In preparation for an expected - and very much dreaded - move from Robinson Towers, I’ve started to excavate the voluminous ‘cupboard under the stairs’ which everyone seems to have and which, in my case, has turned out be a crammed and cluttered Narnia stuffed with ugly ornaments wrapped in newspaper, sundry useless knick-knacks, birch-twig Christmas lights, two left-foot Wellington boots, an elaborately beautiful candle-holder I didn’t even know I had and a sign that says Please Do Not Touch.

And that doesn’t include the two boxes of books for which, at some indeterminate time in the past, I decided I had no shelf-room.  They’re a very mixed bunch, too.  A Popular History of Sheffield rubbed shoulders (or spines) with A Dictionary Of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations as well as The Tramways  of Jarrow and South Shields and a biography of James Renforth (‘champion sculler of the world’).

(The Dictionary includes some truly magnificent entries.  I bet you can’t guess what a ‘mole-drainer’ does.  Or a ‘domifex’.  How about a ‘rubber-up’.  A ‘shuffler’ or a ‘blaxter’ or a ‘pavyler’.


Tucked away underneath The Lost Canals Of Leicestershire, and looking very old and neglected, was A Brief Treatise Of Various Ailments And Their Treatment By Nature’s Remedies.  Seriously.

Considering how big its title is, the book itself is disappointingly slim.  Slender, even.  It’s a kind of hard-backed pamphlet - from (I think) the 1890s - which offers recipes for cures for the various maladies which affected the general population of the time, from asthma and acne, via blackheads, constipation, dropsy, falling hair, lumbago and sore eyelids to ulcerated throat and worms.

And you don’t have to read very far to realise how much more fun it was to be ill in those days than it is now.  Nowadays, all most people have to do is visit a doctor, get a prescription, have it filled out, start taking the tablets and lie down.

In the 1890s, though, your first step would be to obtain a copy of A Brief Treatise Of Various Ailments And Their Treatment By Nature’s Remedies if you didn't already have one.  Having hobbled home from the bookshop, you’d have to look in the book’s index to find the remedy for whatever was wrong with you - assuming that you knew what it was.

Assuming that you knew that you were afflicted with, say, gout or dyspepsia, you’d then have to take a stout pair of scissors or a Stanley knife and launch yourself into the countryside or, at the very least, into the nearest public park, in order to gather the ingredients to make a tincture or lotion back home.

And the ingredients which the book suggests you should gather are one of the more esoteric aspects of the phenomenon.  Let’s say, for example, that you wake up one morning feeling all stiff and rheumaticky.  These are the ingredients which A Brief Treatise Of Various Ailments And Their Treatment By Nature’s Remedies suggests you assemble…

Burdock, yarrow, agrimony, bogbean and raspberry leaves.

It seems to me that most, or even all, of these would be unavailable during winter, when rheumatism is at its anecdotal worst.  And in any case, how many stiff-jointed sufferers can be expected to go wandering in the fields and hedgerows looking for agrimony and bogbean - or would even recognise it if they saw it?

If rheumatism deteriorated into sciatica, you’d be expected to go foraging yet again - this time for poplar bark, juniper berries, bayberry and ginger.  If you want a lotion instead, you’ll need some ‘spirits of hartshorn’, some ‘sweet oil‘ and a dash of ‘tincture of myrrh’.  (I’m inclined, here, to ask what myrrh actually is - and to ask why it’s spelt so strangely - but that would just needlessly overcomplicate matters.)

Helpfully, A Brief Treatise Of Various Ailments And Their Treatment By Nature’s Remedies tells you that sciatica ‘is sometimes tedious of cure’.  You can say that again.

My favourite recipe, though - and one which I intend to try whensoever the need arises - is for ‘kidney and bladder trouble’.  It demands half an ounce each of ‘parsley piert’, juniper, ‘dog’s grass’, ‘pellitory of the wall‘ and ‘clivers‘ -  a couple of which sound like diseases in their own right.  Pellitory of the wall?  Clivers?

At first, I took these to be misprints or even jokes.  After all, I reasoned, I’m 65 years old and have never heard of either of them.  (Or of ‘Queen’s delight‘ and ‘mazerion’, both of which are recommended for ‘blood disease’, whatever that might be.)

So, on your behalf - and to take my mind off my junk-clearing - I’ve done some investigating and the pictures on this posting are the result (although neither Google nor Wikipedia had any knowledge of ‘mazerion’).  Clivers turns out to be common-or-garden couch grass and at least we know what pellitory of the wall looks like.  All we need now is someone with kidney or bladder trouble and we’re set.

Anyway - back to the jungle under the stairs...
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1 comment:

Bentonbag said...

As you may know the Welsh for 'cupboards under the stairs' is 'cwch-dan-star': literally 'little crouchy place-under the-stairs' but with the advantage of being a lot shorter. I was brought up in a bungalow so we didn't have one. But our Welsh speaking neighbours did. Thus I've always know that bit of a house as the cwchdanstar and that is the word I always use for it. So much so that my Sheffield raised husband and our sons use the short Welsh term instead of the longer English one.
Gives guests and visiting workmen pause for thought.