As I was born a Londoner,, my thoughts have been turning in the pandemic, to how Londoners coped with Spanish Flu in 1918. My grandfather returned from WW1, having been gassed in the trenches. He resumed running his grocery business in Hampstead High Street. My grandmother, who was asthmatic, gave birth to her youngest son in 1918.
Whatever their personal circumstances, no word of Spanish Flu causing any problems or deaths, has been passed down through the generations in my family. The Imperial War Museum has a collection of documents bequeathed to the museum by historian and journalist Richard Collier. The collection was made in the 1970s and comprises approximately 1,700 accounts of first hand witnesses of the pandemic. In 1918 half of the population of London was infected with the disease and 2.5% of the population died of it.
As I researched it, gradually it became clear that Londoners went about their business much as usual. The flu was not mentioned in Parliament until October 1918 and central plans for dealing with it throughout Britain were not in place.
There was no NHS to protect and hospitals were overwhelmed. There was some disinfecting of public places and some mask wearing, but no instructions on social distancing, compulsory face covering and general lockdowns in force in 1918. This was despite the horrific effects of the flu, on those who were terminally ill, who turned blue and finally black through suffocation.
Schools were kept open, unless forced to close through the absence of teachers. Public transport was running, with advice to catch later trains, and Churches were open for services. It is unlikely therefore, with this lack of Government action, that my grandfather was wearing a mask while serving his customers, or restricting the numbers of people from entering his shop at any one time.
Perhaps he went to some public celebrations of Victory of the War, which were held, with no thought to the certainty of spreading the virus. As was the case in 2020, the Prime Minister of the day, Lloyd George caught the virus and survived.
Throughout the country, more women died than men, ascribed to it being women who nursed the sick. The Nursing profession suffered heavy losses. Younger people in their twenties and thirties had more fatalities from the disease than older people, which was thought to be caused by continuing to work when ill. It is possible though that H1N1A, the Spanish Flu virus provoked an overreaction in the strong immune systems of the young, which led to their deaths. (With Covid 19, the elderly population is the most vulnerable group for contracting severe illness and women have a higher survival rate than men).
The first published cases in the BMJ came in the form of a case series of the first fifty cases at the Central Royal Air Force Hospital, Hampstead from July 1918. By 1919 228,000 people in Britain had died from H1N1A. Gravediggers throughout the country, worked twenty-four seven to bury the dead. For whatever reason, there was no public memorial in the UK to the 1918-1919 pandemic.
In 2021 Covid 19 has already killed over 117,000 people, despite lockdowns, mask wearing and social distancing. The hope is that the vaccines will enable us to overcome it.