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History & CommunityBridport's Cough Medicine

Bridport’s Cough Medicine

Runny nose, sore throat, hacking cough? Do you run to the pharmacy for a cough medicine that may or may not help? Many Bridport people remember the days when the remedy of choice was Fudge’s Mentholated Honey Syrup, or as the locals christened it, Fudge’s Firewater. How did this potent potion come about and why is it no longer available?

The story begins in the 1950s when Ken Fudge moved from London to Bridport to open his pharmacy in West Allington, next door to Balsons Butchers. For Mr Fudge, trained in London but born in Blandford, this was something of a return to his roots. At that time, many pharmacists devised their own remedies, often to secret recipes, and Mr Fudge was no exception.  He made several nostrums, as these remedies are called, but the most popular and enduring was his Mentholated Honey Syrup (Fudge’s Firewater) which, long after Mr Fudge retired, was sold at the East Street Pharmacy in Bridport, for much of that time under the supervision of Mr Morrish. Even now, the mere mention of the Fudge’s name evokes a warm wave of nostalgia and longing in many Bridport people.

 

The medicine

Fudge’s Firewater was an old-style cough medicine recommended for common winter ailments: coughs, colds, influenza, loss of voice, hoarseness, sore throat and catarrh.  The dose was one teaspoon every four hours and the label warned ominously that each spoonful should be “taken very slowly”. It was sold “over the counter” without prescription but strictly under the control of the pharmacist. Fudge’s Firewater was immensely popular and many people have told me how much they trusted it to help their symptoms: “Brilliant cough mixture, couldn’t beat it”, “Amazing medicine for coughs and sore throats”, “Never bought anything else”, “Please, if there is a god, bring back Fudge’s Firewater”. People travelled long distances to purchase the medicine, holiday makers often went home with supplies and, during some winters, as many as 250 bottles of Firewater were sold each week at the East Street Pharmacy.

The medicine also had a formidable reputation: “It nearly blew your head off but by golly it did the trick”, “Tasted like red diesel mixed with the finest brandy, lovely”, “The menthol really took your breath away” “It was a trial to take but you knew it would make you better” and several people spoke of “the Fudge’s shudder”.

As Mr Fudge himself said: “Some do swear by it, some do swear at it”.

 

Unconventional uses of Fudge’s Firewater

The medicine was also a voice-saver for some professional singers and I heard about one well-known entertainer who would regularly send a friend to buy Firewater from Mr Morrish to help lubricate her vocal cords. Similarly, Marco Rossi told me that, in the 1990s, when he was part of local band, Stocky Lamaar, performing in smoke-filled pubs around Dorset, he and Al, the other vocalist, each had a bottle of the potion by them on stage. With the occasional swig of Firewater, they could sing all evening without sounding like “Madge from Neighbours at a Bonnie Tyler tribute karaoke night”.

 

What was Fudge’s Firewater and how did it work?

Mr Fudge’s medicine was a dark brown syrupy liquid made by mixing menthol crystals and a little fudgy flavouring into Gee’s Linctus, itself an old-fashioned cough remedy dating from the Victorian era. Gee’s linctus, or to give it its proper name, squill linctus opiate, contains several potentially active ingredients. Morphine, a substance with an established effect on cough, but also a well-known drug of abuse, is present but at low levels. Squill, a plant extract, is another potentially active component that, paradoxically, encourages coughing and mucus removal. The medicine also contains alcohol at similar levels to a fortified wine and this may have contributed to the Firewater experience. Mr Fudge’s masterstroke was to boost the effects of the Gee’s linctus by adding menthol, a remedy used for many years to help with symptoms of coughs and colds; it may also act as an oral anaesthetic helping with sore throats and may relieve nasal congestion.

Although cough medicines cannot alter the course of viral infections, they may help you feel better and Mr Fudge’s medicine attacked symptoms in several ways which is perhaps why it was so popular and so successful. It was the menthol, however, that made the potion so memorable, justifying the Firewater nickname and establishing a shared experience among those who used it, believed in it and benefitted from it.

 

Abuse of Fudge’s Firewater

Non-prescription medicines such as Gee’s linctus, and Fudge’s Firewater, have been abused by people trying to access even the small amounts of morphine they contain. For example, Gee’s linctus is reported to induce a “lovely euphoria and dreaminess”, but only if you are prepared to drink 50ml or more of the medicine! Local pharmacists were aware of the problem and tried to control it: Mr Morrish monitored all sales personally and Mr Conroy (manager during the Moss era) restricted sales to one bottle per person, with a signature.

 

The end of Fudge’s Firewater

Gee’s linctus gradually fell out of favour as a cough medicine because of the problem of abuse. Finding commercial sources of the linctus became more difficult and temporary interruptions to the availability of Fudge’s Firewater occurred early in the 21st century.  Then, in January 2006, a notice appeared on the window of Moss’s East Street Pharmacy announcing that the medicine would be discontinued because of “problems with the supply of ingredients”. Around this time, however, there had also been a change in the pharmacy regulations. Nostrums containing even small amounts of morphine, like Fudge’s Firewater, now required a prescription and this change must have contributed to Moss’s decision.

That wasn’t quite the end, though, because a modified Firewater was available for a few years from the St John’s Pharmacy in Weymouth. Because of the change in pharmacy regulations, people needed to persuade their doctor to issue a private prescription if they wanted the medicine; this severely affected sales and by 2009 production finally ceased. The change in regulations also means that Fudge’s Firewater is very unlikely ever to reappear.

Fudge’s Firewater served Bridport well for 50 years. The medicine is now just a memory but one that should be preserved as an important part of Bridport’s history.

I should like to thank Angela Alexander, Stuart Anderson, Richard Balson, David Conroy, Richard Cooper, Margery Hookings, Diana Leake, Kevin Morrish, Caroline Morrish-Banham, Dipan Shah, Elizabeth Williamson, Joy Wingfield, The Bridport Museum and the many commenters on social media who generously helped me in preparing this article.

 

Philip Strange is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Reading. 

He writes about science and about nature with a particular focus on how science fits in to society.  His work may be read at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/

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