Life before the NHS was pretty grim

From: Eric Waters, Ingleside Crescent, Lancing

There were various articles in last week’s Observer about the birth of the NHS, but what was life like before July 5, 1948? Well, it was sometimes quite grim.

Four years before I was born, and ten years before the foundation of the NHS, my mother took two of my siblings, twins Jean and Joyce, down to the Hastings gas works.

They were suffering from whooping cough, which is a highly contagious infection of the lungs and airways which causes repeated coughing bouts that can last for two to three months or more, and can make babies, and young children in particular, very ill.

So, why did mum take her twins to what sounds like a very odd place to go?

Well, it was quite common in those days for parents, whose children were suffering from this awful condition, to go there to ‘take the smells’.

The fumes from the gas liquor, through which the gas was passed for purification, contained ammonia and tar.

The ammonia had the same effect as smelling salts, in that it cleared the nasal passages and the head, while the aromatics from the tar caused a tickling sensation about the throat.

Sadly, things did not turn out quite like that and my two-year-old sisters had to be rushed to hospital, the fumes having poisoned them.

When my mum was told that Joyce had died she took Jean from her cot, wrapped her in a blanket, got on a bus and took her back home where she nursed her back to health.

I often wonder how many more children would have experienced what Jean and Joyce went through if the NHS had never come into being and people had continued to resort to ‘treatments’ like ‘taking the smells’.