Public History, Flu Pandemics and the Provincial Media in 1918 and 2020


Dr Andrew Jackson, Bishop Grosseteste University

Some of those who trod the centenary-rich public-history trail through the years 2014-18, might feel that there is a sense of the past revisiting us in the present. Many of the features of the national crisis and emergency arrangements that established themselves during 1914-18 are being resurrected. More specifically, aspects of the impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 are being felt once again today.

It is hard to imagine that writing public history can be as challenging and sensitive a task and responsibility as it is currently. Radical public policy measures, once seen as inconceivable, are being announced near daily. Fears are heightening, locally and globally. News reports of families and communities losing loved ones are reaching us with increasing regularity. Attitudes in general are shifting and hardening week by week. Those of just a few weeks ago, in pre-lockdown times when toilet-roll hoarding had become something of a national obsession, already seem like, well, history. Indeed, I put pen to paper in the present as much as journalist and journal keeper, as public historian.

We are also confronted with new and different opportunities to engage: responding to requests to give podcasts to local history groups, taking up opportunities to transcribe historical sources, and accessing now more openly available digital resources.

This blog is based on a series of three short articles originally written for The Lincolnite, an online city newspaper, through mid to late March. The pieces drew on articles from the Lincolnshire Echo and Lincolnshire Chronicle, available through the British Newspaper Archives, and the quarterly news-sheet of the Lincolnshire Cooperative Society, available through the company’s online archive. As they still do today, provincial newspapers like these performed an essential function. They passed on global and national headlines, sampled the most newsworthy from other regions and localities, and represented as much as possible of what was considered of local significance (politically, economically, socially and culturally). Content and language were diverse in character. Editorial position could be objective or partial, and range widely in intent: informing, entertaining, critiquing or sensationalising.

The chronology of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic can be traced through the local media. ‘Remarkable rumours’ of a serious strain of flu reached the Lincolnshire press in May 1918, with speculation that a viral outbreak ‘ravaging among the ranks in the German forces’ might hamper their war effort. When the pandemic did arrive in Britain, it came not with one peak, but two. Through June and July 1918, the nation had to come to terms with two generally unfamiliar facts, that an influenza epidemic could break in the warmer months, and that flu could strike people more than once in a year. By June, the epidemic was getting closer to home. ‘The Grimsby District has been invaded by the influenza germ’, ran one report, ‘Dock workers have been attacked while engaged in their duties, and in some cases have had to be removed upon stretchers’. By July, in Lincoln, there were calls for the summer school term to be ended early, ‘now that more than half of the children are unable to attend’.

Another wave of flu broke out in the Autumn and London found itself placed earlier in the epidemic’s curve, the Lincolnshire press informed its readers. By the end of October, the capital was hoping that the climax might be near at hand, while in Lincoln notices were starting to be posted of school closures, with 10% of pupils across the city affected. By mid-November, there was a sense that enough of the peak may have passed through for some Lincoln schools to reopen in order to celebrate the Armistice and the end of the Great War. A month later, midway through December, local health officials could confirm that the number of new cases had started to fall, and that ‘the depressing rate of mortality last month’ may no longer be a likelihood again in the immediate term. The flu did appear to linger, though. As late as February 1919, almost one year on, local public health officials were republicizing appeals for community volunteers to help with households still suffering from the effects of the flu.

One hundred years ago, it was to local newspapers, posters in public places, and word-of-mouth that many turned for the latest official guidance. In addition, it was to the district Medical Officers of Health (MoH) that the local authorities and the public would look for providing professional advice. ‘It is not only a duty to ourselves but also to our neighbours to stay indoors when we have a bad cold or a mild or severe attack of influenza’, stated one officer in the Autumn of 1918, as the Spanish flu pandemic swept into Lincoln and across the wider county. That October, the Lincoln Corporation published its six precautions to avoid influenza. Some of these rather reflect their times. Others, though, still have relevance and are echoed in the government directives and common-sense measures that we are putting into practice now:

  1. ‘Overcrowding … in unventilated rooms and places of entertainment should be avoided’.
  2. ‘Aggregation of large numbers of persons in one room, especially for sleeping is dangerous’.
  3. ‘Alcoholism or over-strain favour infection, and complication by pneumonia is especially fatal among immoderate drinkers’.
  4. ‘Dirtiness whether personal or of living and working rooms, and dusty conditions, favour infection’.
  5. ‘Indiscriminate expectoration is always a source of risk of infection’.
  6. ‘If every person … took all possible precautions, the present danger and mortality from such Epidemics would be much reduced’.

The Medical Officers also started making other appeals to the community: ‘Home helps wanted during Influenza Epidemic, in houses where mother is ill. Any woman who has no serious home duties and has knowledge of housekeeping, and is willing to help, is invited to apply’. The local authorities faced decisions over what additional sanctions to impose as well, in order to restrict normal customs and activities outside of the home. By the end of October 1918, edicts fell short of closing all places of entertainment, but admittance to those under 14 years of age was banned, and the full ‘ventilating and disinfecting the buildings and allowing a suitable interval to take place between performances’ were required. By the end of November 1918, political activities were being curbed. In Grimsby, for example: ‘Parliamentary candidates, after consultation with the medical officers, have in the interests of the public health agreed not to hold any public indoor meetings’.

In the pages of the provincial press we can also peek ahead to see what might be the legacy of the pandemic. Newspaper features include those of drug companies promoting remedies for those claiming to still be suffering long-lasting and intractable health symptoms of the flu, calls for the further recognition of health professionals and support for their work, and the impact on the economy as reflected in the challenges faced by the insurance companies in the face of so many claims for losses. Writing this particular public history will continue to be a daunting – but essential – task.


About the author: Andrew Jackson is Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. He is also a local and regional, and public historian. Projects in recent years have included home-front dialect poetry, women’s suffrage, munitionette worker football teams, the co-operative movement, and early council houses. He has a long-established interest in the history of local newspapers, recently publishing ‘The provincial, regional and local press’, a survey chapter in David Finkelstein (ed.), The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press Volume 2: Expansion and Evolution (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Andrew’s articles in the Lincolnite, upon which this blog is based, are: ‘Rationing returns to Lincoln stores 106 years on’ (17 March), ‘Government influenza advice repeated 102 years on’ (24 March), and ‘How long do influenza pandemics normally last?’ (30 March).

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