Sussex folk had a variety of faith cures for everyday ailments before the introduction of the National Health Service. Some were more curious than others

Great British Life: Eating frogs to relieve consumptionEating frogs to relieve consumption (Image: Archant)

Before the introduction of the National Health Service in 1945, people with everyday ailments such as a headache, sore throat, lumbago or rheumatism invariably treated them using age-old remedies known as faith cures. Calling in a doctor was a costly affair, and although there were various charities and friendly societies who might help with medical bills, dealing with everyday ailments was often a matter of putting into practice the well-known Biblical quote, “heal thyself.”

Dozens of faith cures were recorded in Sussex over the years, many going back centuries and handed down from one generation to another. But they were more than a simple matter of belief; they often involved swallowing a revolting substance, wearing something strange at the source of the discomfort, or even performing a bizarre ritual to aid the healing process.

The whole tooth

A good example is a really ancient cure, recorded in the diary of Sussex landowner Richard Stapley, in the 1600s:

“To cure the whooping cough – get three field mice, flaw them, draw them, and roast one of them, and let the party afflicted eat it; dry the other two in the oven until they crumble to a powder, and put a little of this powder in what the patient drinks at night, and in the morning.”

An equally curious practice to alleviate toothache involved carrying around a splinter of wood from a hangman’s gibbet in a pocket or purse. This was also recommended for those suffering from fits. Accordingly, after public executions, which were common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there would be a rush by people in the crowd to pick slithers of wood off the scaffold.

Carrying the first new potato of the season “on the person”, until it hardened was always said to prevent rheumatism. A few beans might be carried in a similar way, or even a lump of camphor. One old Sussex ploughman of the early 1900s put his faith in turpentine to prevent rheumatism. He’d pour a whole bottleful into his trouser pockets, so it seeped through and gradually covered his legs. Equally weird was a Mayfield man who swallowed live frogs to avoid consumption. A policeman caught them for him and was present when they were devoured. The man lived to be 80!

Seeing red

A contributor to the Sussex County Magazine of May 1928, described the widespread use of red flannel as a cure-all for a great many ailments:

There was once a deep rooted faith in red flannel possessing some virtue in the treatment of colds and similar ailments. A mess of boiled onions and the head wrapped in mother’s or grandmother’s red flannel petticoat was a common country cure for a cold in the head. A piece of red flannel around the neck was the palliative of a sore throat. Red flannel chest protectors were fashionable too, and even chemists’ shops stocked them. A girdle of red flannel or a skein of red silk was the remedy for lumbago. Some years ago I was at a meet of hounds and complained to a friend of cramp in the toes. A Sussex whipper-in overheard the remark, and whispered, “Get a piece of red flannel, fold it seven times, draw it between the toes two or three times, and you’ll never have cramp in the toes again.”

Quiet as a mouse

Other cures included tightly grasping some scraped horseradish to relieve a headache, tying a hazel twig to the throat for diphtheria, and eating slugs to treat tuberculosis. Slugs were also used to cure whitlows (painful hand abscesses) by placing a large slug on a piece of clean rag and stabbing it all over with a needle. The offending hand was then wrapped in the rag. Whether the punctured slug was still in there wasn’t made clear!

Mice were still being recommended as faith cures during the inter-war years. Another piece from the Sussex County Magazine of May 1935 gave this example, presumably for headache, although the result wasn’t quite what was intended:

“Some years ago a Sussex doctor directed the mother of a boy to put some mice in a bag and tie it on to the boy’s forehead. When next day, the doctor enquired after his patient, the mother replied, ‘Oh, Tommy’s better, but the mice are dead!’”

Keep the faith

There was even, it seems, a faith cure for death itself. The Rev. Henry Hoper, vicar of St Nicolas’ Church, Portslade from 1815 to 1858, recorded an unbelievable ritual that took place in his parish. It explained how someone that was about to die could be brought back to life:

“Singular superstition exists and has been entertained within the memory of man, namely that a dying person can be recovered if thrice carried round, and thrice bumped against a thorn of great antiquity, which stands on the downs, ever ready to dispense its magic power to all believers. A few years ago a medical attendant gave up all hopes of his patient. The Goodies (elderly widows) from the village obtained the Doctor’s and sick man’s consent to restore him to health, and having carried him round the tree, bumped the dying man and had the mortification of carrying him back a corpse, much to the astonishment at the ill success of their specific.”

All these faith cures - many of which seem amusing now - were once believed in totally by Sussex folk and no-one thought them particularly weird or unconventional. One or two have even persisted through to modern times. So we can only assume that some of them did actually work. Or was it in actual fact just mind over matter?



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