Historian Tony Foster looks back to a previous pandemic

IT’S just over 100 years since the last major pandemic – the so-called Spanish flu – which killed millions world-wide. Now we have a strain of the coronavirus to worry about.

We are being bombarded with information about the current killer, Covid-19, and the steps being taken to hold it in check.

So, with some trepidation, perhaps we can take a look at what happened a century ago and especially at its impact on East Lancashire.

The Great War was nearing its end when, what became known as Spanish flu, struck in June 1918. There were three waves and it stalked the streets until it finally petered out in May 1919.

It lasted nearly 12 months and took about 50 million lives world-wide.

Thirty years earlier we had had the Russian flu which started in what is now Uzbekistan, to the north of Afghanistan, and was spread via a new railway line into Europe. The “Spanish” virus was thought to have come to Europe the other way – from an army camp in the USA.

The Russian flu faded away after a few months and life slowly returned to normal. But the lessons that had been learnt were also allowed to fade away.

Back in 1918, some 25 years before Labour Party hero Aneurin Bevan launched the NHS, local authorities were left to cope with the pandemic. Central government, exhausted by four years of war, did little.

Temporary hospitals were opened locally. In the recently-built Spring Bank School in Darwen, desks were swapped for beds.

Everyone was advised to use a handkerchief, stay indoors and rest, avoid crowds and drink plenty of fluids.

People wore facemasks, but there was no talk of regularly washing your hands. Diagnostic-testing and ventilators were unheard of.

Some local authorities tried to close theatres and the new picture palaces. But many owners refused, fearing for their profits. Public meetings and Sunday Schools were banned. But no politician suggested closing the pubs and clubs.

The first wave ran from June to August and was relatively mild, with few deaths. However, the second wave, from October to December, was literally a killer and the death rate was high. Many people were well one day and dead the next. The third wave, from February to April 1919, was reckoned to be somewhere between the first two in severity.

East Lancashire was badly affected. Just some examples of deaths from the Spanish flu over the three waves: Blackburn 521, Burnley 350, Accrington 118, Bacup 59, Colne 89, Darwen 213, Nelson 116 and Rawtenstall 83.

Unlike the current coronavirus strain, the “three-day flu”, as it was called, hit the young more than the elderly.

Figures tell only part of the story. Every death was a tragedy for a family.

In Darwen’s “deadly week” in November 1918, the Darwen News recorded: “Mr Jepson, the manager of the Darwen Industrial Co-op lost both his daughters Bertha (22) and Nora (20) to the flu within minutes of each other. “

Another account says; “Mr Whittle of 67 Heys Lane, who had returned from the funeral of his wife and child on Friday, was found dead the following day. The whole family had been wiped out.”

Equally tragic is the story of Albert Howarth who returned to his home in Coleridge Street, Blackburn, from a Prisoner of War camp in Germany and died two days later followed shortly by his sister.

In cemeteries throughout East Lancashire there are many Commonwealth War Graves that mark the last resting places of soldiers who came through the horrors of war, only to succumb to the plague.

Private A E Ward, of the Australian Imperial Force, was on his way home to New South Wales when he took the opportunity to call on his cousin J H Leach in Darwen. He caught the virus there and died on December 1. He was buried with full military honours.

It had been first noticed at the giant British army base at Etaples in France from where it is thought bird flu mutated into a human virus and then strengthened.

Victims suffered a strange symptom as their faces turned a bluish-grey before they died from uncontrollable blood-loss filling their lungs.