I’m delighted to welcome Charlotte Betts to my blog today, with her lovely informative article on the Victorian sickroom. Charlotte Betts is a multi-award-winning author of romantic historical novels and draws inspiration from the stories of strong women at turning points in history. Her careful historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place. She is currently working on The Spindrift Trilogy, set in an artists’ community in Cornwall at the turn of the twentieth century.
Charlotte lives on the Hampshire/Berkshire borders in a 17th Century cottage in the woods. A daydreamer and a bookworm, she has enjoyed careers in fashion, interior design and property. She is a member of The Romantic Novelists’ Association, The Society of Authors and The Historical Novels Society.
The Victorian Sickroom
‘All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called upon to perform the duties of a sick-nurse.’ Mrs Beeton
The duty of nursing the sick within the home has traditionally fallen to the woman of the house, whether she is emptying basins and making cough linctus herself or overseeing her servants while they carry out the necessary tasks. In households where there were a number of children, a maiden aunt or a grandmother might also be called upon to assist in the sickroom if there was a bout of measles or mumps.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management states that the main requirements for a nurse are ‘good temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers (which most women possess), neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order, and cleanliness. With these qualifications there will be very little to be wished for; the desire to relieve suffering will inspire a thousand little attentions and surmount the distaste which some of the offices attending the sick-room are apt to create.’
From the 1880s, home care manuals advised the importance of cleanliness and separating the sick from the well. Soft furnishings and ornaments were frequently removed from a sickroom to make it easier to keep it clean and free from dust. Fresh air was advised, though the night air was considered dangerous. Items that might be brought into the sickroom were basins and kidney bowls, a commode, flannel for rubbing the patient’s limbs, stone hot water bottles and an oilcloth for protecting the mattress when giving the patient a blanket bath. A rope might be tied from the head to the foot of the bed to assist the patient to sit up without assistance.
Women were deemed fit to carry out the most tedious and mundane of tasks such as sitting by the sickroom bedside all night, emptying the slops and feeding the patient with teaspoons of calf’s foot jelly, toast water or bone broth, but a (male) doctor was often called upon to pronounce the correct course of treatment. In the early Victorian period, this might have included leeches or a purge. Adhering to a prescribed strict diet was advised, or perhaps a poultice or blister applied to the skin to draw out the ‘poison’. As a child, I frequently had chest infections and I remember my mother making hot poultices to place on my chest beneath my liberty bodice.
Cholera, TB and smallpox were rife at this time and the medicines to cure these diseases didn’t exist until later. Whole families died from TB, or Consumption, as it was then known. Scientists Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur discovered that contagious diseases could be passed from one person to another by microscopic organisms that were too small to see with the naked eye. Once this was understood, the number of infections and deaths fell. Robert Koch built upon Pasteur’s work and in 1882 identified the organisms causing tuberculosis, prompting extensive public health campaigns. Anaesthesia enabled surgeons to operate more slowly and therefore more carefully on patients and, combined with cleaner operating theatres, a patient’s odds of survival improved.
In the home, a medicine chest was an essential item and it was the first port of call when illness struck, in the hope of avoiding the expense of sending for a doctor. Home remedies such as rose hip syrup would often be made by the woman of the house but a wide range of patent medicines were available from a pharmacy. Chloroform, morphia or laudanum, all derived from opium, could be easily purchased and were considered an efficacious treatment for toothache and headaches.
Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodine was a popular treatment for indigestion that, even as late as the 1960s, used to be in my family’s bathroom cabinet. Chlorodine contained kaolin and morphia for diarrhoea and stomach pain. I remember it as being very effective. Remedies for infant colic contained opium and, unsurprisingly,were known for successfully calming a baby. Steel’s Aromatic Lozenges promised to ‘repair the evils brought on by debauchery’, a veiled reference to syphilis, but frequently resulted in painful inflammation. Dr James’s Fever Powder contained antimony and ammonia. Coco leaf, from which cocaine is extracted, was available from a pharmacy as a muscle and nerve tonic.
Once the patient had either recovered or died from an infectious disease, the sickroom would be thoroughly cleaned. Bedlinen would be aired in the sunshine, boiled or burned.
Wallpaper was washed down with carbolic acid, stripped from the walls and burned. Then the room was fumigated. It was sealed by pasting paper over the windows and fireplace. Four ounces of sulphur was placed in a metal dish over a bucket of water and a shovelful of hot coals added to it. The door to the room remained sealed for five or six hours. To complete the process, the room was lime-washed and left with the window open for a week or so.
Women proficiently managed their households and guided the education of the children. In the sickroom, they were seen as, and expected to be, capable nurses. Despite this, they were considered by men to be frail creatures subject to fits of the vapours and outbursts of hysteria. Reading apparently inflamed a woman’s brain. A doctor had no time for a mere female to question his medical advice and rarely agreed to accept a second opinion from another doctor, even if the patient wasn’t improving.
Many women suffered from headaches and were happy to retire to their bedrooms for a day or two with a bottle of laudanum. Some women, perhaps depressed by being oppressed by a male-dominated society, made a whole career out of being an invalid.
And who can blame them? A few quiet days in bed with a fire glowing in the grate, a new novel secreted under the covers and a tray of tempting morsels at meal times sounds like heaven to me!
The Light Within Us from award-winning author Charlotte Betts is the first book of the Spindrift Trilogy.
Talented artist Edith Fairchild is looking forward to a life of newlywed bliss with her charismatic husband Benedict. He has recently inherited Spindrift House near Port Isaac and Edith is inspired by the glorious Cornish light and the wonderful setting overlooking the sea. But then happiness turns to heartbreak. In great distress, Edith turns to an artist friend for comfort. After a bitterly-regretted moment of madness she finds herself pregnant with his child.
Too ashamed to reveal her secret, Edith devotes herself to her art. Joined at Spindrift House by her friends, Clarissa, Dora and Pascal, together they turn the house into a thriving artists’ community. But despite their dreams of an idyllic way of life creating beauty by the sea, it becomes clear that all is not perfect within their tight-knit community. The weight of their secrets could threaten to tear apart their paradise forever . . .
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Tomorrow’s Tour stop – A 20th Century artist’s colony http://www.charlottebetts.co.uk