butter. The dog should then be made to swim for a quarter of an hour every morning for a month. Both cases advise that the wound should be kept open and dressed with ungulntum basilicum mixed with some red precipitate. The powder itself is made using the prime ingredient, fire dried lichen. In his third entry Mead highlights a very specific case which gives advice on how to treat madness in a ‘Christian from China’, Mead claims that his method, a recipe containing local and artificial cinnabar, can cure ‘those that even bark like a dog’. According to Mead, this unique recipe came from the missionaries of Tonquin where dog bites were apparently a regular occurrence.
Now that basic healthcare is free for all, homemade remedies, while they are still being used today are not as common as they once were, probably because they are not needed as much, although they remain relatively popular in countries that still charge for healthcare like the U.S. In the U.K. homemade remedies are generally for the most minor of ailments, like the common cold, and serve more of a therapeutic purpose.
Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Rebecca Hanley