A Nundle medicine show

14 Jul

Some time ago now I decided to turn oral historian with my grandmother, pumping her for facts about medicine shows. I didn’t get the chance to begin until the week I spent in Sydney recently (just got back to Brisbane actually, after a week also in Melbourne), grabbing the chance for a late-afternoon session. We talked nineteen to the dozen, if I’ve remembered that expression rightly, and I hope for many sessions more.


My grandmother was born in 1933 in Hanging Rock, in rugged country just out of tiny Nundle, north-west New South Wales, Australia. Nundle was a town which had seen thronging crowds during the nineteenth-century gold rushes, but had well and truly dwindled by the time of the Depression in her youth.


Nundle valley from the Hanging Rock look-out

As a small kid, at the end of the 1930s and very early 1940s, my grandmother remembers husband-and-wife teams coming to Nundle and setting up on a platform or the back or a cart on vacant land near the Town Hall. The wife would draw clusters of kids by hanging toffee apples from strings and arranging contests to eat them, or inviting people to seize a sixpence with their mouths in a bucket of flour, hands bound behind their backs. Once a crowd had gathered, the husband would shout out a sing-song spiel about the wonders of the panacea they were peddling. It cured gout, he would say; it healed this, it salved that. ‘And people would buy it’, my grandmother said. ‘There wasn’t a doctor in Nundle then – there’d been quacks before that, but no doctor. Everyone had medicines they’d bought some way or another’.

My grandmother also remembers door-to-door peddlers coming all the way out to their place at Hanging Rock, perhaps hitching a ride with the mail run, and otherwise getting about on foot. (Such a huge amount of effort for what must surely have been a paltry return). The peddlars would string a box-shaped case around their necks which snapped open to reveal serried rows of bottles and ointments. On top of that, everyone in the district had a medicine box of their own, bought from the Red Cross and full of bandages and books with anatomical information from which she learned a risqué thing or two.

During my grandmother’s childhood, there was also a travelling dentist who took rooms in the hotel at Nundle (the Peel Inn, I think it was called) and pulled teeth for a couple of weeks at a time. He was a drunk, and scary because of it. But people like my grandmother’s stepmother went to him anyway. They would wait their turn in the hotel foyer, listening, perhaps, to the groans of other people inside his room. And afterwards, they would return home ruefully, balled handkerchief in fist, their gums full of blood and air.


4 Responses to “A Nundle medicine show”

  1. Lidian 16 July 2008 at 11:52 pm #

    That is absolutely fascinating – sounds like your grandmother has some amazing stories…

    I would be frightened of a travelling dentist even if he was sober but a drunk one sounds terrifying!

  2. Melissa Bellanta 17 July 2008 at 11:30 pm #

    Yes: hard to imagine what it would have been like to have no other medical alternative than a sozzled stranger in a hotel room…


  1. More about Nundle, 1930-40s « The Vapour Trail - 17 July 2008

    […] July 2008 More things my grandmother remembers of her childhood in Nundle. Her uncle Cecil Reichel and Kitchener Hall, who ran a garage and milk bar-and-lolly-shop […]

  2. Bookmarks about Depression - 18 December 2008

    […] – bookmarked by 4 members originally found by j3rr33 on 2008-11-11 A Nundle medicine show https://bellanta.wordpress.com/2008/07/14/a-nundle-medicine-show/ – bookmarked by 2 members […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: