The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20-40 million people worldwide – more than the World War itself. It has been cited as the most devastating pandemic in recorded world history. Known as ‘Spanish Flu’ as the first cases were reported in Spain, or ‘La Grippe’, this strain of influenza was a global disaster. A fifth of the world population was affected, the flu being most deadly to people aged 20-40 years of age. Although not caused by World War 1, it is believed that the war was responsible for the spread. The British Medical Journal (13/7/1918) reported that symptoms were generally characterised by body aches, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea, an unproductive cough and harsh breathing. The onset was sudden with people struck down with dizziness, weakness and pain while on duty or in the street. The Journal of American Medicine (25/1/1919) commented on the number of people suffering mental disturbances and even psychoses. The danger of the influenza infection was the tendency to progress to an often-fatal secondary bacterial infection such as pneumonia.
The treatment was largely symptomatic, aiming to reduce fever and pain. Aspirin was a common remedy. To help with poor blood oxygen levels, oxygen was given via a mask or even injected under the skin. A popular remedy in the home was cinnamon in milk to help reduce the fever. The physicians suggested plenty of fluids and nourishment, bed rest and warm baths, although the warm baths were discarded due to lack of success.
Little was reported in the press initially, as the government felt it would not be good for morale at home, coming on the back of a hard-fought war, if the extent of the pandemic was known. The Llangollen Advertiser (12/7/1918) printed half a page by a reporter, known as the Philosopher on the Move, with the headline ‘IT’. This came after reports that the King of Spain had contracted this deadly strain of flu, not to mention people in Lancashire and Cheshire. All these places were thought to be too far away to cause any concern until the milkman arrived with the news that Percy in the village had IT. Children made up a rhyme which was chanted in the playground:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
The Oswestry Advertiser on 30 October 1918 reported that the influenza had become a sufficiently important topic of public concern to inspire leading articles in The Times. The local government, acting on instructions from the Public Health Authority, released information that the influenza pathogen was spread through coughs and sneezes. The Authority also believed good ventilation and fresh air were the best general methods in reducing transmission. In Oswestry it was reported that the schools would be closed and whilst the cinema could stay open to play the latest Charlie Chaplin film, anyone in the military must be refused entrance.
According to the Oswestry Advertiser on 6 November 1918, Dr Robert Beresford, General Practitioner from Willow Street and Oswestry’s Medical Officer of Health ordered the airing and disinfecting of the town’s churches and schools. They would stay closed until 27 November, 1918 when Dr Beresford visited all the schools in Oswestry and expressed pleasure at the number of scholars who had reassembled. Deaths from the Spanish Flu are hard to pin down as most people died of a secondary condition such as pneumonia or heart failure.
It might have been the distance from large cities which gave the local population the sense that the flu would not reach them. In 1919 the local news was concerned with the problem of venereal disease, employment of women and the issue of the miners. However, in January 1919 the Border Counties Advertizer newspaper did publish one letter from a Manchester resident as a wakeup call to Salopians. The writer states that ‘there is probably something to be said for the view that the less we think about the influenza the better, for no doubt a good many people hypnotise themselves into the disease’, but the letter warned the reader that they were in the grip of a virulent epidemic. He advocated a ‘Resist that cough’ campaign, encouraging people to get into the habit of coughing into a handkerchief and the question was asked ‘is it too much trouble to get up a bit earlier in the morning and walk to work rather than take public transport’, i.e. Avoid closely crammed spaces where the disease would spread quickest. Clearly this illustrates a fairly basic response to the flu, and the idea that one could think themselves into being ill seems rather unscientific.
In a slightly similar vein when a Frederick Price of the Bradford Arms, Knockin, requested that the Magistrate allowed him to use his pub as a cloakroom for a local ball, the magistrate’s clerk warned him of the dangers of holding such a public event. Referring to the influenza scourge, he cited a recent ball held at Ellesmere, from which of the 150 guests, 132 had been afflicted by the disease and of those, twelve had died. However, despite the obvious dangers, the Magistrate allowed the event to proceed as long as Mr Price took responsibility for any resultant illness. This seems a rather laid back approach by today’s standards. Clearly people were struggling to come to terms with the disease. No one knew who would get it next. However, soldiers and nurses were particularly vulnerable. One example was local soldier, Pte M. H. Parry of the 10th Battalion, Shropshire and Cheshire Yeomanry. He had spent four years fighting in Egypt, Palestine, France and Belgium. However, he died in France, aged 27, from the flu while on his way home for his demobilisation.
Local women, especially those who served as nurses were also recorded as being flu victims. On February 20th the death occurred of Frances May Sanderson. Frances was a member of the Stockport Division VADs, but she was well known in Maesbrook. Frances had only being married for a short time and her husband, William Edward Sanderson was demobbed on the day of her death. Sixteen of her fellow VADs attended her funeral in Stockport. In the same month, 22 year old Brenda Margaret Hills of Cadogan House, The Mount, Shrewsbury died. A VAD nurse, she worked at St John’s Auxillary Hospital and had contracted the influenza whilst working there. She is described as a much loved nurse and her funeral was attended by other VADs and some wounded soldiers. Another VAD who died was Eva Hammond, the youngest daughter of Jane and George Hammond, who had run the Plasyndinas Inn at Llanfechain. Previously a domestic servant on a farm, Eva was nursing at Crumpsall Hospital, Manchester and succumbed after a short attack of influenza. She was 25 years old.
The flu might not have reached the heights in Shropshire that it did elsewhere, but in 1919, death could come quickly, regardless of social background and birth. The nurses who had already given so much were now the victims of a new war.
Other cases of Spanish flu in Oswestry
Mrs Mary Jane Dudleston nee Jones of 2 Gatacre Road, died of heart failure as a result of contracting Spanish Flu in October 1918. Described as ‘well known in the town’ in Border Counties Advertiser 23 October 1918, she was born in Frankton, Shropshire in 1877. Mary had been married to Court Bailiff George Dudleston for around 14 years but had no children. Mary had worked as a teacher before her marriage. She was 51 years old when she died.
Winifred Ida Davies was the daughter of Mary and John Henry Davies, a cabinet maker. Winifred, born in Oswestry in late 1905, had an older sister Muriel. In 1911 they lived at 21 Brynhafod Road. Edith Buckley, possibly a relative, from Llanrhaeadr was living with them. Winifred died after contracting Spanish Flu in October 1918, aged 14 years. She was buried on 21 Oct 1918 in Oswestry Cemetery (Section E Grave 330) The grave also contains her sister Millicent Mary Davies (buried aged 28 months on 11 December 1905,around the time of Winifred’s birth) and her parents Mary, died 1942 and John Henry Davies, died 1947.
Fanny Elizabeth Richards was the wife of chief ticket collector and Oswestry Railway Union Representative, Robert Morris Richards, born 1881. Married in 1904, they had two children together – Margaret Gwendoline and Robert Morris and lived at 18 Welsh Walls, a household with 6 rooms, one of which was home to a boarder, Eva Richards age 27, also a railway worker. Fanny was widowed in 1918 when her husband Robert died having contracted Spanish Flu. Fanny is described in the 1939 census as an unpaid domestic, at 136 Bryn Castell, Oswestry, but continued to take on boarders, including Janet Owen, a chemist assistant and Olwen Hathaway, a solicitors clerk. Fanny herself died in 1958, leaving £3139 9s 6d.