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Stalbridge before the National Health Service

Hilary Townsend remembers the days of the Panel Patients and home remedies

Dr H H Moyle was a much-respected doctor in the Stalbridge area from before the First World War until after the Second.

Robert Boyle the scientist has been perhaps the most famous resident of Stalbridge. His early experiments on the effects of heat, fire, ice and water on common elements were started in his Stalbridge laboratory. As a result, his acute observations challenged accepted 17th-century scientific judgements and folk remedies.

Folk remedies, herbs and simples, sometimes mixed up with witchcraft, remained in the treatment of illness, there being nothing else available. Some folk remedies lasted a long time. Rev. W S Swayne, a young curate in Stalbridge in the 1880s, had to persuade a mother not to give her young baby cheap sherry wine; the mother had inherited a belief that to do so would rid the child of a birth mark.

Dr Moyle and his family lived in the Georgian house on the left.  His consulting room was to the right of the white door, with his dispensary beyond – he mixed a lot of his own medicines.

It was well into the 19th century before the connection was grasped between infectious disease and bad drains and contaminated water, after which the population expanded dramatically. Lloyd George’s 1912 National Insurance Act compelled basic insurance for workers and many bread-winners retained loyalty to Friendly Societies to support them further. These – such as Oddfellows and Foresters – in return for modest contributions provided members with some financial help in unemployment or sickness.

My family was enrolled for generations in the Independent Order of Rechabites, a teetotal Friendly Society. My father, well aware of the evils of excessive drinking in Stalbridge, which had eleven pubs in the l890s, had signed the pledge in his teens.

In the 20th century, Nursing Associations were set up nationally to provide local district nurses. In l934 the Stalbridge and Stourton Caundle Nursing Association agreed to be affiliated to Dorset County Council’s Nursing Association and to advertise for a fully trained nurse. Mr George Prideaux, owner of the local milk factory, offered a vacant house in Gold Street at a rent of seven shillings (35p) per week, and the district nurse was permitted to hire a car ‘when conditions did not make it reasonable for her to cycle’. In l937 the County Nursing Association offered a car and a grant towards its maintenance, but the loyal Stalbridge Committee at once asked if it could be bought from the local Lovelace’s garage, not in Dorchester.

The Stalbridge Nursing Association Committee was ecumenical, the Rector being Chairman and the Congregational Minister, Rev. Arthur Lamb, Treasurer. It was a socially prestigious committee and threw itself into the organisation of a fete at Thornhill House, collections, whist drives and concerts to raise funds.

This was a time when working people who could not afford their doctor’s private fees became his Panel Patients to support their treatment. A local resident in her eighties tells me that a patient who was ‘on the Panel’, ie. sick and being treated by the doctor, received ten shillings (50p) per week, was not permitted to do any work or to go out after 5pm and had to report regularly to the doctor.

Mr George Prideaux, owner of the milk factory in Stalbridge, offered this cottage in Gold Street to the Nursing Association in l934 to accommodate the district nurse.

At the same time, local Hospital Associations had been set up and local volunteers collected one penny per week towards a fund to provide for hospital treatment. Stalbridge patients went to the Yeatman Hospital at Sherborne or, if suffering from an infectious disease such as scarlet fever, to the isolation hospital at Blandford.

Our greatly respected physician, Dr Moyle, generally dispensed his own medicines from a small dispensary adjoining his consulting room opposite the church. In l929 a chemist, Mr W C F Hughes, bought premises in Stalbridge High Street. He provided a wide variety of ointments, medicines, surgical and baby equipment, with good stocks of gripe water, Virol, Steadman’s Powders, bile beans, Scott’s Emulsion and Benger’s Food.

The professionals in Stalbridge before the National Health Service were the doctor, the chemist and the district nurse. They were aided by one or two good women who would sit up at night with the sick and dying to give the carers a rest and, at the end, lay out the corpse. In addition, there were kindly, practical women to whom young mothers felt able to appeal for advice. My mother was one such person.

This informal structure was important. People did not travel far then, money was in short supply and used sparingly and we all knew each other. When I was a child, people in the village frequently asked my mother’s advice about health problems or the management of their babies. To an overwrought young mother or her ailing husband my mother would recommend a tonic. Tonic wine, cod-liver oil and malt, iron pills or something put up by the chemist and preferably bright red: all these, my mother felt, made up for what a frugal diet lacked. Older people who consulted my mother were often recommended Californian syrup of figs, cascara, finest dried senna pods or a brew which I am sure my mother, an enthusiastic herbalist, made up herself.

Goose grease, saved from the Christmas goose, was warmed and rubbed into the chest to ease a tight cough. Coughs were taken very seriously. Chills and colds were common among men who worked out of doors, getting cows in or hedging and ditching or working on the roads. If a cough became persistent and racking, it caused great alarm for tuberculosis. This dreadful disease had been a scourge in Stalbridge in times past and local families often had a history of it. A sufferer might be sent away for complete rest for a year or more in a TB nursing home in Bournemouth, where the pine trees gave off healing properties.

Miss Drew made shirts and sold fancy goods from this house. In l929 a chemist, Mr W C F Hughes, bought and altered it.   It has remained the local pharmacy ever since.

Pneumonia, in the days before modern drugs, was a very dangerous illness and fairly common. It could come on suddenly with a fever that raged uncontrollably, delirium and terribly laboured breathing. Very little could be done and the illness had to come to a crisis, when either the laboured breathing became quieter and the patient would eventually recover, or it ceased because the patient was dead.

Horse liniment was applied to sprains and bad backs. Flannel might be sewn into the undergarment of a lumbago sufferer (my mother always said red flannel was best) or brown paper fixed to the affected part, the flat iron heated (gently) on the range and the brown paper ironed on the patient. The heat was very soothing. Olive oil, camphorated oil or the core of a roasted onion were used to alleviate earache.

In those pre-war and wartime days almost all babies were born at home, whatever the conditions of it. The district nurse or an experienced local woman would be in attendance from the beginning of labour and Dr Moyle at the end. There was a great deal of ignorance about what constituted a good diet and my mother was constantly called upon to advise about this.
A lot of Stalbridge people refused to seek help from the doctor for anything, either because they never had, or for fear of costs or of what he might tell them. That was another reason why in the days before the National Health Service, only the fit survived. When the war came it brought food rationing, which meant for most people the best and most balanced diet they had ever known. It also gave us a tremendous amount of information from the Ministry of Food and the wireless, especially Grandma Buggins, an extremely popular radio character who advised daily about how to use rationed food efficiently.

The war ended in l945 and the huge task of post-war house-building and reconstruction began. In l948, Dr Moyle gave up his practice, retaining only a few private patients. The National Health Service had arrived.

The author’s mother, Mrs Kate Rabbetts, in l937

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