IT’S 50 years ago since schoolchildren in Blackburn were overcome in a fainting frenzy.

In just a few days, more than 300 young people keeled over and had medical experts baffled as to the cause.


It was a lovely summer’s day in 1965 when hundreds of people, young and old, awaited the arrival of Princess Margaret, who had been invited to re-hallow the newly-restored nave of Blackburn Cathedral.

It was foggy in London, however, which meant the royal flight being delayed and left the huge crowds standing under the hot sun for more than three hours.

Among them were 800 schoolchildren who were waiting in the cathedral grounds with their Union Jack flags – and suddenly, one by one, they began to fall over.

A total of 140 of them collapsed and the lawns around the cathedral were littered with the bodies of inert youngsters as St John Ambulance members administered hurried first aid.

“Most of the children have been here since early morning. A lot have come without having a breakfast and that, combined with the hot sun and the excitement, is causing them to feel faint,” said an ambulance spokesman.

Lancashire Telegraph:

But the following day, 98 pupils at St Hilda’s Girls’ School in Blackburn, were also hit by fainting fits.

Some of them had been among those who also succumbed at the cathedral, but there was no logical explanation as to why it was happening all over again.

Every available district nurse and ambulanceman rushed to the scene and Park Lee Hospital opened special wards and lay out mattresses on the floor to cope – 35 girls were detained overnight.

Said an ambulance driver: “As fast as we took them away, new cases from classrooms in other parts of the school were being brought in.”

As more girls became ill at home over the weekend, health experts began going over the school with a fine-tooth comb, led by deputy medical officer Dr John Mountain.

But on Monday, another 54 pupils were floored and police sealed off the premises, with the school being ordered to close for the rest of the week.

Preparations were made to fumigate it, as doctors and health inspectors inspected the drains, scraped paint from the walls and furniture, took water samples and sent off snacks from the school’s tuck shop to their laboratories.

Three weeks later, medical officer of health Dr John Ardley reported that fumes from two factories and the school’s boilers had been partly to blame, but that they were not enough to put anyone in hospital unless they had been subjected to other stresses.

But more than a year later, his opinion was challenged in a report in the British Medical Journal by Blackburn consultant paediatrician Peter Moss and by a London psychologist, who believed mass hysteria was responsible for an ‘epidemic of over-breathing’.