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Cockermouth Post Article October 2011

As we move into Autumn, the season of coughs and colds and assorted ailments is upon us. Back in 1897, Dr John Robertson, the town’s Medical Officer of Health, noted in his annual report the large number of cases of scarlet fever amongst children in Cockermouth, as well as cases of diphtheria and various respiratory complaints. People had to pay for the services of a doctor and, where people could not afford this, folk cures were tried instead. Frank Carruthers (‘Whiteoak’) has described some of these treatments for whooping cough:

“Take the child to a tannery and hold it over a tanning pit as the hides are being turned over, or take it to some coke ovens and allow it to inhale some of the fumes …”

Another treatment involved shaving the child’s head and hanging the hair in a bush or tree; if the hair was taken away by birds, then the infection would go too. Many Cumbrian families kept a cake, baked on Good Friday, hanging in their kitchens to dry. If a child got whooping cough, then a piece of the cake would be ground up into a powder and given in a warm drink.

Back in the 17th century Cockermouth was affected by plague, and in 1647 191 burials were recorded at All Saints’, attributed to the Visitation of plague. Since the population of the town at that time was around 1,500, this was a sizeable proportion. Cholera (a water-borne disease) was a problem in the mid 19th century, with at least 50 people in the town dying from it in 1849.

In November 1900 a strange epidemic, which came to be known as Foot and Hand disease, appeared in Cumberland. Symptoms included swelling and hardening of the thick parts of the soles of the feet, with pain in the leg muscles, and the peeling of skin from both feet and hands. Eventually, after much head-scratching, it was discovered that the cause was arsenic poisoning. Dr McKerrow of Workington went down to Manchester to see the extent of the problem for himself. The source of the arsenic was discovered in samples of sugar used to brew beer in Manchester, and with the delivery of that beer to Cumberland and its consumption, the symptoms soon began to manifest themselves. Needless to say, people became very wary of where their beer came from, and Jenning’s brewery in Cockermouth, whose beer was unaffected, took full advantage of the situation to boost their sales.

Gloria Edwards

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