|The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 caused more worldwide deaths than any pandemic before or since. In Britain 25 % of the population was infected and 228,000 died. Globally it killed five times more than WW1. The total number of fatalities is given as 50 million - some think that is a conservative estimate - and the rapid spread of the virus round the world was put down to troop movements during WW1.
Often referred to as the 'Spanish flu' it did not originate in Spain although the King of Spain was one of the first to go down with it (but recovered). Britain and her allies in WW1 wanting to maintain morale and, reluctant to indicate any sign of weakness to the enemy, censored reporting on the spread of the virus but Spain, being neutral, had no such concerns and 'told it like it was'.
It is believed the virus was a form of avian flu and originated in the United States although Colchester researcher, author and lecturer, Dr Paul Rusiecki, suspects it started in the fields of World War 1 where large amounts of poultry had been kept before the hostilities. Soldiers in the trenches in France being in primitive, crowded conditions fell ill and the spread was rapid. Generally it was a three day fever but up to about a fifth developed pneumonia and septicaemia and there were no anti-biotics for pneumonia in those days.
There had been a serious outbreak of flu which came in waves over several years between 1890 and 1917 but the effects were nowhere near as devastating as the Spanish Flu was to prove.
Whereas flu usually affects the very young and the old, on this occasion 20 - 40 year olds were particularly affected. Women too were more vulnerable, especially expectant mothers whose immune systems were not as efficient during pregnancy.
There were no vaccines available then and the population was generally not as nutritionally healthy as now.
In Britain, Glasgow was the first town to have cases in May 1918 and the first reports of large-scale flu outbreaks were from the military camp, Bramley Camp, in Hampshire where hundreds of German Prisoners of War were being kept. By June the flu had reached London.
There were two waves of the virus in 1918, the first in the summer, when not many died, and the second, the most severe of all, in the autumn of that year spread by the crowds gathering for Armistice Day on 11th November. There was a brief return of the virus between February and April 1919 which died away quickly.
The Essex County Standard first referred to the influenza on 13th July 1918 when it reported the virus had caused several deaths
and prostrated many hundreds possibly thousands and it mentions those villages affected. Several schools in Colchester had been temporarily closed between June and August that year but by mid-October all schools were closed again.
The virus began generally with cold-like symptoms, headache, fever, sometimes sneezing but as it developed it affected the lungs and destroyed the surface of the lungs. This lung damage then exposed the victim to bacterial infection and often pneumonia would set in. For some there were no symptoms and some people just dropped in the street where they were standing. Sometimes it could be over in just a few hours.
In October 1918, The Times reported that hospitals and workhouse infirmaries in Essex were badly affected. As the death toll rose Essex County Council appealed for more coffin makers.
On 11th November 1918 as rumours filtered through that Germany had signed an armistice, here in Colchester, crowds formed outside the newspaper
offices of the Essex County Standard. As the notice was put up in the window of the newspaper offices and word got round, people took to the
streets to celebrate; the threat of spreading the virus forgotten in this need to celebrate the cessation of the war to end all wars.
As soldiers returned to Colchester by train at the end of the war they too were carrying the virus.
In Andrews Phillips's book, Colchester The Great War, he tells us that by November 1918 patients in Colchester's military hospital were dying at the rate of ten a day. By the end of 1918 a report confirmed that 28 German prisoners of war had died at the Military Hospital. On a daily basis the bodies of soldiers who had died in hospitals here were taken to North Station to be sent home to their families.
Colchester Council leafletted every house in town, the advice was to keep fit and avoid infection. Advice included keeping warm and sleeping with good ventilation; crowded areas, getting cold, tired, and drinking alcohol to excess were all to be avoided. Cinemas and theatres were disinfected after every performance.
The Essex County Standard said the precautions were somewhat meagre and indeed by 1919 323 had died across Colchester.
So did the village of Peldon escape the influenza?
Reports of earlier outbreaks of flu affecting the village appear in the Peldon School logbook, in January 1890 and again in 1910 when parents, teachers and children were affected and the school was closed as a result on 21st January 1910.
There is no mention in the school logbook of the first wave of influenza which struck in Summer 1918, as yet it was a mild form but by the autumn its effects were devastating.
Although schools in Colchester were closed by mid-October 1918, here in Peldon it was not until late November that the school managers decided to close Peldon School.
25th November 1918 Several children away said to be ill with influenza
28th November 1918 Only 31 children present this morning and three of those had to be sent home as they were sick. A great many grown up people
being ill in the parish, the managers decided to close the school for a time as the Influenza which is prevalent throughout the country seems so
very infectious. Peldon School logbook (Essex Records Office 1910 - 1932 E/ML 36/3)
The next entry in the school logbook is 30th December
Re-opened school this morning. 59 children present out of 65 on books. During the time the School has been closed 'Influenza' has been rife in the Parish. More than 2/3 of the inhabitants having had it. There have been two deaths, both adults.
The after effects of the illness on the children were commented on by the school head during January 1919 many of them look pale still and
have bad coughs. Two children, Arthur Mason and Norman Everett, did not attend school by order of the local doctor from the school closure in November 1918 until 20th June 1919
Both boys have coughs and chest trouble since suffering from Influenza and are kept away by order of Dr B Hall
and even after their return the boys seem very delicate.
The third outbreak between February and April 1919 seems not to have unduly affected the village and the reports later in the year were probably just the seasonal flu which arrives every year.
On 24th October the school logbook reports
Bertie Reynolds, Thomas Gladwell and Ruth Whiting absent all the week from Influenza
and again on November 7th
The following children absent all the week from influenza Irene Wenlock, Kate Wenlock, Norman Everett Raymond Clark
The obituary for Golden Charles Simpson in 1939 conveys the extent to which Peldon's population had been affected.
He was also of a generous disposition, being happy when buying sweets for children or tobacco for old men, and when some 20 years back an epidemic
of influenza broke out, and those who escaped numbered only about half a dozen, it was Golden who went from house to house doing neighbourly turns
in feeding fowls and fetching milk Essex County Standard 25.3.1939
The only named casualty from Peldon was Private Dines, who died from influenza on 4th November 1918 and was buried on 12th; his grave is situated in the churchyard alongside the path between the Community Hall car park and St Mary's Church, Peldon. It is the only Commonwealth War grave in Peldon churchyard and was organised in recent years to commemorate a man who served in WW1 but did not appear on our memorial tablet in the church. He died in Little Warley Military Hospital from influenza just before the armistice was declared.
Peldon's burials register doesn't shed any light on two unnamed adults mentioned in the school logbook who died as a result of the flu, but research continues.
As the world struggles with the coronavirus, COVID 19, the experiences of those just over 100 years ago resonate with us today. The critical care staff of the NHS, even with the modern technology and scientific knowledge we enjoy in the twenty first century, will know only too well what the hospitals had to deal with then.
By the early twentieth century, nurses were taking an active role in caring for infectious patients. Fever nurses washed and fed the sick, applied
poultices and lotions, and monitored the patient's temperature and breathing.
One of the first wards to experience the effects of Spanish Flu was St Marylebone Infirmary, London, in October 1918. The Sisters tirelessly cared
for the weakened North Kensington community, as well as their own colleagues. The effect on nursing staff was devastating. www.rcn.org.uk/library-exhibitions/pandemic-nursing
Marylebone Infirmary, was a hospital in the front-line of care for people stricken with the Spanish Flu and one of the first to be badly affected.
The 2018 BBC documentary The Flu That Killed 50 Million used the notes from Dr Basil Hood, medical superintendent at Marylebone Infirmary, on which to base their programme and it is thanks to his notes and diaries that we have such detailed accounts of the epidemic. The flu that was to run like wildfire through the hospital seems to have owed much to the moving of 200 patients from Paddington Infirmary to Marylebone, including many infected soldiers
During this period, Marylebone was a poor district of London and Basil Hood wrote in his notes that his generally undernourished and overworked
patients from a slum area came to him with a bad prognosis to start with.
His notes below could easily have been written now in 2020.
the great and awful influenza epidemic fell upon us under which the place literally reeled...the staff fought like heroes to feed the patients,
scramble as best they could through the most elementary nursing and keep the delirious in bed. Each day the difficulties became more pronounced as
the patients increased and the nurses decreased, coming down like ninepins themselves. In total nine of these gallant girls lost their lives in
this never-to-be-forgotten epidemic ... I have never really got over that time and no wonder
This epidemic was certainly the worst and most distressing of my professional life. In the first week of December 1918 the total patients reached 779 in one day, the nursing staff total under 100.
His records show him doing 15 or 16 rounds a day and by the end of November when the worst seemed to be over he himself collapsed necessitating 3 months' leave. He did survive the war and left his notes now stored at the Wellcome Institute's library.
Peldon History Project
BBC documentary 2018 :The Flu That Killed 50 Million
"Colchester in The Great War" by Andrews Phillips
Private Dines by Geoff Gonella WW1_DIN
"Colchester and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-19" lecture by Dr Paul Rusiecki May 2019
"Britain and the 1918 - 19 Influenza Pandemic: A Dark Epilogue" by Niall Johnson
Notes on St Marylebone Infirmary 1910 - 1941, wellcomelibrary.org
"Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History" by Catharine Arnold