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The 1918 influenza pandemic – the greatest global killer since the Black Death

As the First World War staggered towards its bloody conclusion 100 years ago this month leaving 17 million dead, the war-worn world suffered a second catastrophe. A lethal influenza pandemic swept the planet killing at least 50 million people.  Most towns in the UK have fitting memorials to the war dead but the many who died from influenza are neither commemorated nor remembered. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was the greatest global killer since the Black Death.  It is very important that its victims should not be forgotten and lessons learnt for dealing with future pandemics.

Detail of the war memorial in the tiny Dorset hamlet of Briantspuddle showing some of the names and regiments of the war dead. Even from somewhere as small as Briantspuddle seven men were killed in WW1 and six in WW2.

 

By June 1918, the fighting had been raging for nearly four years.  Already worn down by the privations of war and the deaths of so many young men, people in the UK began to suffer the symptoms of influenza.  Sore throat, headache and fever were typical but, after a few days in bed, people recovered and got on with life as best as they could.  The illness had already swept across the US in the spring, reaching the trenches of the Western Front by mid-April leading to a brief lull in the fighting while troops recovered.

A poster warning of the dangers of Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons)

By September, however, a second wave of influenza surfaced, now in a deadly new guise. The virus was highly infectious sweeping through populations and quickly reaching most countries around the globe, its lethal progress assisted by the movement of troops to and from war zones.  The majority experienced typical flu symptoms, perhaps a little more severe, and recovered quickly but, for about one in twenty of those infected, the effects were much more serious. Pneumonia-like symptoms caused by bacterial infection of the lungs were common leading to breathing problems and copious bloody sputum.  Sometimes, the face and hands developed a purple-blue colouration suggesting oxygen starvation.  This colour might spread to the rest of the body, occasionally turning black before sufferers died.    Post mortem examination revealed lungs that were red, swollen and bloody and covered in watery pink liquid; victims had effectively drowned in their own bodily fluids. There were no effective treatments, antibiotics had not been developed, and the death rate was high. By Christmas the second influenza wave had burnt itself out only for a third wave of intermediate severity to strike in the first few months of 1919.  The pandemic came to be called “Spanish flu” because Spain alone, not being part of the war and so not subject to censorship, reported its flu experience freely.

An influenza hospital in the US (from Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the UK, the Spanish flu killed 228,000 people in the space of about six months but this was a global pandemic and around the world the mortality was staggering.  There were 675,000 deaths in the US and up to 17 million in India; overall the illness killed at least 3% of the entire population of the world.  Unlike typical seasonal flu epidemics, deaths from Spanish flu were highest among 20-40-year olds with pregnant women being particularly vulnerable.  If World War 1 had consumed the flower of youth, Spanish flu cut down those in their prime.

The sudden, widespread occurrence of a major illness with such high mortality caused huge disruption to daily life in the UK, especially in large towns.  Medical services were overwhelmed as many doctors and nurses were on war service, funeral directors were unable to cope and there were reports of bodies piling up in mortuaries.   The response of the medical authorities was poor, underplaying the gravity of the situation and providing little guidance; the newspapers, wearied by war news, were reluctant to give this new killer much coverage.  Understanding of disease in the general population was rudimentary and a sense of fear and dread prevailed as people witnessed so many apparently random deaths.

In the West Country, the second wave of influenza killed at least 750 people in both Devon and Somerset and about 400 in Dorset but many thousands must have been unwell. Contemporary reports from Medical Officers of Health and local papers give some idea of how life was disrupted:

“In Lyme Regis, schools were closed for a fortnight in October 1918 as a large number of teachers as well as children were stricken down with the malady”

“The epidemic occurred when there was a great shortage of doctors and nurses across Devon and in the autumn of 1918 many cases succumbed before they could be visited; so bad was this in north Devon that, in answer to appeals from Appledore and North Tawton, two members of the School Medical Staff went to the aid of overtaxed doctors”

“Schools in Dartmouth were still closed in November 1918, social functions postponed and a Corporation soup kitchen opened to supply nourishing soup for invalids”

Here are two extracts from letters written to the author Richard Collier by people alive in 1918 describing their experience of the pandemic.  These were kindly given to me by Hannah Mawdsley.

“Mrs Frances Smith wrote from Brixham, Devon about her flu memories.  She remembered funerals taking place late into the evening by lamplight, as there wasn’t enough time in the day to bury everyone. She caught the flu herself and was convinced that she was going to die. She had a very high fever and her hair fell out as a consequence of the flu, as well as severe aches in her back and legs.”

“Mr Bebbington was at Blandford Camp, Dorset during the pandemic. He remembered the huge numbers of flu victims there, as well as the depression that followed many flu cases, which seemed to result in a significant number of suicides in a nearby wood.”

 

This advertisement appeared in the Totnes Times in November 1918. There were no treatments for Spanish flu but claims for cures abounded at the time. This is one of the milder ones.

Given the high mortality and the disruption to normal society I find it surprising that the pandemic was not commemorated and seems to have been forgotten quickly.   Perhaps after four long years of carnage abroad and disruption at home, another horror was just too much, and the only way to cope was to forget?

But what was it about the 1918 flu virus that made it so virulent producing symptoms unlike any seen before and killing so many people? We still don’t know but scientists in the US have made some headway by studying the virus extracted from corpses of people who died during the second wave of the infection preserved in Alaskan permafrost. This showed, surprisingly, that the 1918 virus had a structure similar to a bird flu virus.  This partly accounts for its virulence: its bird flu-like structure would have been alien to the immune system of people at the time. Because it also had the ability to infect human cells, it was a lethal vector of disease causing, in some patients, severe damage to the lining of the respiratory tract leading to bacterial infection and pneumonia, engorged lung tissue and bloody sputum. A flu virus normally found in wild birds had acquired the ability to infect humans and the pandemic was the result.

Could history repeat itself? Could the world experience another lethal influenza pandemic?  There is certainly concern among experts that this could happen and the Government recognises pandemic influenza as “one of the most severe natural challenges likely to affect the UK”.   Current concern is focussed on two bird Influenza viruses circulating in the Far East.  Since 2003, these have infected more than 2000 people and nearly half have died.  Almost all the human infections have come from close contact with poultry or ducks but should one of these viruses change so that person to person transmission becomes possible, then we could be facing another major pandemic.  How would we react? Our health care systems, at least in the developed world, are more sophisticated compared to 1918 and surveillance is better so that we should have early warning of the start of a pandemic.  The UK Government has an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, we have antibiotics and vaccines to combat bacterial pneumonia and some antiviral drugs to reduce flu symptoms. There is still the likelihood that health care systems would be overloaded and perhaps our best long-term hope is the development of a universal flu vaccine to protect against all strains of the virus.

This article appeared in a slightly modified form in the November 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows a group of women in Brisbane, Australia wearing masks as a protection against Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons).

I should like to thank Hannah Mawdsley for giving me the two letters from people remembering the flu pandemic.

Dorset’s big farming experiment

The village of Briantspuddle lies near tranquil water meadows in the valley of the River Piddle, some eight miles to the east of Dorchester in the south-west of the UK. Nowadays, Briantspuddle is all pretty cottages, thatched roofs and peace and quiet. The village was far from quiet in the first half of the 20th century when Briantspuddle became a centre of agricultural and social innovation.

River Piddle at Briantspuddle
The river Piddle near Briantspuddle (doesn’t look like a piddle to me)

 

The Bladen Estate: Ernest Debenham’s vision for a new agriculture

Ernest Debenham was an educated and practical man, an innovator, always keen to try new ideas. He was, after all, the grandson of the founder of the Debenhams drapery and department store empire. By 1900 he was in charge of the company and became very wealthy. Around this time, he decided that agriculture would benefit from being organised as a business. He developed the idea of self-sufficient farming where centralised processing and selling directly from the farm would “cut out the middle man”, reduce costs and boost rural employment. In 1914, he purchased several farms in the Piddle Valley around Briantspuddle where he intended to test these ideas. This land became the Bladen Estate, named after the old form of Blagdon or Blackdown, the hill above Briantspuddle.

Houses for workers

Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle
Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle – one of the houses present before Debenham started building. It shows the “Dorset” style he tried to emulate.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Briantspuddle was a sleepy hamlet of about a dozen houses. To realise his vision of self-sufficient farming, Debenham planned a substantial expansion of the village although, because of the outbreak of war, new building did not start until 1919. He believed that good housing led to good work, so his first priority was to provide new houses for the estate workers. These were built in the traditional, Arts and Crafts style with thatched roofs, designed to blend sympathetically with the local environment. The new cottages were equipped with a bathroom and inside lavatory, and with self-sufficiency in mind, a quarter acre garden and a pig pen. Debenham also encouraged tree planting as a means of harmonising the new development with the surrounding countryside.

Cottages in Briantspuddle's Bladen Valley
Some of the “new” houses built by Debenham for estate workers in Briantspuddle’s Bladen Valley

 

Scientific agriculture

Dairy Ring 2
Part of the semi-circular dairy complex, now private housing

 

The Bladen Estate was established as an experiment to test how centralised processing and the application of recent scientific discoveries in agriculture might improve food production. Many aspects of farming were examined but perhaps the most innovative development was the central dairy in Briantspuddle. This was a purpose-built facility for collecting, testing and packaging milk from Estate farms. The new buildings were intended to be functional, the semi-circular design allowing easy access for transport. They were also meant to be aesthetically pleasing, imparting a special character to the area and, of course, they had thatched roofs. A unique aspect of the dairy was a bacteriological laboratory capable of testing milk for bacteria as well as fat content. Bonuses were paid to workers from farms supplying milk with the lowest bacterial count, so encouraging cleanliness in the milking parlour. The central dairy processed 1000 gallons of milk each day in to Grade A milk, butter, cheese and pig food. Milk was transported in covered motor wagons to a depot in Parkstone where it could be on sale within an hour of leaving Briantspuddle.

Old dairy buildings Briantspuddle
Some buildings I found at the back of the dairy complex, now private housing but looking like they once had an important function on the farm.

 

Animal husbandry was also approached systematically and scientifically. For each cow, detailed records were kept of weight, health, food consumed etc. Twice a year, the estate Veterinary Service examined animals for tuberculosis; cows testing positive were vaccinated. Similar intensive approaches were tried in relation to sheep, pigs and poultry and there were 70 bee colonies. Livestock were fed arable crops grown on the Estate; also balanced rations supplied by a company established by Debenham. The Estate had dedicated power and water supplies and its own transport depot, contributing to self sufficiency.


The end of the experiment

At its peak in 1929, the Bladen Estate farmed 10,000 acres of land in and around the Piddle Valley, including many individual farms, providing employment for 600 people. These were difficult times for business, especially for farming and the Estate required continual financial input to stay afloat. Eventually the funds required to subsidise the venture ran out, the Estate went in to decline and the individual farms were sold.

Ford over the river Piddle at Turner's Puddle
One of the constituent farms of the Estate at Turner’s Puddle, seen across the ford on the river Piddle

 

Despite the apparent failure of his experiment, Debenham should be seen as one of agriculture’s pioneers. His ideas for self-sufficient farming were ahead of his time. Many “modern” farming practices were tested on the Bladen Estate but at the time the tools to make them work were unavailable e.g. antibiotics to control disease under intensive conditions. Debenham was, sadly, wrong in one of his beliefs: increased production and centralisation have not allowed more people to live on the land; in fact the opposite has proven to be true.

21st century Briantspuddle

The contemporary visitor to Briantspuddle will encounter an attractive village with a remarkably consistent architectural style, a legacy of Ernest Debenham’s experiment and vision. The best place to experience this is the Bladen Valley, a small coombe populated by substantial, white-washed, thatched cottages originally built for estate workers, most still retaining their original look.

Bladen Valley 2
Cottages in the Bladen Valley, Briantspuddle – originally built for estate workers from 1919 onwards

 

At the foot of this valley lies the unusual War Memorial commissioned by Debenham to commemorate seven local men who died in the Great War (six names of WW2 fatalities have since been added). The memorial, sculpted in Portland Stone by the controversial artist Eric Gill, was dedicated in 1918, one day after the armistice had been signed.

War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
Madonna and child on War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle
Commemorating the names of the WW1 dead

 

In the main part of the village, there is the semicircular former dairy complex, now private housing, and the fine thatched Village Hall based on a converted 18th century barn which, together with the Social Club, provides a focus for village activities. Next to the Hall is the Village Shop and Post Office. This was once a granary but in 2002 became a community shop run by volunteers, “by the village, for the village”. It seems that in Briantspuddle, social experiments continue to the present day.

Dairy Ring 1
Another view of the semi-circular former dairy complex

 

Village Hall and shop Briantspuddle
The Village Hall (left) and Community Shop (right) in Briantspuddle

 

This article appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

When I visited the area, I came across the now-disused church at Turner’s Puddle a little way along the Piddle from Briantspuddle and was surprised to see snowdrops in profusion at this time of year (January 13th).

Turner's Puddle church with snowdrops
The disused church at Turner’s Puddle – to the left of the steps you may be able to see snowdrops in flower in January