Spanish Flu – arrives in Rochester

Every national event is made up of a myriad of individual causative or consequential experiences. In this blog I hope to give a sense of how Spanish Flu affected the people of Rochester / Medway in the autumn of 1918.

The flu pandemic of 1918 was referred to as the Spanish Flu as a consequence of it being reported extensively in the free-press of neutral Spain. Although this pandemic was not caused by the war, the mass movement of people and overcrowded public transport and housing, enabled its rapid spread – particularly within populations run down by stress and poor diet. When one considers that the population of the Medway Town had quadrupled by October 1915, and quality food was in short supply by 1918, it’s easy to see how the conditions were created that would enable the rapid spread of any contagious disease.

Symptoms of Spanish Flu

Spanish Flu was far worse than previous outbreaks of flu. The first signs of having contracted it were not dissimilar to modern-day flu – fever, cough and runny noise – however the fever could be worse. For about 20% of those who caught Spanish Flu that was the extent of their illness before they progressed to convalescence. However for 80% of those who contracted Spanish Flu they went on to develop very severe symptoms and complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis, that killed them – many turning a lavender colour due to the lack of oxygen in their blood. The rate of deterioration and death could be very rapid – particularly amongst those aged between 20 & 40 years.

Managing the risk of diseases spreading

By October 1915 the population of the Medway Towns had quadrupled. Housing in many parts of the towns was seriously substandard and probably every home had a billeted solider or war-worker – adding to the problem of overcrowding. The main means of transport was public and due to the mass influx of people trams and buses would have been overcrowded. 

As the war progressed people would have accumulated problems associated with a poor diet – one particularly short of sugar and fats. With fuel being in short supply and expensive, many houses would have been cold and damp. This in itself would not have been the cause of the flu but added to the other factors and perhaps stress/distress, the immune systems of individuals could have been weakened. 

Long before Spanish Flu arrived the authorities in Medway were aware of the need to contain the spread of diseases. In February 1915 the management of the Strood VAD Hospital (VAD = Voluntary Aid Detachment) issued an instruction preventing convalescent soldiers from being taken out by friends to public or private entertainments, or to be taken home to dinners or teas. The reason for this instruction was not explained but was probably to reduce the risk of infections being brought into the hospital that was caring for some very vulnerable men.

Although the management of the Strood VAD was alert to the risks, that may not have been so for Rochester Town Council who came across as reticent to act proactively in preventing the spread of diseases. In April 1916, had it not been for the intervention of the Board of Education, the Rochester Education Committee would have reintroduced slates in order to save on paper. The Board stated that they regarded the reintroduction of slates as a threat to hygiene as they are cleaned between use with spittle.

In February 1917 Rochester Council declined an invitation to join a joint committee set up by the Town Clerks of Chatham and Gillingham, to examine what action could be taken to ameliorate the risks associated with overcrowded trams – Rochester councillors had concluded that there was little to be achieved. However, three months later, for reasons not discovered, Rochester had joined the committee and was actively campaigning for all trams to be fitted with front and rear louver windows – that could not be closed by the public – in order to increase the airflow through crowded trams.

Flu was not the only contagious diseases

At a time before antibiotics, antiviral and vaccinations there were many infectious diseases that posed a significant public health risk. In December 1914 there were between 40 & 50 children being treated at St. William’s Hospital for infectious diseases – many probably with diphtheria. 

The influx of soldiers into the area brought Spotted Fever (cerebrospinal meningitis) into the towns. Households who had a member with Spotted Fever were placed in quarantine. This would have had serious consequences if the family’s bread winner was unable to work. If Spotted Fever was brought into the household by a billeted solider the military was expected to pay compensation. This was not always the case and Rochester Town Council often had to take up the case on behalf of a quarantined family.

Spanish Flu Arrives

Reports of the flu in Medway prior to the Autumn 1918. It is possible that flu was in the area before then but the press was ‘encouraged’ not to report it, or it was not significantly lethal as no steps were taken to close schools or places of entertainment. Reports of a significant number of deaths in Rochester and surrounding area, began to appear in the newspapers in October 1918 suggesting that Medway was hit by the second and more virulent wave.

The impact of this Autumn wave of flu required local councils in early November to close schools. This could suggest that the flu did not really take hold in the Towns until October. This would ‘match-well’ with the Americans, who are thought to have brought the the flu over with them, arriving and being billeted in Medway late July / early August.

At the end of October it was reported in the local press that there had been 26 deaths in Rochester – nine on the Rochester side and 17 on the Strood side. Early in November the reports of the numbers infected and who had died of the flu or associated complications, give an indication of the size and nature of the impact it was having on Rochester and the other Towns.

In addition to the threat to life the flu seriously disrupted essential services that were already understaffed as a result of men being called up or working in the war industries. The following ‘impacts’ were reported during the first week of November 1918.

Schools: At the beginning of November 1,472 children and 28 teachers were absent due to the flu. This led to the Rochester Education Committee closing all its Elementary Schools – something that was also done by the authorities in Chatham and Gillingham. Whilst the schools were closed all windows were left open and the floors were scrubbed. The Governors of the Maths School also decided to close due to the absence of boys and staff, and the Governors of the Girls’ Grammar School decided to close the school for one week at half term instead of the usual two days.

There were concerns that children who were out of school may go to cinemas and thereby pick up or spread the inflection. Cinemas were therefore asked to refuse entry to children under the age of 15. (14 was the school leaving age at this time.)

Public services: Over 70 of the Locomotive Dept of the Local Railway, and 50 of the Rochester and Chatham postal service were off with the flu.

Undertakers were placed under an incredible and urgent pressure. The dead needed to be buried to prevent further public health problems, but their workforce had been significantly depleted by the men who made the coffins and who dug the graves, having been called up; add to this a phenomenal increase in the death rate and there was the risk of another public health crisis developing. To deal with this problem the Royal Engineers deployed 12 Sappers to assist undertakers to make coffins and to dig graves.

Businesses: At the best of times many businesses struggled as a consequence of staff shortages – what with men being called up and women taking more lucrative employment in Government / munition businesses. Two business, one in Stood and another in Rochester, needed to temporarily close. Some businesses – that were able to function – did well! Florists and pharmacists saw an increase in their trade. By the end of November the epidemic must have been abating as Bovril placed a notice in the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News expressing regret at the shortage of Bovril during the recent Influenza epidemic; the manufacturer put the shortage down to a shortage of bottles.

Military: 380 men of the Army Pay Corp were reported as being on sick leave. In order to try and prevent further degradation of the military the local corps in Medway attended, every morning, what they termed a ‘sniffing parade’. At this parade each solider was issued with a handful of solution which they were required to inhale. What was in the solution was not reported but some doctors advocated washing the inside of the nose with soap and water, and others forcing yourself to sneeze.

Soldiers and sailors were also banned from attending cinemas and the theatre.

Health & Medical Care: Although businesses could close the pressure placed on hospitals would have been incredible. A depleted and sick corps of staff could not abandon the care of the wounded, or neglect those sick with the flu. Some such as Sister Mathew – see Strood VAD below – may well have sacrificed their life in continuing to work whilst stricken with the flu.

Stood Union: It was reported that all staff of the Strood Union – which included an infirmary – were off sick. Although no link was made it was reported in September 1918 that the Strood Union Guardians had received a report from the Union’s doctor stating that the diet of the nursing staff was unsatisfactory and there was a risk of the nurses being undernourished. 

Strood VAD: It appears that the nursing and medical staff managed to sustain the care services during the flu crisis despite the Commandant, Quartermaster and other staff being down with the flu. However members of the VAD Ambulance Service attended at night to complete the complex accounts required for the VAD to claim reimbursement for the care they provided to the wounded. 

Sister Mathew – The cost of maintaining the care services was high. Sister Mathew appears to have been the last trained nurse able to work, and despite catching the flu continued to work when she should have taken to her bed. When her physical powers failed she was ultimately obliged to take to her bed. Sadly she was not to recover and her death was reported in December 1918. She was buried in Cobham, Surrey, but a memorial service was held for her in the Choir of Rochester Cathedral.

Medway Union: In the last week of October and the first week of November 1918, the Medway Union admitted to its infirmary 30 people from Chatham, three from Rochester and six from Gillingham with the flu or pneumonia. Of these 13 died. Six nurses and seven of the doctor’s medical team were also down with the flu.

Royal Naval Hospital – reports stated that the staff were being badly taxed although figures have not been found. However there must have been a significant increase in admissions as all the recreation rooms were requisition as wards. To contain the spread or perhaps because suitable rooms have been taken over as wards, all concerts were cancelled. 

Remedial actions

Once established there was probably little that could be done to combat the spread of the flu. The Mayor of Rochester – having resisted taking action to reduce the risks associated with overcrowded trams – wrote to the managers of the tram company suggesting that no standing should be allowed in the middle of the tram while influenza was prevalent, and that the door near the driver should be kept open. Many houses of amusement refused entry to children under the age of 15. Reading between the lines it appears there could have been some discussion as to whether theatres should be forced to close. One disgruntled correspondent wrote to the press complaining that theatres were not to blame for the spread of flu, arguing that people with flu were most likely to go to bed than to the theatre. What the correspondent appears not to have appreciated is that the time between appearing healthy and being seriously ill, was very short.

Tragic personal stories – too many to list

The list of the deaths showed that the flu posed a serious threat to the young – but there were also tragic circumstances of mothers dying leaving a large number of children – many perhaps orphaned if their father had been killed in the war. Returning soldiers and prisoners of war could also have found that their wife had died.

The BBC website – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-45097068 – states that less than 30 people died of the flu in Medway – or data was not provided. It is difficult to reconcile <30 with the contemporary newspaper reports. In addition to the numbers outlined above – which do not include those who may have only been listed in the ‘death columns’ – there were family tragedies such as:

  • At Lower Higham Mrs Clements died leaving a family of six children.
  • Mr & Mrs H. Haseldon from Telegraph Hill died leaving three children
  • George Bridges Austen (34) licensee of the Star Hotel who was twice exempted from military service and took out loans to develop his business, was taken by the flu.
  • A Gillingham woman who was caring for an invalid child went down with the flu. While abed she received a telegram asking her to come at once as her husband was seriously ill with pneumonia – the next day she received a telegram telling her he had died.
  • Dean of Rochester and Mrs Storrs, heard at the time of being told the Armistice had been signed, that their second son, Lieut. Frances Storrs had died of the flu.

Final thought – tribute to Sister Mathew and others like her, who sacrificed their wellbeing and life for others.

As we watch documentaries concerning the Spanish Flu pandemic, it’s worth remembering that history doesn’t take place somewhere else. People died in Medway from the flu, and perhaps as a consequence of caring for those with the disease – such as Sister Mathew who exhausted herself to the extent she no longer had the resources to fight an infection.

Geoff Ettridge 25 September 2018.

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