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Spanish flu ‘lockdown’ of 1918: Schools closed, buses and trains cancelled and the PM struck down

One year ago today, a sweeping national lockdown was imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

In what is the biggest crisis since the Second World War, businesses have had to shut their doors, schools were closed and thousands of Britons have lost their jobs.

But a little over 100 years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic also wreaked havoc across the world, killing at least 50million people. 

In the UK, many schools were closed, buses and trains were cancelled and people were advised to self-isolate if they caught influenza.

And in an eerie echo of how Mr Johnson came close to death last year after catching coronavirus, the Prime Minister in 1918 – David Lloyd George – became seriously unwell with influenza.

Below, MailOnline looks back at how Britons coped with a pandemic which ended up killing more than 200,000 people in the UK – after the First World War had taken more than 800,000 soldiers’ lives.

A little over 100 years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic also wreaked havoc across the world

Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s ‘attack of influenza’ which could have killed him

In September 1918, Lloyd George, who had been Prime Minister since 1916, fell ill with Spanish flu at the same age – 55 – that Mr Johnson was struck down by coronavirus.

With Britain still engaged in war with Germany, the PM was on a tour of Manchester and was set to give a series of rousing speeches and attend events.

However, he had to cut his plans short because he became so unwell.

Speaking on a BBC Radio 4 programme about the pandemic, historian and author Catharine Arnold said Lloyd George was a ‘very forceful’ man so initially ‘pushed himself on’ when he began to feel unwell.

But the PM then became so ill that his schedule had to be scrapped and he needed to be cared for in a makeshift room in Manchester town hall.

Last year, there were few updates about Mr Johnson’s condition when he caught coronavirus.

The seriousness of the situation only became fully apparent when it was announced he had gone to hospital. 

In September 1918, Lloyd George, who had been Prime Minister since 1916, fell ill with Spanish flu at the same age – 55 – that Mr Johnson was struck down by coronavirus

The PM said two days ago he was still suffering a high temperature

In September 1918, Lloyd George, who had been Prime Minister since 1916, fell ill with Spanish flu at the same age – 55 – that Mr Johnson was struck down by coronavirus

A further update then revealed he had been admitted to intensive care.

In 1918, there was far less detail about the PM’s condition.

Officials were worried that, if it were announced that Lloyd George was seriously unwell, it would be a huge propaganda victory to Germany.

Ms Arnold said: ‘They made up a bed for him in Manchester town hall and they got a top doctor in.

‘He immediately said: ‘I think he’s got Spanish flu, don’t tell anyone.’

‘Quite a few people thought he was a goner. Basically if it had got out that the PM was mortally ill, it would have been a huge propaganda victory to the Germans.’

David Lloyd George became so ill that his schedule had to be scrapped and he needed to be cared for in a makeshift room in Manchester town hall

David Lloyd George became so ill that his schedule had to be scrapped and he needed to be cared for in a makeshift room in Manchester town hall

Despite the lack of detail in official pronouncements, Lloyd George in fact needed the help of a respirator to breath. His condition was later described by his valet as ‘touch and go’.

Ultimately though, like Mr Johnson, Lloyd George did survive his ordeal.

He had a fever for a week and needed several months of recuperation but was well enough to lead the British delegation at the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919, which officially brought hostilities with Germany to an end.

The Daily Mail's coverage in September 2019 about David Lloyd George's 'attack of influenza'

He had a fever for a week and needed several months of recuperation but was well enough to lead the British delegation at the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919, which officially brought hostilities with Germany to an end

Pictured: The Daily Mail’s coverage in September 2019 about David Lloyd George’s ‘attack of influenza’. He had a fever for a week and needed several months of recuperation but was well enough to lead the British delegation at the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919, which officially brought hostilities with Germany to an end

How schools were closed – hundreds of children were kept at home as virus gripped parts of nation

Although there was no centrally imposed lockdown like those seen across most of the world in response to coronavirus, steps were taken at a local and regional level to try to slow the spread of Spanish flu.

The first wave hit Britain in May 1918, with the first recorded case in Glasgow. Within weeks, the virus had spread southwards before appearing to peter out in the summer.

Much like with the second and third wave of the Covid-19 virus, Spanish flu then returned – in October 1918 – and spread alarmingly fast.

In response, hundreds of elementary schools were closed, although schools in London only shut their doors if staff absences made it impossible to keep them open.

There was no nationwide order to close schools during the Spanish flu pandemic, but many did close their doors amid outbreaks in parts of the country. Pictured: Young women wearing masks to guard against influenza

There was no nationwide order to close schools during the Spanish flu pandemic, but many did close their doors amid outbreaks in parts of the country. Pictured: Young women wearing masks to guard against influenza 

In Aberystwyth, Wales, most schools were shut from December until January 1919.

In Manchester, the city’s education committee agreed to shut all schools on the advice of Dr James Niven. Niven was Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health.

Speaking on a BBC Radio 4 programme about the pandemic, historian and author Catharine Arnold said there was ‘no doubt’ that Dr Niven’s approach saved ‘many, many lives’.

The medic also warned people to avoid public gatherings, said that flu sufferers should be kept warm in a ventilated room and warned that sick people should not return to work except under medical advice.

Many theatres, dance halls, cinemas closed for months

Leisure venues such as theatres and cinemas are closed as part of the current national lockdown, as they were last year when the first nationwide measures were imposed in response to coronavirus.

When Spanish flu struck, Dr Aida Milne explained on the BBC Radio 4 programme how cinema owners ‘protested’ at being forced to shut, because they were worried about going out of business.

In an attempt to keep their establishments open, cinema owners agreed to take steps to limit the spread of flu.

Dr Milne said: ‘So what they did in many places was they agreed that they would allow a time between showings so that they could fumigate and disinfect.

‘And they also barred children from coming into it because they considered children to be super spreaders.’

Buses and trains cancelled, mines forced to close and police shortages

Writing in his book The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence On History, author Jaime Breitnauer explains how daily activities in Britain were severely disrupted by the pandemic.

He said: ‘Across the nation, daily activities were drawing to a halt, with bus and train services postponed, post offices and bakeries on limited hours due to staff shortages and undertakers turning down orders as they were already struggling to process the number of dead.’

After four years of the ravages of the First World War, there were already food and fuel shortages.

Nearly everyone was either directly or indirectly affected by the injury, death or disappearance of a soldier in the ongoing conflict.

Buses and train services were cancelled and postponed as a result of the impact of Spanish flu. Pictured: A bus being disinfected in London in 1920

Buses and train services were cancelled and postponed as a result of the impact of Spanish flu. Pictured: A bus being disinfected in London in 1920

Last year, trains on the London Underground were also regularly disinfected to try to stop the spread of coronavirus

Last year, trains on the London Underground were also regularly disinfected to try to stop the spread of coronavirus

By July 1918, it was reported how some coal mines in Newcastle had as many as 70 per cent of their workers off sick.

This brought production – during a time of great need – ‘practically to a standstill’, writes Breitnauer.

The author adds that the Prudential insurance company noted during its annual meeting in January 1919 how, between November and the end of December the year before, £650,000 was paid out to cover industrial losses from flu.

In the same period, just £279,000 had been paid for losses from war.

During the second wave, 1,500 police officers in London – a third of the workforce – failed to turn up for work because they were unwell.

Thousands of children orphaned and general health hammered

Breitnauer also sheds light on how the number of orphans in England, Scotland and Wales ‘increased sharply’ as a result of Spanish flu.

The crisis ended up spawning three charitable organisations to care for them: the National Child Adoption Association (NCAA); the National Adoption Society (NAS) and the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (NCUMC).

They were set up specifically to rehome children.

As for general health, the mortality rate for women aged 25 to 30 was 600 times higher in 1918 than in the previous four years.

Pregnant women also had a 50 per cent higher chance of developing lung-related illnesses, such as pneumonia.

The year of 1918 was also the first on record in which the number of deaths outweighed the number of live births, Breitnauer adds. 

How many churches REFUSED to close

Boris Johnson’s Government was criticised in some quarters for banning communal worship inside churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith venues during the first national lockdown.

Whilst there was no nationwide shutdown of churches during the Spanish flu crisis, some local authorities tried to force them to close.

However, speaking on the BBC’s Radio 4 documentary, Professor Karen Sayer, from Leeds Trinity University said a lot of them defiantly remained open.

She said: ‘A lot of churches refused to close. Some quite high-flying bishops said the government would have to pass an act to close the churches.

‘[They said] surely it’s all right if we just keep them well ventilated anyway. They were kind of defending that space.’ 

Use of public health posters 

In 2020 and 2021, Britons have been bombarded by official posters and adverts warning them about the risks posed by coronavirus and the need to observe social distancing and wash their hands.

When Spanish flu struck the UK, there were similar adverts. One, dating from Christmas 1918, urged Britons to ‘wear a mask’ and ‘wash your hands’. 

It added: ‘Avoid touching your face. Maintain a safe distance from others’. 

However, the emergence of Spanish flu also gave less scrupulous businessmen the chance to earn money by marketing products which they said would help guard against the infection.

When Spanish flu struck the UK, there were similar messages. Pictured: The above poster was issued during Christmas in 1918

In 2020 and 2021, Britons have been bombarded by official posters and adverts

When Spanish flu struck the UK, there were similar messages. Pictured: The above poster was issued during Christmas in 1918

Professor John Watkins said to the BBC: ‘The medical profession was almost incapable of providing an answer to the flu and there was a whole plethora of people trying to argue that their unctions and potions are going to be efficacious in every way to give you a cure of the flu.

‘People claimed that Bovril… Oxo… would even cure flu.’

On advert claimed: ‘A cup full of Oxo two or three times a day will prove an immense service as a protective measure. It’s a fact a sure preventative against influenza is coco.’

Another message from a shop spoke of the ‘immense value of Bovril’. 

The emergence of Spanish flu also gave less scrupulous businessmen the chance to earn money by marketing products which they said would help guard against the infection. Pictured: 'Why catch their influenza?'. An advert for Formamint germ killing throat tablets to ward against the spread of influenza

The emergence of Spanish flu also gave less scrupulous businessmen the chance to earn money by marketing products which they said would help guard against the infection. Pictured: ‘Why catch their influenza?’. An advert for Formamint germ killing throat tablets to ward against the spread of influenza

How people were warned to self-isolate

Although there were no laws about social-distancing, there was still general advice which warned about how Spanish flu was highly contagious.

A report in the Daily Mail in 1918 read: ‘…the first and obvious measure is to avoid infection as far as possible. If the person could isolate himself on top of a mountain he would certainly escape; if he travels daily in crowded trains and omnibuses and mingles with crowds under cover, he will almost surely fall a victim sooner or later.’

It also warned that the virus was present in the ‘nose and upper part of the air passages’, adding that when a sufferer ‘coughs or sneezes’ he ‘spread infection’.

The report continued: ‘The danger of catching the disease in the open is not very great, but crowded streets, like the Strand and Cheapside in London are little better than theatres and churches.’

If concluded by saying that a man who ‘walks two or three miles’ to work will ‘defy the microbe’, but if he travelled in a ‘stuffy train or omnibus’, the virus would ‘have the better of him’.  

Although there were no laws about social-distancing, there was still general advice which warned about how Spanish flu was highly contagious. Pictured: A report in the Daily Mail warning of the dangers posed by Spanish flu

Although there were no laws about social-distancing, there was still general advice which warned about how Spanish flu was highly contagious. Pictured: A report in the Daily Mail warning of the dangers posed by Spanish flu 

WHAT WAS SPANISH FLU?

The 1918 flu pandemic was unusually deadly and the first of two involving the H1N1 influenza virus.

It infected 500 million people globally, more than one-third of the world’s population, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic.

It resulted in the deaths of an estimated three to five per cent of the world’s population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

Spanish Flu resulted in the deaths of an estimated three to five per cent of the world's population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. This image shows soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with the virus

Spanish Flu resulted in the deaths of an estimated three to five per cent of the world’s population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. This image shows soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with the virus

Within months it had killed three times as many as World War I and did it more quickly than any other illness in recorded history.

Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill juvenile, elderly, or already weakened patients. By contrast, the 1918 pandemic predominantly killed previously healthy young adults.

To maintain morale, wartime censors minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. However, newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in Spain.

This created a false impression of Spain as being especially hard hit, leading to the pandemic’s nickname Spanish flu.

The close quarters and massive troop movements of World War I hastened the pandemic and probably both increased transmission and augmented mutation, researchers believe.

The true global mortality rate from the pandemic is not known, but an estimated 10 per cent to 20 per cent of those who were infected died. This would lead to a death toll of between 50 to 100 million people.


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