Deadly pandemic's lesson from fairly recent history – when Spanish Flu struck for second time

Here it comes. The October second wave.

Victims of Spanish flu at US Army Camp Hospital No. 45, Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918
Victims of Spanish flu at US Army Camp Hospital No. 45, Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918

Just like at this time in October 1918, but at the same time very different.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 was one of the most lethal in history.

Estimates of the number of deaths worldwide vary, ranging from around 20 million to as high as 50 million. Britain escaped the worst compared with many other countries, but nevertheless more than a quarter of a million Britons were killed.

As with coronavirus, not even the Prime Minister was spared. David Lloyd George contracted Spanish Flu on September 12, 1918, but like Boris he pulled through.

Some other notable survivors included the cartoonist Walt Disney, US Presidents Woodrow Wilson – his physician told the press it was a cold – and Franklin D Roosevelt, and movie sweetheart Mary Pickford.

Donald Trump's grandfather was not so lucky, being one of the earliest fatalities of the first wave.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George contracted the disease but survived

Chillingly in view of Britain's current predicament, it was the second wave which began around this time in 1918 that proved the most deadly.

Yet whereas today it is the old and vulnerable who are the most in danger from Covid-19, the principal victims of Spanish Flu were the young and robust. Most who died were previously healthy and aged from 15 to 44.

Compared with 'normal' flu, symptoms were unusually severe. Although most people who contracted the virus survived, the mortality rate was extremely high in comparison with 'normal' flu.

There were several waves, the first reaching Britain in May 1918. The Great War was raging unabated and press reports were censored in the warring nations.

The first mentions of the disease appeared in newspapers in Madrid, in non-belligerent Spain. As a consequence the disease has gone down in history as Spanish Flu.

That first wave subsided, but then in October 1918 worrying reports began to emerge which heralded a deadly resurgence.

The developing public health catastrophe was to become a matter of statistics, but within the disaster were thousands of stories of individual tragedies, often with multiple deaths in one household.

Fred Francis, from Coalport, died along with his two sons. After a wedding in Rowley Regis the bride died, and then so did the groom who had been nursing her.

Arthur Smith, of Bent Street, Brierley Hill, lost his wife to the disease on one Saturday afternoon, his 18-year-old daughter died in the evening, and on the Monday morning his eldest son Artie also died.

A husband and wife, and the wife's brother, died in one house

In Heath Town a husband and wife, and the wife's brother, died in one house.

By early November a total of 30 deaths were reported in the Shifnal area, including in one house a father, a four-year-old child, and a 12-month-old.

Schools were shut. Places of entertainment, like Shrewsbury's theatre and the picture palaces, were closed. Firms were hard hit.

At Coalport China Works, nearly 100 workers were off because of the disease.

In Wolverhampton so many tram workers were ill that those who were not ill were working overtime to maintain services.

One Wolverhampton area firm had 500 absentees out of a workforce of 4,000.

Output at mines in the Cannock Chase district was seriously affected, but undertakers there, and elsewhere, were working flat out – so the colliery companies were helping make coffins.

In overtones of the current crisis, Wolverhampton's health committee issued some advice – "take regular meals; keep strictly temperate; get in the fresh air as much as possible; not be afraid to let the air blow through their houses, bearing in mind that the disease is a germ, and the more the atmosphere is diluted with pure air the less the risk of infection; not to be afraid of draughts; avoid a stuffy atmosphere as a deadly peril, and as far as possible crowded trains and trams – in fact, crowds of every kind."

Wolverhampton's medical officer of health Henry Malet said: "Any person with a cold should regard themselves as a danger to others."

A public notice in 1918 giving advice on how to stop the spread

As for precautions, he suggested gargling with water "just coloured pink with a solution of permanganate of potash and to sniff the same up into the nostrils."

In Walsall, one Dr Lynch suggested to an emergency committee of the town council it should seek the release of more whisky. Perhaps it was used for gargling.

How many died across our region? Contemporary reports carried in the Express & Star give snapshots which give an idea of the scale.

Cannock Urban Council heard from the medical officer of health that during November 1918 there were 128 deaths in that area.

In Dudley there were 67 deaths in one October week. In Tipton, 35 fatalities in one week, and 54 deaths in Dudley during November.

During November there were 88 deaths in Wolverhampton borough, of which 69 were attributed directly to influenza, and the remainder to pneumonia.

Oakengates councillors heard at the end of October there had been 30 deaths in the district, and around the same time it was reported there had been 24 deaths in Shrewsbury up until then.

The second wave was the worst. There was another wave, less severe, which claimed further lives in early 1919, and a final wave in 1920.

It is a chilling lesson from history so relevant today, but which within it contains a smidgeon of hope.

While sensible advice was given on preventing a spread of Spanish Flu, there was no cure. But after a while it simply went away.

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