Edward Cain (1891-1978): Health – Writing Lives

Edward Cain (1891-1978): Health

Edward Cain’s memoir shows that his family had endured some sad times. On the last page of the transcript (Reminiscences from the life story of Mr. Edward Cain M.B.E), he lists the family members that have passed away and also the dates and whereabouts of their deaths. This could be seen as a reflection on the mortality rates of the time, as the National Health Service was available to England and Wales from 1946 and after legislation were passed from 1946-1948 it became available to all of Britain.  Cain had 7 siblings and all of them sadly passed away before his death in 1978.

After this Cain reflects on the changes in the conditions that he has lived in as he has grown older. He also goes into detail about health and the little superstitions that were once common when he was younger but have become more obsolete as time has progressed and medicine became more accessible for the public.

Tobacco leaf that Cain mentions could be used to help wounds, before plasters were available.

‘First aid had not advanced very far’ (pg 11) Cain explains and shares how different ailments were treated before waterproof plasters were common. ‘A spiders web would be put over [a small cut] to stop the bleeding’. An alternative to this, ‘a tobacco leaf would do just as well’ (pg 11). This is an interesting insight as to how common, small parts of life are treated a lot differently today. It highlights how, today, we may take for granted a bandage or a plaster in a first aid kit. During his brief spell in the war, Cain contracted ‘Poisoned arm’ from which he became ill and was unable to continue in the Army and was discharged. This is the only point in the memoir where he references any illnesses that he has ever had.

Cain mentions that when he was younger, there was no such thing as this to help settle Colic in babies.


Cain moves on to talking about the absence of Gripe water when he was younger and that ‘a hot cinder from the fire in a pot of water with sugar’ was all that was needed to settle the wind in a baby. Cain also goes into detail about how children were breastfed for longer when he was younger. Now it’s common to wean a baby from the breast up to a year old, whereas Cain says that it was normal for children to be breastfed until they were two years old and that weaning them off was a lot different. ‘Mother would cover the breast with soot to make it look bad’ or ‘put some bitter alloes on. The taste would put the baby off.’ Late weaning was also a way of delaying further pregnancy and spacing offspring in the days before contraception was widely available.

Towards the end of the memoir transcript, Cain tells the audience about how simple life was, in that ‘castor oil and camphorated oil were cures for all ills’ which is probably a way of showing that in the modern world, there are many different medicines for many different illnesses and that times have changed so much that medicine has advanced dramatically from a time where it seemed like a simple oil would cure whatever illness you had, because that’s all that you had.




Benson, John. The Working Class In Britain 1850-1939. 2003, I.B Tauris. London.

Cain, Edward. ‘Memories’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:119

Jones, DA 2015, ‘A brief history of the National Health Service’, British Journal Of Healthcare Management, 21, 2, pp. 77-79

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