One Hundred Years ago it was the Spanish flu.
2020 will go down in history as the year of the Coronavirus, a reminder that it was 100 years ago that the last great pandemic ended, in December of 1920. That one, known as the Spanish flu, infected, it is estimated, around 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population, and killed an estimated 50 million, although the real numbers remained unknown. There were more deaths from this than there were from the first World War. It was labelled ‘Spanish flu’, but there was no proof that it originated in Spain; reporting restrictions during WW1 forbade the demoralising reporting of deaths from illness in the war protagonists of France, Britain, Germany and Belgium, but there were no restrictions on reporting anything coming out of Spain, which was neutral during the conflict. King Alfonso XIII became very ill with it, and his progress was followed in detail in the press, and because of that, false impressions were given that Spain was particularly badly hit, hence the ‘Spanish’ flu label.
Like the present day discussions as to the origin of the corona virus, opinion is divided as to where the ‘Spanish’ flu originated. Some scientists have traced it back to a US army soldier in Kansas, who became ill in early 1918. He was a cook in a unit that had been living in very poor conditions, alongside animals, before the unit was then sent to Europe to fight. The cramped and insanitary conditions in the trenches there meant that the virus had free rein.
As in the present pandemic of the Covid-19 virus, schools and businesses were closed and much public activity such as sport and theatres and church attendances were curtailed or cancelled as the authorities sought to contain the infection. Whole families fell ill, members dying within days of each other, and demand for burial spaces rocketed.
Life for the working class at the end of the war meant that the virus could have free and speedy access to all those under-nourished and living in crowded and insanitary conditions. Food was scarce and without the necessary balance of vitamins to build up any immunity, and there was no general access to affordable medical care for the many. It was ironic indeed that many of the troops who had survived the trench warfare in Europe and made it home then died of this terrible infection, and the total number of deaths from the virus was greater than the number of those lost during the war.
In Wales the figure was estimated as between 10,000 and 12,000 deaths from the deadly influenza. In July 1918 the Western Mail reported that ‘Influenza is spreading in South Wales. It is in epidemic form and whole families are being laid up’. Doctors were failing to keep up with the many calls, and whole families were laid up at the same time. At this time of course there was no NHS and no modern Welfare State, and the first flu vaccine was some 20 years off.
The flu had started to take hold in Wales in the summer months in the south-east valleys where death rates of up to 16 per 1000 were recorded in one week. Swansea was not so badly hit with 4 deaths per 1000 in one week. However there was a second wave caused by a mutation in the virus that hit in November of 1918; the Cardiff death rate was peaking at 38 per 1000, and Swansea just below that in the worst weeks.
The worst-hit area in Wales was Ogmore and Garw, where the death rate was 106 per 1000 in one week in November 1918. During this week alone 57 people died in these two valleys, the highest death rate in a week anywhere in England and Wales. By the end of the pandemic in 1920 the overall death rate in Wales was calculated at 4.3 per 1000, with North Wales seeing the highest number of deaths.
The end of it came when the virus appeared to weaken from a mutation, and was less ‘effective’ because by then many people would have built up an immunity.
One was “NOSTROLINE Nasal Specific”, promising to protect against Influenza, Nasal Catarrh, Head Colds and other infectious disorders. “It destroys the germs and soothes nose and throat. Delays are dangerous. Get it now”.
“Leading chemists” everywhere were selling this at 1/3, or by post, 1/5, and EH Davies and R Lucas, both in Dunraven Place Bridgend had it, so did JL Hopkins of Pontycymer, JC Jones of Aberkenfig, T Llewellyn of Ogmore Vale, TB Bamford and LU Lewis of Port Talbot.
Over in Tunbridge Wells Doctor Mackenzie’s Influenza Tonic (Spanish Flu- Prevention is better than cure-) was being touted as the “sure preventative of this distressing malady and will also cure and relieve the worst cases of Influenza, cold in the head, pains in the back and limbs, prostrations and general weaknesses”. A bottle of this could be purchased from Pearmund the Chemist of Calverley Road, Tunbridge Wells, for 1/1, 2/9/ or 4/6 per bottle.
One wonders what effect these would have had on the coronavirus!
From the Garw Valley Heritage Society
Look after yourselves and others, and we look forward to a brighter few months ahead.