Ormskirk During The Spanish Flu Pandemic

From its name, the origin of the 1918-19 flu pandemic, or ‘Spanish Flu’ would seem to be clear, but in reality several theories as to its origin exist.

What is known is that at this time troops from many nations were fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium, in conditions that helped the virus thrive. Troops who caught the disease were sent home to isolation hospitals and military hospitals to be treated. This ultimately brought the virus to England over the early months of 1918.

The first pandemic wave, which was benign and caused few deaths, took place in the spring of 1918. After a period of calm at the beginning of the summer of 1918, the virus mutated, becoming extremely virulent, and simultaneously caused millions of deaths throughout the world during the following months of October and November. A milder third wave occurred during the initial months of 1919, while the fourth and final wave spread during the first months of 1920.

The Local Board of Health advised that people should, “try to maintain a healthy hearty diet, despite wartime privations. People should strive to keep themselves in bodily health and good spirits. Worry and anxiety should be avoided as they can be as damaging as sitting in a crowded gathering”.

Well ventilated rooms at work and home were advised, cinema or theatre permitted but were to be kept to a minimum. Large indoor or outdoor meetings were to be avoided.

Visiting neighbours and friends were to be avoided, especially if they are suffering from the flu as the virus can be carried home to family.

First signs of the virus were headache or backache and then a sore throat, immediate bed rest was advised and self isolation was promoted rather than trying to carry on at work where others could be infected.

Dr George Edward Scholefield, O.B.E. Medical Officer for Health for West Lancs Rural District from 1898 to his retirement in 1926, advised those experiencing early symptoms to rinse their throat and nose with diluted antiseptic lotion.

As the illness progressed, sufferers would lose their appetite and develop a bad cough. Pneumonia would often signal a more severe case. Dr Scholefield asked that patients only called on their GP before 10am to arrange a home visit unless the patient was in a severe condition.

Dr Scholefield was a no nonsense Yorkshire man and wasn’t one to avoid the seriousness of the epidemic. He had been in charge of the Military Hospitals in West Lancashire during WW1 and he had the epidemic to contend with too.

The doctor also ordered that any school age children whose parents were infected should be kept off school.

In October 1918 Dr Scholefield warned that Ormskirk was suffering along with the rest of the country and all of Europe with cases of the influenza and that deaths around the country were being reported daily.

Children were especially prone to contracting the virus and spreading it. Schools were closed in many Lancashire towns and on October 29th 1918, Dr Scholefield advised that the Parochial Infant and Girls School in Derby Street and the Roman Catholic School in Hants Lane closed and remained closed until November 11th. The same schools were to be closed again due to influenza in 1937, when 105 pupils were absent due to the virus that November.

Dr Scholefield reported to the Council that he had personally visited the picture domes in the District to give them advice on how to clean and disinfect their auditorium. The Pavilion in Moorgate publicised their disinfecting process in their weekly advert in the local paper.

Dr Scholefield also asked the Council to fund the publication of an information leaflet containing advice on preventing the spread of the virus and the methods of care and the council agreed to fund the printing and distribution of the leaflets.

The peak of the deaths from the virus in the District appears to have been December 1918, when Dr Scholefield reported to the Board of Health that out of 80 deaths in the district, 50 were from influenza and 9 from bronchitis.

A plan to close the ‘Tramp ward’ at the Ormskirk Institution was delayed throughout 1918 to be sure that itinerants were not left to fall victim to the virus unknowingly and therefore carry the infection.

As the winter months approached in 1919, authorities were concerned that the virus would take hold again due to the colder conditions.

The annual report to Lancashire County Council by the County Medical Officer of Health stated that the death rate had reduced for 1919, 14.06 per 1000, being 3.20 less than 1918. A third of the reported 1919 deaths were however due to influenza or bronchitis, even though there had been less deaths from those two infections in 1919 than 1918.

Those who recovered from Influenza were left with medical problems that lingered. Burnley man William Nuttall served with the A.V.C. at Lathom Park in the summer of 1918 and succumbed to the epidemic. He recovered but two years later he died from Bronchitis having struggled to return to full health, he was 50 years old.

National newspapers included anecdotal reports of a man from Ormskirk losing his wife, mother and two children to influenza in February 1919 and another man and his two grandchildren in one house dying within 48 hours of one another. The speed of the deterioration of certain victims of the influenza is also reported, in some cases 48 hours was enough time for a person to show symptoms and then to sadly be lost to the virus.

The town tried to carry on as much as possible and with men returning from War who had suffered so much it was a difficult homecoming, finding their families dealing with the epidemic.

Sporting fixtures and annual shows appear to have continued unimpeded and much importance was placed on people keeping active in the outdoors.

In late September 1919 Sangers Circus came to town on the last leg of a County wide tour of towns and set up three days of shows in the town. The Thursday markets had suffered during the months of the epidemic, losing both traders and customers willing to travel and mingle in the usually crowded market streets. This, coupled with the poor harvest of clover hay during 1918 meant that the town was quite badly hit financially.

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