Many of the pages on this website bear reference to the one-time remoteness of Dartmoor and the problems this caused when sickness visited a household. The poverty of many of the moor folk often meant that they could not afford proper medical attention and had to resort to traditional cures and remedies along with the attentions of the local hedge witch. But what happened when the illness was too severe for these quack remedies? Sadly there was only too often one inevitable outcome – death. Two such diseases where consumption and croup or pulmonary tuberculosis and laryngotracheitis as they are known today. Luckily both are now curable but in the past this was not always the case as the infant mortality rates clearly show. Obviously these problems were not exclusive to Dartmoor, at the time it would have been a nationwide concern with the tragedy just as heartfelt in other regions. In the early 1800s the following account shows what effect consumption and croup had on a moorland village, it starts with the village sextant:
“Stopping in his sad work of grave-digging one day, and resting on his spade, he looked up in my face and said, “Ah, it’s a wisht job I’m after; I live to see them all drop off; I dandled her (the young woman for whom he was preparing the grave) on my knee years agone. I didn’t think she’d agone afore me! And the merrie little chap too! Well, Well, we bide our time.”
It was truly a melancholy funeral, that to which he alluded: a sister and brother were next day bourne side by side to their last earthly home.
The young woman was the victim of a lingering consumption; at first the hectic spot was on her cheek, but she still went about and sang as merrily as a lark, ay, and as sweetly too; slowly she faded; the buoyant step grew heavier and heavier, the breath became more laboured; by and bye we saw her no more in the village; her place was vacant in church, and her sweet voice was missed in the psalms; we found that she could only crawl to the door on a sunny day; the active household duties had long been laid aside, but the needle was still plied busily, and the lace cushions showed signs of her industry. Gradually these, too, failed, and then she read more and thought more of that world to which she knew she was hastening. She suffered terribly, but her patience never forsook her; she always spoke of death with a sweet smile on her face, and often said, “Why do you cry, mother? would you keep me from Heaven?” To one of her brothers she was devotedly attached – a little being who was the favourite and plaything of the whole village; a very Pickle, whose merry, roguish ways, won pardon for all sorts of misdemeanours. The poor girl often looked at him with tears in her eyes, and then, as if speaking to herself would say, “I can leave them all – yes, all – but him; would that I might take him where I am going.” And so it was ordained. One Sunday night we were awakened by the news that the poor little fellow was seized with the croup, and lay at the last gasp; human skill was unavailing, and before the morning he was a corpse.
When his sister was told of it, she fervently blessed God, and said, “Now, I shall die in piece; I shall soon follow him; do not toll the bell, until it sounds the knell for us both.” Before noon, her gentle spirit was freed from its suffering tenement. It was no wonder that the old sexton should moralize, albeit, he was little used to do so, as he dug that deep grave.
The event created deep sympathy, and the funeral was attended by a numerous tribe of relations and friends. It was a sight to move the hardest heart, as the funeral train quitted the farm-house and wound slowly up the village; we gazes on them with eyes dimmed with tears. It was the custom, that when a young girl dies, her coffin should be carried to the grave by six young men; and that six maidens should bear the body of a young man; thus it was on the present occasion. The little boy’s coffin suspended on ropes was carried by six of his female cousins, who held the ropes so as just to lift the coffin from the ground. In like manner, the poor sister’s body was bourne by six young men, The parents followed; brothers, sisters, and a long train of mourners succeeded.”
Just suppose a child went down with consumption and there was no money available to pay for proper medical attention, what specific cures were available to those unfortunate folk? Here are but a few so-called tried and tested cures:
1) Place a handful of Lungwort into a quart of boiling water and drink twice a day, if honey is added to the concoction then this is also very beneficial against whooping cough (1831).
2) “with frequent supplies, in moderate quantities, of nourishing diet and wine; a glass of good Sherry or Madeira in the forenoon, with an egg, another glass of wine after dinner, fresh meat for dinner, some nourishing food for supper, such as sago, or boiled milk, according to the taste and digestive powers of the patient“, (1840). Somehow I don’t think this type of cure would have been feasible for most moor folk.
3) “One favourite cure for consumption was what was called snail pottage. This was a peck of garden shell snails washed in small beer and fried in a frying pan, shells and all, with a quart of earth worms, and mingled with abundance of strong ale, herbs, spices, and drugs“, (1848). This sounds as if it came straight from the spell book of some hedge witch or weird sister.
4) “I have a great opinion of the value of cod liver oil in pulmonary consumption. I have witnessed extraordinary results from it, when the system has been in a fit state for its exhibition. When given internally, the dose at first should be very minute, and increased but gradually, or the stomach will reject it. When there is a disposition to nausea, hydrocyanic acid or creosote should be combined with it“, (1855).