IT may have been the beginning of a new school year for thousands of East Lancashire youngsters 44 years ago, but for hundreds of them it was also time for an enforced holiday -- at home in bed with a raging temperature.

For just as the summer of 1957 waned, an epidemic of Asian flu broke out in East Lancashire -- hitting hardest first of all at schools in Colne towards the end of August.

In just 36 hours, nearly 400 of the town's pupils had to be sent home with the illness.

At Sacred Heart RC School, more than half came down with the bug. And absenteeism in Nelson and Colne schools reached a peak of more than 3,200.

It was an outbreak that was to ravage all parts of the country until early October -- and had been rampaging for nearly a month before the Ministry of Health confirmed in the third week in September that it actually was an Asiatic flu.

But, peculiarly, in East Lancashire, it seemed to hit first at schools -- and more so in secondary schools -- before it spread to the rest of the population.

And at first, officials pooh-poohed its severity, describing the symptoms as mild and suggesting that some of its supposed victims were swinging the lead.

But, several times, it went on to be a killer -- of young and old -- when victims went on to develop pneumonia.

But when it reached Clayton-le-Moors early in September and caused 150 youngsters to miss school, the divisional Medical Officer of Health, Dr R.C. Webster -- the man who became the BBC's 'Brain of Britain' quiz champion -- snorted: "There has been a lot of 'flap' about what is quite a trivial disease."

And when children in Darwen began to succumb, an education official said: "We think about half are staying off in sympathy with the others."

In Burnley, schools closed early for the town's September holiday in a bid to halt the disease's spread, but by then 5,000 youngsters -- 2,150 of the town's 4,177 secondary pupils; nearly 1,000 infants and more than 1,200 juniors -- were already off sick. School swimming galas at the North Street baths were scrapped because too many competitors were ill.

At Blackburn, a 14-year-old found herself alone in her fourth-year classroom at St Hilda's Girls' Secondary Modern as all her classmates went down with the virus.

Out of the school's 591 pupils, 325 were off with the flu. St Mary's College shut altogether as hundreds of boys and the headmaster succumbed.

But, as one GP explained, the disease seemed to spread in two waves -- first, in schools and then workplaces. And the second wave was just as savage.

At Accrington, postal services were stretched as nearly a third of staff went sick. National Insurance sickness claims rocketed by 700 per cent above normal and staff had to work 12-hour days to process them. At Padiham, a third of the town hall staff went down with the flu. More than half the operators at Nelson's telephone exchange went sick.

At Colne's Hartley hospital a third of the nurses were off as were a third of the staff at Blackburn's Woolworth store.

Weddings, holidays, hospital visits and football bus services were cancelled. In works, shops, offices, public transport and cinemas disinfectant was sprayed.

Chemists were running out of medicine bottles and, in Blackburn, when the town's September holiday began, there was near chaos when hundreds trying to get prescriptions dispensed jammed the only five pharmacies open on the rota.

Doctors were run off their feet. Said one Bacup GP: "There must be hundreds off work.

Doctors are receiving more calls than they can cope with. One of my colleagues had 59 calls before breakfast."

By then, the medicos were no longer sneezing at the epidemic's severity, but all they could really do was wait for it to pass.

The only advice they could offer was: Go to bed, take aspirin and stay there until you get better."