Medicines and mortification

Brenda Dawson remembers the days in Pirton before the NHS 2002


Before the National Health Service was even thought about, our health was actually a matter of luck and what we know today as our “genes”. Dr William Grellet was our doctor who seemed to attend most families in the village, as did also his brother Harold and Dr Marshall Gilbertson.

1948 Dr W Grellet had been GP for most village families. When he retired in 1948, a subscription list was opened and, at a ceremony in the Village Hall, he was presented with a radiogram from his many grateful patients. In the photograph L-R Stella Handscombe, one of the first babies he delivered, William Stapleton, the oldest Pirton resident at that time, Mr Bryant, headmaster, Josie Crawley, a schoolchild, and Mrs Grellet.

I have no recollection of ever attending the surgery for any ailment whilst young, neither do I recollect any child having either hay fever or asthma or any allergies. Cod liver oil, Castor oil (ugh) not to mention Epsom salts, Syrup of Figs and many other patented medicines seemed to take care of most ailments, which now require antibiotics. Goose grease on the chest, although very messy, relieved many a cough.

Hospitalisation was rare. Tuberculosis was rife with no known cure at that time. The patient was admitted to a sanatorium and the outcome was usually an early death. Pneumonia had no cure either. One waited patiently for the “crisis “ which took place within ten days, either a recovery was made thereafter or the inevitable occurred. In spite of few cures many lived to great ages. This may have been due to the infant mortality rate and only the fittest survived.

On the occasion when medicine or pills were prescribed, we went to see Martha. Martha Weeden was indeed a character of the village. On Tuesday and Saturdays she would push her perambulator all the way to Hitchin and collect the various prescriptions from the surgery, which were all prepared by the dispenser. She would then push her pram back along the Pirton Road and either she or her husband “Aby “ would deliver the medicines to the appropriate house at a charge of 2d !!!

Martha Weeden’s house was built on the site of the blacksmith’s forge

Few deaths actually occurred in hospital; home seemed the most likely place. Two or three ladies did the “laying out”. How or where they learned their skills I have no idea presumably this was passed down from mother to daughter. Immediately death occurred one was sent for and she carried out her work. The body was usually set out in the” front room “ Neighbours & relatives viewed the body to pay their last respects.

The undertaker Mr Stephen Day (known to one and all as Stibby) resided in Royal Oak Lane (Margaret Anderson now lives there). He was sent for and duly made the coffin, no doubt from strong elm wood, of which there was plenty! When the funeral occurred, the coffin was carried on a bier and all the mourners would walk behind in a procession through the village. Curtains would be drawn in all the houses, which lined the route of the cortege. Anyone on the route would stand still, doff his hat and wait for the procession to pass. Cremation had not arrived in this part of Hertfordshire. The bells would also be tolled when a death occurred. Firstly nine bells for a man and seven for a woman, followed by the number of years of their life. My grandfather would stand and count and then pronounce that old so and so had gone.

Stibby Day outside the Royal Oak

Share this page: