Old Leeds Cold Cures

Cough pills advert from the Leeds Mercury, November 1917
Cough pills advert from the Leeds Mercury, November 1917

When coughs and colds sweep the offices of The Secret Library – as they do around the beginning of every winter – it’s not a pretty sight. But we are, after all, a hardy bunch, accustomed to the draughts and drips of a 130-year-old building, so we soldier on. And one of our most invaluable weapons in the defence against disease is the Leeds Household Book of 1917.

If you’ve ever fancied a knock-up supper of Oyster Custard, Boiled Cheese or Spiff Pudding, then this is the book for you. Indeed, it’s also for you if you’ve ever wondered what Spiff Pudding actually is. But where the volume really comes into its own is in its plethora of easy home remedies for illnesses of all kinds – all collected by editor Blanche L. Leigh.

Leigh seems to have been quite the Edwardian domestic goddess, if this and her other work, the Souvenir Cookery Book of 1905, are anything to go by. We found it slightly disappointing, then, to discover from the 1911 census that she actually employed a housemaid:

Blanche L. Leigh on the 1911 census
Blanche L. Leigh on the 1911 census

Incidentally, her husband here, the dental surgeon Percival Tookey Leigh, went on to become Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1935, and you can see his portrait in the Leeds Civic Collection. If you thought his middle name was unusual, Blanche’s middle initial is revealed to stand for ‘Legal’. (We checked it against her burial record from St Mark’s Church in Woodhouse and, yep, it really does say that.)

Anyway, going back to her Household Book, let’s turn straight to the aforementioned ‘Toilet and Medical Remedies’ section, from which we’ve extracted the following home treatments for the common cold. Do please note that they’re NOT offered here as a substitute for proper medical advice – in the same way that oyster custard will never be a substitute for actual food – and we’ve put each cure to the test so that you don’t need to.

REMEDY #1: Glass of hot rum and milk, with a piece of butter, when retiring. (Suggested by Mr. W. Bell of Mexborough)

EFFECTIVENESS: We’re quite partial to a cocktail or two before bed anyway, so this particular tonic didn’t come as much of a stretch. In fact, we’re pretty sure we once ordered it by mistake at a top Leeds nightspot, where it went by the name of a Cow From Hell. In reality, it’s more like an Eggnog Without The Egg, but it did take our minds off our sore throats nicely until we fell asleep. At least until we woke up an hour later with a forgotten lump of melted butter stuck to our pyjamas. 7/10.

REMEDY #2: One teaspoon bi-carbonate of soda to ½ pint of boiling water; when cold add 2 teaspoons of sal-volatile.

DOSE: Half a wine glass every half hour for two hours, then every four hours. (Suggested by Mrs. Turton of Chapeltown)

EFFECTIVENESS: Sal-volatile is another name for smelling salts – a common household item in 1917 that has since fallen out of favour. We’re not sure drinking the stuff is a good idea, especially at regular intervals. Nevertheless, we liked the fact that this elixir was measured out by the wine glass because it seemed a waste not to open a bottle of red at the same time, just to help it go down. Did it work? Well, four hours later, we couldn’t really remember. 5/10.

REMEDY #3: Mix 3 gills of water with 4 oz. mustard. Put into this a piece of flannel the size required, and let it simmer half an hour, or until it has absorbed the mustard. Then apply the flannel warm to throat or chest. This gives quick relief and does not blister the skin. (Suggested by Mr. Wooley of Harehills)

EFFECTIVENESS: Whilst we agree this treatment doesn’t blister the skin, we feel it only fair to point out that it does tend to leave it the colour of stale omelette. And, unless you have a fancy dress party to go to, having the complexion of Homer Simpson isn’t our idea of a healthy glow. Our advice: stick with the barking cough. 4/10.

For 502 more pearls of wisdom, the Leeds Household Book is available to consult in the Local and Family History Library at shelf mark L 641.5 L53.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Victorian Professions Blog and commented:
    Thanks for this guest reblog go to the author Ross Horsley who is the Librarian Manager in the Local and Family History Library and Information Service (Leeds City Council).
    The Library’s excellent blog, ‘The Secret Library’, can be found here: http://secretlibraryleeds.net

    Blanche L. Leigh was the wife of one of our professional grandsons, Percival Leigh (dentist).

    Dr. Alison Kay

    1. We’re thrilled to be featured, Alison. Thanks again!

  2. Abigail Whitbread says:

    Blanche Leigh was a relative (a cousin to my great-grandmother) and her middle name was Legat (pronounced Leggert) – I can upload some documents if you’re interested in her and/or Sir Percival.

    1. Hi Abigail, many thanks for the info. If you do want to get in touch at any point, you can contact us at: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk. Thanks!

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