‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – How Did We Survive? Radium, Mercury, Lead, Asbestos, Sawdust, DDT – Things We Had That Aren’t Allowed Nowadays.

Last week’s blog about smog got me thinking about other changes since the 1950s in the way that people live and there are many things that we were allowed to do, eat, work or play with that are not allowed today.

Radium painted clock face.

Whilst I was a boy at Harehills County Primary School I bought a book called 365 things to do in Science and Nature. It was a large hard-backed book and it had a different activity for each day of the year. The book has existed in updated forms for many years and even when I was young I was amazed to see that there was a task for taxidermy. It explained how to treat a dead pet so that you could preserve it. I can’t believe that anyone would have followed the instructions, but I do know that many children learnt how to take eggs from birds’ nests and blow them. The book explained how to prick a small hole in the shell, break up the yolk and egg white and then prick another hole and blow the contents out of the egg. Egg collecting was quite common and because of its widespread popularity bird species became endangered before it was banned. There were many experiments with chemicals that no longer take place as the substances were poisonous, or when burnt gave off toxic fumes.

Chemistry sets were popular gifts and copper sulphate crystal growing, potassium permanganate and others substances were common features. There was even a chemistry set called the Atomic chemistry set, in the 1950s, that contained uranium. We may be horrified by this, but how many of us had alarm clocks and watches with luminous numbers and hands? In the 1950s and 60s radium paint was used, and the workers were particularly susceptible to radiation poisoning as they had a habit of licking the brushes. In the 1950s and 60s they had reduced the amount of radium considerably, but even so not something you would want today.

Asbestos plate on the ironing board

It wasn’t just the good old chemistry sets, but even in the classroom at Roundhay School there were practices that were far from ideal. In the labs when we did experiments we were issued with an asbestos board to place the hot items on. The boards were old and flaky and at home ironing boards also had an asbestos board to rest the iron on. Late in the 1960s it became clear that asbestos was particularly dangerous and it disappeared from use and many buildings had asbestos stripped by men in full suit. The fibres of asbestos could become lodged in the lungs and induce cancer over time. Old sheds and garages were often made of asbestos and I remember, as a child, when we lived in Lawrence Avenue we played on an old dilapidated scout hut that was made of asbestos. We delighted in jumping up and down and breaking the pieces. As if that wasn’t bad enough we used to have liquid mercury in Petri dishes in the lab and we would spill the mirror-like metal onto the bench and push it around. We had no masks, weren’t told to wash our hands afterwards and I don’t believe we were told it was poisonous. Apparently the mercury vapour is toxic and the Mad Hatter, and crazy lighthouse keepers are the result of poisoning.

Magnesium ribbon

‘The expression is linked to the hat-making industry and mercury poisoning. In the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial workers used a toxic substance, mercury nitrate, as part of the process of turning the fur of small animals, such as rabbits, into felt for hats. Workplace safety standards often were lax and prolonged exposure to mercury caused employees to develop a variety of physical and mental ailments, including tremors (dubbed “hatter’s shakes”), speech problems, emotional instability and hallucinations.’ Elizabeth Nix – History Stories


The lanterns in lighthouses used to sit on a round bath of liquid mercury as it allowed the light to rotate with little friction, but leakage of the vapour could affect the lighthouse keepers and explains some of the mysterious deaths.

Other experiments including phosphorous lighting and magnesium ribbon burning were carried out with little ventilation and we loved them. It was the bangs, burning and explosions that made science fun.

A little something for the Christmas mood.

Roundhay was also the source of other questionable practices, in hindsight. Woodwork was a good example. We used to cut, saw, sand and plane wood regularly and the workshops were thick in dust. I thought it was a lovely smell and never thought much of it until I learned that sawdust was almost as bad as asbestos and that workshops should have dust extraction systems and children should wear masks. Even the swimming pool was a place of danger. There were the obvious ones of drowning, particularly when good swimmers thought it a wheeze to jump on your back without warning and hold you under water. Most times this wasn’t too bad, but if you were caught at the wrong moment, you were just inhaling, then it could become a life threatening experience. I remember not being amused by such experiences as you inhaled water, and goodness knows what else.

Roundhay School Baths

Swimming carnivals also included something called the free dive, where competitors dived in and just drifted as far as they could. This was quite an exciting thing to watch, but it is banned as people have died whilst holding their breaths too long. The other problem was the lack of chemical control of the pool. I remember clearly arriving early in the morning and the pool being covered in a white fog of chlorine that burnt and stung the eyes. Guess it made men of us!

At least I thought I was safe at home, but alas no. My earliest toys were made of metal and originally lead and I am amazed I didn’t suffer lead poisoning, particularly when the water pipes were also lead and there was lead in the paint and in the petrol. They introduced leaded and unleaded petrol and bit by bit the leaded disappeared. Who can forget the ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ adverts of the 1960s where we collected yellow tiger tails to hang off the car aerials? It was also a time when we were led to believe that there was a difference between petrol makes.

If this wasn’t bad enough, babies were given Gripe Water to pacify them. Apparently there was a large amount of alcohol in it, which certainly would have helped to calm a restless child and fraught mother as many used to swig from the same bottle of Gripe Water. When teething we were given Bonjela, which used to contain asprin. Years later it was discovered that aspirin and children was not a good combination due to possible liver damage from Reye’s syndrome.

At least the sweets were safe! Or were they? Victory V lozenges, I loved them. They had a very distinct flavour which was because each sweet contained ether, liquorice and chloroform. They removed these ingredients and they never tasted as good again. Eating too many sweets could result in a trip to the dentist and Mr Gostling or one of the others I frequented over the years would never let me escape without at least one filling. They were amalgam fillings and they were 50% mercury and 22-30% silver, tin and zinc. Mercury again. Shock horror! There was a panic during the 1980s because the fillings contained mercury, but whether this was a problem or not is still uncertain. I still have some amalgam fillings and they have never caused me any problems, but my family might suggest I am a little crazy. The dentists also used to use gas on us to extract teeth, but I have been informed that ether on a cloth was used before the gas was introduced. I thought that sounded dangerous, but I have been reliably informed that it was a safe practice.

Even the fruit and vegetables carried a risk. DDT was widely used as an insecticide and there were clear signs that it was a residual poison and could cause cancer, and its use was banned in the USA in 1972. The other problem was that it killed wholesale and the beneficial insects were killed. I thought it had been banned worldwide, but when I was living in Papua New Guinea in the mid-eighties it was widely used on the tea and coffee plantations.

Fly eradication in our homes often meant using fly papers and later fly sprays. Originally the fly papers were coated in metallic arsenic. Flies were attracted to the sticky, sweet smelling papers and were killed by the arsenic. It was such a toxic poison that there were cases of murder where the perpetrator soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to poison their victims.

Probably the biggest risk to our health as children was smoking. Not that many children smoked, but because of the passive smoke that we inhaled. My father was a heavy smoker and he smoked Player’s Navy Cut untipped cigarettes. The house was full of smoke and in winter the windows would be shut and there was little ventilation. I remember getting into bed with my parents, on a Sunday morning, as a toddler and my dad would have a cigarette and a cup of tea. I even remember him letting me try a drag on his cigarette. I don’t think my mother approved and he did it probably to put me off smoking. Socially, cigarettes were totally acceptable and you wouldn’t dream of going outside for a cigarette, as people do nowadays. People would smoke at work, in hospital, during meals and you wouldn’t have one without offering one to others present. Times changed and the damage smoking caused was recognised and restrictions were imposed. Originally, smoking was only allowed upstairs on the buses, but on single deckers at the back, but then banned altogether. Cinemas introduced a one half smoking division which never made a lot of sense as the smoke could cross the aisle easily enough. You could even smoke on airplanes and I remember flying back from Papua New Guinea and the back section of economy was for smokers. Public opinion began to change and smokers were tolerated rather than approved of and nowadays, barely tolerated. I remember going to The Regent pub at Chapel Allerton in the early seventies and the air was thick in smoke. It hurt your eyes and made your clothes smell. The pub was packed tight and you were in danger of being caught by the lit cigarette end from a careless smoker. I must add that I was one of the smokers too, so I am not being too judgmental. We knew it wasn’t good for us and one of the best decisions my wife and I made was to stop smoking when she became pregnant with our first child.

When I look back, it seems life was very dangerous, and I guess in truth it was. We were given much more freedom to roam and take risks, and bit by bit the environment we experience has become cleaner and safer. Sometimes you hear people almost panic over modern life, chemicals and pollution, but the reality is that we are living longer and healthier lives. I have outlived my dad by nine years and hopefully will continue on for many more and I am physically active and run every day. When I was young we were told three score years and ten was what we could expect and yet now it is four score plus.

It appears that the current generations are less likely to suffer the environmental poisons that we experienced and endured, but they are suffering the issues of affluence: obesity, poor diets and lack of exercise. Added to this is the current pandemic, something I had not experienced in my lifetime, and I hope that science will find a way to prevent this continuing for long and prevent future ones.

The first nine parts of the audiobook of the fantasy novel, For All Time, is free to listen to on the Soundcloud player above. A new part will be added regularly.

8 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – How Did We Survive? Radium, Mercury, Lead, Asbestos, Sawdust, DDT – Things We Had That Aren’t Allowed Nowadays.”

  1. Thank you for your memories of childwood……we seemed to have survived despite the ‘chemistry sets’ etc.
    I was brought up in Leeds (born 1950) and you keep reminding me of some great times as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The book of experiments that came with my chemistry set had a section for gunpowder, the contents of which had been removed and replaced with “Deleted due to safety”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting, I am no expert but those banned substances of yesteryear like Asbestos didn’t necessarily kill you but some did suffer just like smokers, you mention DDT by banning its use how many additional lives have been lost to Malaria still one of the world’s biggest killers, today we have different killers like obesity and diabetes through our lifestyle, some experts suggest the next generation will not live as long or as healthy as baby boomers through life choices

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Asbestos can kill, Alan and I know at least one person who has died due to it, but I understand that there are benefits and risks to many things. What is important, I guess, is that when there are safe alternatives,they are used. It is very true that lifestyle impacts on length and quality of life and it will be a shame if longevity for the population is reduced.


  4. Mercury. In the chemistry lab at Roundhay School we were instructed how to make the stuff on blocks of carbon from (I guess) some mercury salt or other, using a ‘blowtorch’. This was simply a metal tube, one end of which was put into your mouth while the other end was inserted into the flame of a Bunsen Burner. You took a deep breath, blew into the tube (you only ever sucked one time) and directed the flame onto the chemical on the charcoal block. After some time, this produced a small bead of mercury, which we were allowed to roll around on the palms of our hands (no gloves or face masks, of course), before dropping it onto the floor, where it instantly disappeared. The cracks in those old wooden chemistry lab floors must have been full of the stuff.

    Using my new-found knowledge of chemistry, I learned how to make an interesting chemical called nitrogen iodide, from iodine and ammonia. It’s a chemical which has no apparent use as it is so unstable that the slightest touch converts it instantly to nitrogen and iodine vapour, accompanied by a very loud (and I mean very loud) bang. I was quite proud of myself that I’d made it, but I only made it once – my slight tinnitus could possibly be traced back to that incident. I also found that weed killer and sugar in the right proportions could also make a decent explosive. I still have all of my fingers, but my dad never did find out where his weed killer had gone.

    When I was in the Scouts, we used to go to summer camp in a small valley (somewhere near Ripon, I seem to remember). We would fasten one end of a thick rope to a tree at the top of one side of the valley and the other end to a tree on the valley floor. We would then cut a forked stick (like the ones we used for catapults, but bigger), put the inverted ‘Y’ stick over the rope, hang on to the ‘arms’ of the ‘Y’ and slide down the rope. Now they’re called ziplines with all sorts of safety harnesses and insurance wavers to be signed.

    We didn’t have skateboards (I don’t think they had been invented – certainly not in England), but where I lived in Moortown we had hills. We made do with a book on a roller skate, which we sat on and rolled down the pavement on a convenient hill. No crash helmets, gloves or knee pads of course, but we did end up with lots of scraped and bruised knuckles. We made our own bogies from pram wheels for use on the same stretch of hill. If you were really lucky you might get some of the big wheels from an old Silver Cross pram – you were then the envy of the neighbourhood. It didn’t seem to snow much in the early 60’s, but when it did, out would come the sledges (for the same hill). What few cars were around in those days couldn’t negotiate the hill, but we could. Who can forget the “allez, allez, allez” cry as we set off en-masse down the icy hill.

    And yet we survived.

    I never did get into cigarettes. The nearest I got was the Procul Harum LP, “Salty Dog”, which used a likeness of the pictured Player’s Navy Cut cigarette packet label as its cover. My dad wasn’t too impressed, since they were his daily ‘cigs’ and he hated rock music.


    Virginia, USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My goodness Terry, you were far more into the chemicals than me. Where would science be without a few explosions. Times were indeed very different. I also used to ride roller skates with a book attached. If you held on to the book you could lose all the skin off your knuckles if it tipped to one side.
      Good to hear that we shared similar experiences. You missed nothing with the cigarettes and I am so glad I stopped so long ago.
      Good to hear from you.


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