How many people died of Spanish Flu in Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 18:01 20 February 2020
Our archives reveal tales of those lost in the last severe pandemic to grip the world
The bald facts are in the statistics about deaths and schools closed. The emotional heart is in the glimpses of loved ones lost - lines buried deep within the newspaper columns of 1918.
There was Harry Benjamin Bright, two months shy of his 8th birthday. He was sent home from school on a Friday, feeling ill, and was put to bed. The son of a Harwich-based naval petty officer died 75 minutes later, from acute influenza.
Sybil Stanford was 20. She'd joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (civilians who nursed military personnel) after 18 months helping in her father's office. Sybil was due to finish working at the American Red Cross Hospital, at Lancaster Gate, London, on the very day she became sick. She died 48 hours later. The funeral was at the Church of St Paul in Colchester, not that far from Sybil's parents' home at Braiswick.
She was the third member of the family to give her life for her country.
Then there was the "singularly pathetic case" of old corporal Sidney Bowman, of the Machine-gun Corps - back on leave for the first time after long service at the front.
He was barely home in Nunn's Road, Colchester, when he was "seized with influenza". He died at the Military Hospital of the after-effects, "after escaping all the dangers of battle".
The pandemic was nature's cruellest twist, inflicting the H1N1 virus on countries already contending with one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
According to America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the pandemic was the most severe in recent history.
"Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world's population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide..."
The CDCP says mortality was high in people younger than five years old, in the 20- to 40-years-old group, and 65 years and older. "The high mortality in healthy people... was a unique feature of this pandemic."
The reasons it proved so devastating are not well understood, though. With no vaccine, and no antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, coping strategies were limited to quarantine, good hygiene, disinfectants and limitations on public gatherings, "which were applied unevenly".
Suffolk recorded 975 deaths from flu between the weeks ending June 29, 1918, and May 10, 1919. There were few cases until November, 1918, where there was a spike.
The largest number of deaths was in the week of November 23, when 66 people died in West Suffolk and 56 in East Suffolk.
The outbreak was often called "Spanish flu". There are suggestions that wartime censorship masked the extent of the illness (though that didn't appear the case in Britain).
"Only in neutral Spain could the press speak freely about what was happening," says an article by National Geographic, "and it was from this media coverage that the disease took its nickname."
In the summer of 1918 the East Anglian Daily Times told of the "continued spread of the prostrating effects of the influenza epidemic".
Advertisers made hay, though Formamint Tablets probably wouldn't get away these days with headlining its ad "Public Notice" and saying that "attention is called to the following statement by the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board". It does make it sound official...
Flu had caused 12 deaths in Rhondda, South Wales, "and a thousand colliers... are prostrated". Four thousand Dudley children, in the West Midlands, had flu and schools were closed. "Some deaths have occurred and queues of patients are waiting nightly outside surgeries."
A Central News report from Amsterdam said: "Spanish influenza is still spreading alarmingly throughout Germany. The epidemic is now raging in Stuttgart, Magdeburg and many other towns. In Berlin the number of cases is especially numerous."
Captain Robert Neilson Wallace, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, died at Colchester from acute pneumonia, after flu. He'd graduated at Edinburgh in 1907 and given up a medical practice in Falkirk to join the army when war broke out.
The funeral was at Colchester Cemetery, with full military honours - the coffin carried on a gun-carriage covered with the Union Flag. The cortege was headed by a firing party, followed by the drums and fifes of the Durham Light Infantry and pipers of the Gordon Highlanders.
Colchester accountant Richard Wormell also died - from double pneumonia, following flu. He left a widow and two sons. One of them, a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service, had been severely hurt in an aviation crash.
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Peter Kearns, one of five brothers in the navy, was buried at St Benet's Minster Catholic Church, Beccles, with military honours. He had died from flu.
In 1915 Peter had been on a patrol yacht blown up by a shell off Zeebrugge. He was severely wounded but was saved. He rejoined the navy and served on a hospital ship, only to be claimed by a virus.
In the autumn, flu was "very prevalent" in Haverhill, where a schoolgirl died. There were many cases in the Sudbury area, too, but "prompt remedial measures" limited the number of fatal attacks. One who did succumb was policeman F Savill, 30. A soldier also died.
The school at Borley was closed, as were schools in the Long Melford area. A boy died at Bures.
"The scarcity of doctors in some places, coupled with the fact that several are ill, presents a difficulty," said a news report.
VAD nurse Winifred Furlong, from Saffron Walden, died at 24. She had flu, then fatal pneumonia. The same thing killed foundryman Arthur Scrutton, of Winchester Road, Colchester, and a young shop assistant.
At a meeting to recruit more VAD workers, so trained nurses could be relieved of clerical and household duties and treat more patients, Col N Barron spoke. He was in charge of Colchester Military Hospital and attributed the epidemic to insanitary conditions (such as unswept streets), overwork, underfeeding and anxiety.
'A public danger'
The number of deaths from flu during one week late in October was 4,482 - across England and Wales. Of this, 2,225 were in London.
A report on November 1 said schools had closed in Ipswich (for 10 days) and South Suffolk. As flu spread rapidly, schools also shut at Bures, Nayland, Leavenheath, Stoke by Nayland, Hartest, Lawshall, Shimpling and Alpheton.
While the epidemic was said to be easing in metropolitan areas, it seemed acute in East Anglia, particularly the central Suffolk villages.
A meeting of Stowmarket Urban Council heard that medical personnel locally were having difficulty coping with the outbreak.
Schools in Halstead closed, with flu prevalent in the town. Two young men died at nearby Earls Colne.
Dr A Pringle, Ipswich's medical officer, highlighted precautions to take to curb the virus. He also criticised the "alarmist statements that have been made in the press with regard to it".
Isolation was key, though the disease was so infectious that it spread quickly - meaning quarantine, other than at home, was pretty much ineffectual.
He suggested stopping groups of people meeting in small spaces. As the epidemic affected young people significantly, the young should not gather in buildings - hence, schools were closed and children under 15 stopped from going to theatres and cinemas.
Anyone with the virus should go to bed and stay there until they got better.
"In the case of influenza, the man who prides himself on 'sticking it out' is a public danger."
He prescribed plain, nutritious food for all, sufficient sleep and strict cleanliness, while "intemperate use of drink" would lower resistance.
"Above all things, free ventilation of the house is essential. It is important that this should be carried out whilst the inmates are in the house... The windows of every sleeping room should be kept open during the whole night."
Amid the worry, the Bill that would start giving women the vote had its second reading in Parliament. The war was going well - the headline on November 5: "The Final Push... Big bite on Thirty-Mile Front".
Statistics showed a serious rise in flu-related deaths. In the 96 biggest towns of England and Wales there were 7,417 - up from 4,482 the previous week. Mr T Redford, manager of wholesale confectioner and fruiterer Hancock and Co in Colchester, died. Pneumonia had followed flu. The father of three young children had been a volunteer in the Boer War and had spent four years with the Special Constabulary.
An EADT report said: "The epidemic is still rampant in Ipswich, and while offices are being denuded of their clerks, shops are having to close temporarily through all hands having to abandon work.
"During the past four weeks the deaths from influenza have been gradually rising. For the week ending October 26th there were 5, week ending November 2nd 16, November 9th 35, and for last week 33.
"For last week, the death rate was raised by the influenza victims to 54.2, as compared with 37.3 in the week before. When it is pointed out that the death rate before the epidemic very often did not reach double figures, and was as low as 5 in one week, it will be realised what a rise there has been."
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