Weird Suffolk: Strange old Suffolk cures for common health issues like nose bleeds and coughs

Before the ready availability of medicines and chemists it was common to consult the local wise woman or man who would...

Before the ready availability of medicines and chemists it was common to consult the local wise woman or man who would offer cures. Picture: Wellcome Collection - Credit: Wellcome Collection

Eating spider webs for a fever, keeping a fish on your chest until it dies to cure a cough, and curing rheumatism with a potato, We raid the county’s traditional first aid cupboard

The next time you have a fever, consider a course of compressed spiders’ webs before breakfast – you’ll follow in the footsteps of many generations of Suffolk folk.

Before the ready availability of medicines and chemists, the business of curing the sick was often too expensive for ‘normal’ people to afford and so they turned to other ways to fend off illness. It was common to consult the local wise woman or man who would offer cures which had been passed down through the centuries: some we would recognise – gargling with salty water to ease a sore throat, using witch hazel to treat inflammation and so forth – and some…involved stringing up snails in the chimney.

In 1893, The Folk Lore Society published County Folk-Lore: Suffolk, a collection of local folklore collected by Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon. Lady Eveline (1858-1894) was a daughter of the 5th Earl of Portsmouth. She married Sir William Brampton Gurdon, whose home was at Assington Hall, Suffolk, in 1887, and wrote many stories and articles based on local folklore. Within the 1893 book’s pages are a host of incredible suggestions as to how common illnesses can be treated.

Whooping cough, a bacterial infection of the lungs, used to affect tens of thousands of people before the introduction of routine immunization in the 1950s and was once hugely dangerous for babies and young children. The search for whooping cough cures was, therefore, incredibly important – and Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon of Suffolk did not disappoint. She suggested placing a live flat-fish on the bare chest of a patient and keeping it there until it was dead, or taking some hair from your eldest child, cutting it into small pieces and putting it into some milk to give it to your family.


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“Or let the patient eat a roasted mouse; or, let the patient drink some milk which a ferret has lapped; or, let the patient be dragged under a gooseberry bush or bramble, both ends of which are growing in the ground. It is also said that to pass the patient through a slit in the stem of a young ash tree is a certain cure,” the book continued.

Other Suffolk suggestions included placing bags that contained hair from the cross on the back of a donkey around the necks of suffering children, passing snails through the hands of invalids and then stringing them up in the chimney, their deaths taking with them the illness. You could also stop anyone you saw riding on a piebald horse and ask them for their recommendations for a cure for whooping cough which would, apparently, be successful.

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Centuries ago, people in East Anglia who suffered from the ague (a fever, or shivering fit) would have called on the Quake Doctors to charm away the fever with a magic wand, shoes filled with tansy leaves or perhaps pills made of compressed spiders’ webs before breakfast. Lady Eveline quotes a number of sources.

“Miss Strickland mentions a superstition that existed in her own district of the county. ‘Go to the four cross ways tonight, all alone, and just as the clock strikes 12, turn yourself about three times and drive a tenpenny nail into the ground up to the head and walk away from the place backwards before the clock is done striking, and you’ll miss the ague; but the next person who passes over the nail will take it in your stead.’”

Miss Strickland also suggested a cure she had been given by a Suffolk man which involved buying a red earthenware pan, placing parings of finger and toe nails with a lock of hair and a small piece of (stolen) red beef in it, covering it with a black silk cloth and burying it in a wood. As the meat decayed, the ague would disappear.

Other cures included:

· Nose bleeds could be cured by wearing lengths of scarlet silk around the neck tied with nine knots (tied by a man if the patient was a woman, and vice versa.

· For toothache, put your left sock on before your right one, always.

· If you have a burn, make the sign of the cross over the burn and then say, three times, “There were three Angels came from the North, One brought fire, the other brought frost; Come out fire, go in frost. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

· To prevent cramp: take the small bone from a leg of mutton (a human patella bone is even more potent) and carry it in your pocket or wear a ring made out of an old coffin handle.

· To cure boils or growths, pass the hand of a dead body over the part affected on three successive days.

· For rheumatism, carry a stolen potato from a field in your pocket.

· If you suffer from fits, ask 10 men (if you are a woman, women if you are a man) for small pieces of silver without telling them why you need it. Have the 10 pieces made into a ring by a silversmith and wear on the fourth finger of the left hand.

And lastly, Lady Eveline notes that: “A lady who has married, but who has not by marriage changed her maiden name, is the best of all persons to administer medicine, since no remedy given by her will ever fail to cure.” You may be unsurprised to learn that this means both halves of Weird Suffolk are therefore, by default, natural wise women.

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