Mother's medicine - from cod liver oil to Milk of Magnesia

Mother's medicine - from cod liver oil to Milk of Magnesia

This is an exclusive feature from the now sold-out Issue 4 of Yours Retro. For more nostalgia, check out the latest Retro at

Whether it was a poorly tummy or a runny nose, our mums were always on hand with some clever concoction to make it all better – even if we weren’t always thankful for it!

No-one likes coming down with a bug. But for those of us who grew up in the time where every mother had a fit-to-bursting medicine cabinet of home remedies, putrid-looking potions and old wives’ tales at their fingertips, it wasn’t always the illnesses we dreaded so much as the treatments!

Our mothers were a font of medical wisdom (or so they thought), armed with miracle cure-alls passed down through the generations and bottles of old medicines and random pills, sometimes swapped with other mums at the local coffee morning.


While some of our mums’ ideas certainly had at least a vague basis in medical science and genuinely made us feel better, others were so bizarre their purpose still leaves us perplexed today. And then there were those remedies that continued to have the very opposite effect on our ailments than was intended – but we’d nevertheless still be fed another spoonful of the stuff the next time we looked a bit peaky.

Hold your noses, children

One of the abiding memories of our mothers’ go-to remedies has to be the smell, with our mums seemingly taking the approach that the viler the smell, the more good it would do us.

Cod liver oil has to rank as one of the worst offenders on our nostrils. Yet our mums loved to give us lashings of the stuff, often with malt, as a cure-all for pretty much every ailment under the sun. In fact, most of us didn’t even need to be ill to be force-fed this fishy affliction, with mums insisting the Vitamins A and D it contained were good for keeping us healthy.

Even when cod liver oil was offered alongside orange juice to mask the smell, it usually still made our stomachs turn. And Scott’s Emulsion, a very rich cod liver oil concoction, was definitely even worse. Most of us could only swallow it if our mum’s other hand was clamped firmly over our noses.

Nevertheless, it didn’t do us any harm and doctors still believe in the benefits of cod liver oil – although thank heavens it now comes in pill form.


But we weren’t just made to swallow smelly stuff, we were often smeared in it, too. There was pongy Vicks VapoRub for colds, and the unnaturally pink Germolene Antiseptic Cream for cuts and grazes that would come in a dinky little tin and reek to high heaven.

And if we were really lucky, at the first sign of a cold, Mum would dig the goose fat out from the back of the larder and baste it all over our chests, before covering us with brown paper for some utterly unknown reason.

It really is a wonder we ever found anyone willing to sit next to us on the bus smelling as we did!

Tummy trouble

Stomach aches were best not to be shouted about as a child, for fear of the many remedies Mum always had up her sleeve just for this very complaint.

Castor oil was the first thing at hand for any unpleasantness, which usually worked by causing such violent stomach cramps and urgent toilet visits you forgot about the slightly niggly tummy you had in the first place.

Our mums were also obsessed with laxatives, pushing Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Epsom Salts or even liquid paraffin down our throats at the first available opportunity. Syrup of Figs was another favourite, proclaiming to ‘keep us regular’ – a saying that was often banded about by our mums, much to our bewilderment. And the taste tended to divide us children between loving and loathing it.


On the case of coughs and sneezes

At the first sniff of a cold, Mum would get busy stirring up a concoction of remedies. Sometimes these could be lovely – hot chicken soup, a sip of rose hip syrup to boost your vitamins, and sweet Lucozade from the bottle. And if you started sniffling after getting soaked on the walk home from school, there’d be the mandatory bowl of hot water ready for you to sit with your feet in for hours on end, which in retrospect seems like a good way of keeping us bound to one spot while Mum had five minutes’ peace and quiet.

But colds were, generally speaking, a pretty miserable business as Mum moved on to give us Friars’ Balsam, Beechams Powders, Liqufruta and Benylin to treat a cough and sore throat. And if we didn’t get ourselves better sharpish, treatment could be ramped up to gargling with TCP (along with strict instructions not to swallow any) or even painting the back of your throat with purple dye, known as gentian violet.

‘It’ll do you good’

While our mums were undoubtedly trying to do what was best for us, it is sometimes a wonder we lived to tell the tale – for some of the remedies we were given as children would certainly raise eyebrows today.


The most popular was to dose poorly children up with alcohol. Whisky and lemon was the order of the day for a sore throat, while anyone with a toothache or a sore tummy was advised to knock back the brandy. A potion of gin and black treacle was also beloved of many a mother trying to treat a cough or cold.

Then there were our mums’ medicines that, bless them, actually made things worse. Butter to treat burns, for example, was such common logic no-one ever questioned it. Yet doctors have since found that this is one of the worst things you can do as it can cause infection and won’t help the burn heal at all.

Another misconception was around iodine, often used in our childhood as a general antiseptic on scratches or grazes. It really stung and left purple dye blotches all over our skin that even the weekly bath didn’t wash off. Again, while water-based iodine is still used by doctors as an antiseptic today, there’s a very good reason bottles of it have a great big skull and cross bones on the front and aren’t found in first aid kits nowadays.

And if all that didn’t work…

There was always good old-fashioned fresh air. Our mums firmly believed that there was nothing a deep breath of air (or a couple of hours left outside in the pram if you were younger) couldn’t solve.

This is why convalescing in a children’s home, away from the smog and muck of the city – often by the coast or in the countryside – was so popular, even if it did mean being away from home, Mum and her fantastical remedies for a short while…