Norah Elliott (b.1903): Illness, Health & Disability – Writing Lives

Norah Elliott (b.1903): Illness, Health & Disability

Much of Norah’s memoir discusses illness, both physical and mental. Norah’s ancestors, her siblings and Norah herself suffered with illness and disability.

Vaccination certificate of John Pilch (Norah’s father)

Norah reveals that she has ‘a vaccincation certificate that [says] John the child of Henry Pilch aged 4 1/2 months…has been successfully vaccinated’. However, she remarks that ‘this compulsory vaccincation was much resented, and tells us that  ‘neither [her] nor [her] brothers and sisters were vaccincated as children’.

In the sections where she discusses her grandfather’s diaries, she recites a recipe for rheumatic (the ‘1d’ signifying the price of each):

  • spirits of turpentine 1d
  • spirits of wine 1d
  • spirits of nitre 1
  • oil of juniper 1d

This inflammatory disease was common throughout the british working-class as Norah’s family was also affected. Another working-class writer, Winifred Relph, suffered from the same disease, showing its circulation among the working-class.

As discussed in my post on home and family, Norah had a large family and many siblings. However many of her siblings experienced illness and a few even died at a young age. Norah tells us that her ‘brother Eric died in October 1912, aged 6 years: there was an inquest, he had eaten poisonous berries’. Norah also vaguely remembers her brother Edward’s illness. She tells us about the home-treatment he received: ‘he was put in a zinc bath of hot water, infront of the fire wrapped in blankets, I heard that he had Bright’s disease’, which is inflammation of the kidneys.

“No one ever told me it had been a mistaken diagnosis: it was only many years later that I realised it was arthritis not T.B. that I suffered from: the treatment had been wrong.”

Before falling physically ill, Norah was very active: playing tennis and hockey, being a part of her college boating club, and enjoying a hiking holiday. However, after visiting her college sanatorium she was diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis. After receiving treatment for T.B. Norah ‘had to learn to walk again’ as ‘the muscle on the left leg had wasted [and her] pelvis had become tilted with hopping so much’. After having a year out of college, returning and securing a teaching placement, she was finally diagnosed correctly: she had arthritis. However, the treatment she took made her feel very depressed. Norah reveals that she ‘used to try and think of some method of suicide that would not look like self destruction and so disturb the family’ and asks, ‘was insanity inherited?’. Here she is referring to the fate of her mother who, when Norah was only around 10, was admitted to a lunatic asylum, following the death of Norah’s father.

Norah gives detailed descriptions of her treatment and the hospitals in which she stayed. ‘After several months I was sent to the Royal Devonshire Hospital at Buxton’, she says. ‘There I had hot mud baths, I sat in a bath with my head fixed in a wooden contraption a bit like stocks, and sat covered with very hot sphagnum moss mud, then had a shower and lay wrapped in hot blankets’.

Norah admits that she never got over her illness, but seeing the ‘cheerfulness’ of those in wheel chairs that she was surrounded by made her ‘thoroughly ashamed of [herself]… [She] stopped feeling sorry for [herself]’ and recalls saying, ‘”If they can make a good job of it, so can I”‘. She seems to mostly overcome her poor mental state, even though her physical illness never subsided.

Works Cited

Elliott, Norah. ‘Untitled’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:242. Available at

‘Norah Elliott’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:242

Images Cited

‘Norah Elliott’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:242

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *