A little dip back in time to see how the influenza pandemic was being characterized in the papers over a century ago. The article comes from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1918, and the photograph from The Sketch a year later.
THE INFLUENZA SCOURGE. We are told that the best way to guard against influenza is not to worry about it. It is sensible advice, although probably it will have little effect, for the people who are given to worrying over what may happen to them will go on worrying. The people who will follow the advice will be those who would have done so in any case. It would be idle, of course, to try and soothe popular fears by minimising the severity of the epidemic. The whole world is in its grip, and not only is it widespread, but its form is often most virulent. In Sheffield last week, for instance, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia reached 300, and all over the country the mortality has been high. There is thus far no sign of any abatement of the scourge, and there are no measures known to medical science that can prevent its running its course. The only useful precautions are those that the individual can practise himself—living as healthily as possible both in mind and body, taking plenty of fresh air, food, and sleep, and keeping out of crowds. If, despite this, he gets it, let him go to bed at once; it is not a complaint that tolerates obstinate heroics. This world outbreak has completely mystified the medical profession. There have been similar pandemics but a writer in The Times is of the opinion that there has been none of these proportions since the Middle Ages. It has swept over the earth like a cyclone, and the causes of its spread are unknown. It is not to be ascribed to the war, although it is possible that its effect has been more pronounced on account of conditions that the war has produced. We do not know that there is even sound evidence of that, for in this country the national health was never so good, and although the sanitary conditions are worse through shortage of labour, that can scarcely apply to the United States where the epidemic is as bad as here. Perhaps the mental state of the people, which has been abnormal for over four years, may have lessened the resistive power, and provided a favourable reproductive nest for the disease germs. But the phenomena of the disease remain baffling, and call for profound and lengthy scientific study that has not hitherto been given to them. We have passed beyond the time when any intelligent mind would see in this world affliction a visitation from God for fighting a war in defence of our liberties. Pandemics are mysteries only because they have never been thoroughly investigated. We may be sure there are definite physical causes for them, and that it is not beyond the brain of man to trace them. The last thing we must do is to give way to superstitious fears.
Oddly, it seems to me, the world has gone mad for toilet paper. Almost as soon as schools and businesses began to close in reaction to the threat of Covid-19, and “social distancing” became a familiar term and practice, toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. I don’t know why that happened; I assume there are people somewhere who have reams of the stuff in their basements, secure in the knowledge that no matter what Armageddon might come, they at least will be able to wipe their bums.
We’re into the fourth week of this strange new reality, and there is still no toilet paper on the shelves of the grocery store in the small town where I live. Of course I don’t go there every day, so it’s possible stock came in, and it was all purchased by the time I again visited. And before the kind souls out there offer to drop a roll at my house, thank you, I’m alright; I found some at my local pharmacy. But the odd practice of hoarding something like toilet paper got me thinking about the product we so take for granted. Everyone jokes about people way back when using pages of the Eaton’s catalog – or the Sears Roebuck catalog, if you’re American – so I wondered, when did the toilet paper we know and love today become a staple of our world?
Paper, of course, was invented by the ever-innovative Chinese, and there are various references to its use in tidying up the nether regions. The earliest of these is accredited to a Chinese scholar named Yan Zhitui who wrote in 589 AD, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics [of Confucianism] or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and a brutal tyrant who ruled as Emperor Hongwu in the 14th century, requisitioned many thousands of sheets of scented, extra-soft toilet paper with which to pamper his backside.
The rest of the world, for the most part, made use of whatever was at hand: leaves, hay, moss, even seashells, stones, or snow, depending on location and season. Eventually, paper came into widespread use as a bum wipe for more than just the Chinese, although not until sometime in the 18th century with the ready availability of broadsheets, cheap novels and news flyers. This frugal re-purposing continued to be the method of choice for cleaning the bottom well into the next century.
A quick google will tell you that the toilet paper we’re familiar with, or at least similar to what we use today (when we can find it), was invented by an American, Joseph C. Gayetty, in the late 1850s, and certainly you can find advertisements for his “medicated paper” in the newspapers of the time.
In fact, Gayetty was so confident in his “discovery” that he paid for his ad to be repeated down one complete column of the New York Times – twenty-one little boxes all asserting that “its merits as a household’s, traveler’s, and cleanly person’s comfort are making it popular everywhere.” Even better than that, Gayetty claimed, it was a “sure cure for Piles, and also guarantees the healthy who may use it against any touch of that afflictive and torturing disease.” Gayetty bet his bottom dollar on the product, and even watermarked his name onto every sheet.
Gayetty, obviously, was going for more than the cleanliness angle, perhaps reasoning that if not everyone was worried about the fastidiousness of their posterior, they surely cared about their health. His paper, he asserted, manufactured from a buff-coloured fibre known as Manila hemp and treated with aloe as a lubricant, would not only relieve but prevent hemorrhoids – “this distressing complaint” – and as an added bonus it dissolved in water, and would not “choke the water pipe.” While plumbers and homeowners might have been pleased with both features, Gayetty’s medical claims for his paper drew the skepticism of the scientific community of the day.
There were plenty of dubious curative products in the 19th century, and the learned gentlemen writing in journals like The Medical and Surgical Reporter in the United States and Britain’s The Lancet poo-poo’d what they termed Gayetty’s “quackery.” The Lancet called Gayetty’s claim of a curative property an “absurdity,” and noted, mockingly, that “it might be of use to the surgeons who take the rectal region under their care to know that the prognosis, pathology, and therapeutics of this malady are simplified in an uncommon degree, and that their occupation is now gone to the Walls.” The Medical and Surgical Reporter, similarly poking fun at Gayetty’s invention, wrote that “Empirism has changed tactics. Its usual bold effrontery is turned to attack the public in the rear. Mr. Gayetty of New York intends to take advantage of them by catching them with their breeches down, and bring them to the stern necessity of buying his “medicated paper for the water closet.”” And if that wasn’t enough ridicule, the Reporter included a delicious quote from The New Orleans Medical and Hospital Gazette, suggesting that poor Mr. Gayetty “not only place his autograph on each sheet of his invaluable paper … but that he furnish his millions of patrons with his photograph, in like manner. … We are really anxious to see the face of the man who is going to eclipse even homeopathy in the inestimable benefits he thus rubs into mankind; and then, again, it would be such a capital idea to be thus cheering up the sufferer by smiling on the very seat of his troubles.”
One wonders how Mr. Gayetty could hold his head up in public, as the butt of such ridicule. Yet his papers remained for sale in their tidy little packets, bought, used and subsequently flushed, until the 1920s. In the meantime, others had moved into the toilet paper market, although most companies focused on the wipes as an aid to hygiene rather than as curative marvels.
Before long, Mr. Gayetty’s boastful ads were joined by others touting the unmedicated sister product, plain old toilet paper (or the more delicate bathroom tissue), with names like Lion and Mouser – presumably they were “kitten soft”. Each manufacturer took a slightly different approach to selling the product, but most seemed to agree with the buying public that toilet paper fell within the realm of the unmentionable. Customers sidled up to the druggist’s counter and asked for the paper on the sly, and the druggist, complicit, surreptitiously slid the bum wad from its shelf out of sight below the counter and into a bag as if it were poop itself.
By the time ScotTissue ads appeared suggesting that customers need only murmur the brand name to their shopkeeper to have their nether-wipe wishes understood, toilet paper had undergone a transformation. People had choices. One could purchase one’s TP as a packet of stacked sheets, often with handy wire attached that allowed for hanging within easy reach of the loo, or as a single long strand, conveniently perforated to allow for easy tear-off of the required amount, and all spun tidily onto a cardboard roll. TheBrooklyn Daily Eagle’s January, 1895 edition ran a full page advertisement for the “sterling” department store Abraham and Straus listing its many products for those of impeccable taste: Alaska Sable full Circular Capes and Japanese Silk Piano Draperies, as well as “The Regent” toilet paper in roll form and “The Brooklyn” in sheets. Toilet paper had finally come out of the water closet, or perhaps in from the outhouse.
It would seem that a new age had begun, and yet, there was room for improvement. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Northern Tissue Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin advertised quilted toilet paper, but even more importantly than its supposed softness was its assurance to be “100% splinter free.” Oh.
Stay safe, everyone. And if there is toilet paper on the shelves of your store, buy only what you need.
The Lancet, October 1869
The Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol . 1, No. 22
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 January, 1895
Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper, by Richard Smyth, Souvenir Press, September, 2017.
As the fight against COVID-19 carries on, I continue to see links with the Spanish flu pandemic, and increasingly with wartime itself. Some of you will know that while The Cowkeeper’s Wish tells the story of our maternal side, including the WW1 period, our first book together, The Occupied Garden, tells the story of our father’s family in The Netherlands in WW2.
Recently my aunt wrote to our family group that she and a cousin had shared the feelings they were re-experiencing from war. They were little children then, but wise enough to sense the fear and the tension that came from not knowing what would happen next. “Several times [lately] I have thought of our parents,” she wrote to my dad and her other siblings. “Mom in 1940 with three little ones and pregnant with a fourth. And now I understand more than ever Dad not willing to give up his radio [though forbidden by the occupiers], each day hoping to gain some knowledge about their near future.”
For people living under occupation, radios were a lifeline to the world outside, and to hopeful news about defeating the enemy. Can you imagine the times we are living through now, and how we would feel if we didn’t have radio or the internet or news of our progress in battling the virus? Much of the news is bleak, of course, and worse yet, false, so we need to be as careful consuming it as we are about washing our hands.
Last week Health Canada issued a warning about “drugs, natural health products, homeopathic products and medical devices … that make false or misleading claims to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.” Dubious advice includes everything from drinking cow urine or bleach to consuming Chaga mushrooms and Vitamin C. The World Health Organization’s myth-busters page tells us “No. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body.” And also states that “Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.” And while a bubble bath is a lovely way to relax and calm your nerves in troubled times — and also to get clean! — “Taking a hot bath will not prevent you from catching COVID-19.”
Revisiting 1918 via the newspaper archives, I see that plenty of ads turn up promising influenza cures. There was Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag, which you pinned to the chest of your underclothes. “The heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with the air you breathe, thereby killing the germs and protecting you against Spanish influenza and all infectious diseases.” Dr. Chase also offered “Nerve Food” to strengthen the heart, as well as Syrup of Linseed and Turpentine for the throat and bronchial tubes.
And there were Evans’ Pastilles, “made from a private formula … and free from poisonous alkaloids.” The ads warned that the flu thrived in heated, crowded theatres, but “the ill-effects of the germ attacks can be neutralised if one or two Evans’ Pastilles are allowed to dissolve in the mouth when the danger threatens.” Likewise there were “dainty white tablets” called Formamints, so harmless that “children and infants can take them freely,” and yet so powerful that they “destroy the most harmful bacteria that can menace life.”
A writer in the Whitby Gazette reported hearing from a distinguished London doctor that “a raw onion in a fever-stricken room soon decays, because it attracts the germs.” Another writer boasted in the Hamilton Advertiser that he ate a steady diet of onions, and “did not get the ‘flue’ in the recent epidemic; but,” he admitted, “there are others who
neither had onions nor the Spanish influenza.” A reader wrote in to the Coventry Telegraph, advising everyone to “eat two small onions, uncooked, every night, as a fine preventive. The efficacy of an onion is too well-known to need much persuasion.”
Interviewed years after her WW1 service, the Canadian nurse Mabel Lucas recalled her younger sister falling ill with influenza. Mabel was still overseas, and relieved that one of her old classmates had offered to care for the girl. “When she found out that they said there was no hope for her, she said ‘Can I do what I want to do?’ The doctor said, ‘Anything that you think will help.’ She made onion poultices and put them on [my sister’s] back and chest and even on the bottom of her feet. She kept them on for days. When I came home and would give her a bath, I could still smell onions. It was right in the pores. … She lived for years afterwards.'”
So, she survived the wars — both the First World War and the war against influenza.
In our family email group, perhaps inspired by my aunt’s reawakened memories of wartime Holland, my cousin made an interesting analogy regarding “Us Against COVID-19.” There are the people she calls “unseen heroes” — ordinary people who shop for friends and strangers in quarantine, or make food for others working long and extra stressful hours, or come up with ingenious ways to battle the enemy. And there are the collaborators, the people who refuse to stay in self-isolation or quarantine, who lie about where they’ve been or what their symptoms are, or who buy up large amounts of supplies: toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves, with a plan to resell them online for a profit.
Then of course there are the resistance fighters: the healthcare workers and the truck drivers and the grocery store employees and the cleaners; the firefighters and the police and the postal workers; the gas station employees and the farmers and the staff at longterm care homes. The list goes on and on for the people who are on the front lines in varying ways, potentially exposing themselves to the virus every day, but providing essential services for the rest of us.
British Newspaper Archive
National Library of Medicine
Globe & Mail Historical Newspaper Archive, Toronto Public Library
People are social animals. Generally, we like to be together, and whether that means sitting quietly with one person or moving through a street filled with many, self-isolation and quarantine and social distancing are difficult things for most of us to do. In an effort to combat the unnatural feel of being without the casual contact of our fellow man, people all over the world have been bridging the gap in creative ways. Famous musicians, comedians and artists, self-isolating like everyone else, have shared livestream performances from their living rooms. Ordinary people, practicing social distancing, have sung from balconies in Montreal, Edmonton and New York, and applauded from windowsills in European cities in tribute to healthcare workers. In Scotland, mothers organized the I Spy a Rainbow movement that has housebound children pasting artwork in windows to uplift spirits. All these efforts show how much people need to feel a part of a community, and how they want to contribute something of value in a time of crisis.
Recently a request circulated in the community where I live, generated by our small hospital, asking for anyone with sewing skills and material at hand to make face masks for use by healthcare workers. A pattern was shared, and has done the rounds via social media and emails. Elsewhere, similar efforts are ongoing. My sister wrote from Toronto about a friend who has turned her talents as a seamstress (she owns a yoga clothing company called Dear Lil’ Devas) to making masks. My other sister wrote from Peterborough about a woman she knows who works from home as an energy and sustainability analyst for architects and building planners, but who has broken out the needle and thread and started stitching face masks.
People everywhere, it seems, want to do something useful. It was not much different in 1918, when Spanish flu ravaged a world already on its knees after years of war and conflict. The Red Cross on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged the sewing of homemade masks, and a newspaper in California declared them “absolutely necessary to safeguard citizens against the further spread of the epidemic.” In Boston, the commissioner of health urged citizens to “make any kind of mask, any kind of covering for the nose and mouth and use it immediately and at all times,” and that city’s Daily Globe newspaper shared instructions on the making of gauze masks. In England, the Evening Telegraph and Post reported that the Red Cross Society was “busy making anti-influenza masks to cover the mouth and nostrils.” They were for the use of soldiers “returning to the Colonies [and would be] worn on the voyage.” Here in Canada, the Alberta government made wearing masks in public compulsory, while in Regina, Saskatchewan, where the masks were not mandatory, a person could be fined for coughing, sneezing or spitting in public.
Not everyone thought the masks a good idea. In San Francisco, a dispute over masks turned violent when Henry Miller, a deputy health officer, shot a horse-shoer named James Wisser in front of a drug store when he refused to don a face mask. Wisser was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound to his leg and there placed under arrest for failing to obey Miller’s order.
In Canada, opinion was also divided, with some provinces making face mask use mandatory and others not. Lloydminster, a municipality straddling the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, had the unique dilemma of two opposing laws in effect in the same town. As the Edmonton Journal reported, “when a number of the citizens of Lloydminster, Sask., crossed the street and came into Lloydminster, Alberta without masks, they were summoned to court. Despite the fact that they claimed only to have strolled over for casual errands of business or pleasure, they were fined for violating the law, and went back to their own side of the street in indignation.”
Nor could the medical community agree on who should use a face mask. Dr. Thomas Whitelaw, Medical Officer of Health for Edmonton, wrote in the December 1919 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal that even after the Alberta government ordered everyone to wear a mask outside their homes, the number of cases continued to increase, and, he alleged, “public confidence in it as a prevention soon gave place to ridicule.”
Dr. Henry Bracken, Secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health, encouraged the wearing of masks by the public, and the Board issued instruction for the use of the masks. “The outside of a face mask is marked with a black thread woven into it. Always wear this side away from the face. Wear the mask to cover the nose and the mouth, tying two tapes around the head above the ears. Tie the other tapes rather tightly around the neck. Never wear the mask of another person. When the mask is removed … it should be carefully folded with the inside folded in, immediately boiled and disinfected. When the mask is removed by one seeking to protect himself from the influenza it should be folded with the inside folded out and boiled ten minutes. Persons considerably exposed to the disease should boil their masks at least once a day.” Despite this advocacy, though, Dr. Bracken himself chose not to wear one, saying “I personally prefer to take my chances.”
So are the homemade masks a good idea? One hundred plus years after the debates of 1918, opinion remains divided. Now, as then, there will be those who feel as Dr. Bracken did, and who will make the choice to go without. At the same time, people will come together, however virtually, to share their face mask patterns and know-how, to join in song or tell a story or draw a picture. And at the end of the day, we can take heart from the caption written on a Scottish child’s rainbow drawing: smiles are contagious.
I’m sure everyone has stepped up contact with family members in the last while. We’ve been hearing from my husband’s relatives in the UK and in other parts of Ontario, and from my family too, here in Canada and in the Netherlands. Several of the notes that have come have mentioned nature, and how birds are singing and geese are honking, oblivious to the turmoil. A good friend who lives in Manchester tells me she has been working in her garden, and it made me realize how anxious I am for spring, because digging in the earth and helping things grow is such a soothing pastime. (And this morning I read a beautiful essay reminding me that even when the television is “full of terror … the trees are full of music.”)
My father and his wife are in Guatemala right now, on their sailboat. They live aboard, traveling the world, and made it into the country just before its borders closed. “Today was the first day of the curfew starting at 4 p.m.,” my dad wrote yesterday to our wider family group, “and although a busy high bridge towers over the Rio Dulce not far away and we are surrounded by marinas, not a thing is moving on land or on the water except the odd toucan, a pair of parakeets and assorted other birds. It is eerily quiet.”
Dad suggested a group of us — aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings — check in with each other every couple of days, since we are a far-flung lot. My mom and her husband are in Portugal, due home Friday, and we have all been eagerly anticipating their safe return. This morning she wrote to the group, “We are anxious to get back home to all the snow, which is the reason we leave in the winter!! Everything is in lockdown here and has been for about a week. First of all the schools and universities all closed, then the store, bars, restaurants. Some outdoor patios stayed open for a few days as long as people sat far apart, but now everything is closed. They are being very strict about it. Grocery stores are open but fewer people are there. There are big signs everywhere warning people to keep a distance and to look at the products and choose only what you want, and buy only what you need. Do not handle things. There are no attendants at the deli counter, only packaged things to choose from. There are big plexiglass screens shielding the cashiers and only cards are accepted, no cash. There are red signs on the floor for cash lineups showing how far apart you must be. Pharmacies will only let one or two people in at a time. When one person goes out, one can go in. In the lineup outside people are 2 metres apart. The post office is like that too. There are only 6 apartments occupied in our hotel now and when we go out to get groceries we have to ring to be let in. We cannot stay in the room when the maid comes. She is wearing a mask and we have go out until she is finished.”
Even though I’m in my 50s now, I’m used to my parents worrying about me. It’s weird to have the tables turned. But the emails help. And in our day and age we’re lucky enough to have facetime too. My teenage daughter can still hang out with her friends this way. All of this brings to mind how essential letters must have been a century ago for people separated by war, though the missives had to float slowly back and forth across the ocean, and sometimes all kinds of things had changed by the time the letters got read. When the influenza pandemic began in 1918, new worries piled on to the worries that had already existed for years. Snooping through the wonderful Canadian Letters & Images Project, I found a treasure trove of photos and letters connected to a soldier named Cecil Moody, who enlisted in 1915 and served with a Field Ambulance unit until the end of the war. He had a wife he called Budsie back home in Canada, and a little boy nicknamed Bobs. The collection contains almost 40 letters, but the one below is especially touching, and gives a glimpse into how the flu pandemic impacted medical workers’ already challenging duties.
Les Fermont, South of Arras, June 29, 1918
Although you let a week slip by without writing, I can fully forgive you for the dandy snaps you sent. I was ever so pleased with them girlie. Isn’t wee Bobs getting to be a big boy. Lord! He will be as big as his Dad if I don’t soon get home. And you are looking to sweet for words Dearie. The boys that I have showed the picture to all say what a peach of a looking girl you are. And really Hon. I am so wonderfully proud of you when anybody pays you a compliment; it always makes me feel as though it had been paid to myself.
You’re some little tailoress too Budsie. Bob’s clothes look awfully cute. You must feel jolly proud of yourself, turning the wee chap out so smartly.
Well, you will notice that I too have missed a week in writing, but my excuse is good, and an honest one. Our ambulance base covered more miles in the last two weeks than they have since we have been in France. We have had three or four moves in the last two weeks, but apart from that, we have been running day and night, hauling Spanish Flu patients. I guess you have read in the papers about the influenza plague. Well, we are certainly getting our share of it in France now. Harry has been in the Hospital for the last two or three days, but he is OK again. Now, it’s nothing really serious, but by gosh, a man is almighty sick for a couple of days. I think Fritz’s army is also suffering from the plague from the reports of the prisoners taken lately. In fact, it is rumoured that that was the reason their offensive was given up. …
Well Hon, we are back in the line again after the longest rest our division has had since we have been in France. We all have to break ourselves in again, but we are on a very quiet front, so unless something starts up, we shall have a very “cushy” time. In the last 13 days, our old bus has travelled just over 1300 miles! Most of the rips have been short ones, but numerous. … We have been sleeping in our cars for a long time, but we don’t like to take chances now that we are hauling so many flu patients. I think that is how Harry caught it.
… No, I’m afraid there is slim chance of my ever getting back to you Darling, until this damn war finishes up. How I would love to be with you again. But I couldn’t bear to come home for for a couple of months and then have to leave you again. I would much rather wait until I can have you again for “Keeps”.
Poor old Harry. If there’s ever any sickness going around, it always seems to attach itself to him. His chances of returning to Canada seem pretty slim now. He has not heard anymore.
Buds, why don’t you write a little letter to me from Bobs. You have never even mentioned whether he has received any of the little notes I have enclosed in your letters. You can ask him what he wants to say and write it for him. Don’t suggest anything – just see what he would say on his own accord. Where did he get the wee tricycle? Can he ride it alright? …
Well old sweetheart, I must say Au Revoir. If you miss one week in writing Dear, make the next letter twice as long. I love to get your letters so much. Have you noticed any of my letters missing? I still number them. All my love to you precious girl, and a big kiss. Love too to Bobs.
Lately in the news there have been stories about hospital ships being brought into action to help ease the burden on regular hospitals; about distilleries making hand sanitizer especially for police and healthcare workers; and about automotive companies producing ventilators instead of car parts. There’s even been speculation that a certain high-end parka manufacturer might begin churning out hospital gowns.
Each time I hear these stories, as well as today’s announcement that the Canadian government will help businesses “re-tool” to produce the supplies we need, I am reminded of my WW1 research, both for The Cowkeeper’s Wish with Tracy, and for my new book, still in the early stages, about patients and staff at a military hospital here in Toronto in the First World War.
In those days, all sorts of factories had transformed to produce munitions, but there were countless other changes too. Fancy shoemakers made army boots, milliners made military caps, and tailors made uniforms instead of ordinary suits and overcoats. Passenger ships became troop carriers or floating hospitals. Car manufacturers made military vehicles, and rubber tire producers made gas masks and balloons for reconnaissance. Even cardboard box manufacturers were affected by war: boxes of all sizes were now needed for care parcels for soldiers and sailors, for the boots and shoes and hats that made up their uniforms, for the medals that got pinned to them and for the ammunition they used. Cardboard discs hung in windows, proudly announcing that the man who lived there was off fighting for king and country.
Though the Spanish flu pandemic that surged in this period differed from the current outbreak, I feel somewhat comforted to dip back in time and explore how an earlier generation coped with worry and fear, and what sorts of decisions were made to try to slow the spread. Their pandemic rushed in at the end of a horrific war, and ours comes in the midst of environmental despair. Many people seem to be feeling a weird clash of emotions. On one hand, we’re only just recognizing an obvious but beautiful fact as the virus drifts across borders: we really are all in the same boat. Italy seems close when you can sit at your computer in Canada and hear people singing from their balconies, in isolation together. At the same time we’re dismayed by what we’ve collectively done to the planet that holds us. A sense of despair was also there a century ago, as the war was ending: people likened influenza to a deadly wind blowing about the earth as a kind of punishment.
According to Howard Phillips, the author of Black October, “many people were convinced that [the flu pandemic] must somehow have been connected with the war. Thus, in Entente countries, tags coined included ‘war plague,’ ‘Flanders grippe,’ ‘Hun flu,’ ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’ and ‘German plague,’ as many believed that the war-epidemic link lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the dastardly use of poison gas. ‘So many were killed in the great war of the white people’, explained indigenous healers in faraway Southern Rhodesia, ‘that the blood of the dead caused this great sickness,’ while in the memory of one elderly flu survivor sixty years later, the war ‘poisoned the air … all the bombs and things … travelled with the wind [around the world].’
There were three waves of the pandemic then, just as there are expected to be subsequent waves of Covid 19. In January 1920, two years after the original outbreak, the death of a young Toronto boy prompted the Star headline “Is flu back again?” Over the course of the month, both the Star and the Globe reported on large outbreaks south of the border with such increasing alarm that it soon seemed inevitable the epidemic would return, swirling over the city like frenzied snowflakes, and falling wherever it chose. In Chicago, California-bound trains were “crowded to the limit” with people fleeing to escape flu. And in Detroit, the coroner announced the county morgue was “filled to its capacity with bodies. … If bodies continue coming in as they have in the last two days extra arrangements for their care will have to be made.” Ads appeared in Toronto papers for cure-alls like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil: snuff it up the nose at the first sign of a cough or sore throat and you could stop the symptoms from turning into “dangerous influenza.” By the end of January, there were “more than 500 cases of flu at the border,” as one headline put it, characterizing the illness as a band of murderers poised to invade.
In all likelihood we are in for a long and difficult ride that will impact all of our lives in a variety of ways. Hopefully we manage to lean on each other, without touching, of course. A friend of mine — the writer Phil Dwyer — recently posted some wise words.
“Trying times test us. In our responses, we show who we really are.”
This pretty card is among Nettie’s pictures and letters at CLIP. Strange how an image of grasped hands reads differently right now.
One of my favourite resources for first-person material from the First World War is The Canadian Letters & Images Project, which features scanned images of letters, diaries, photographs and ephemera, and defines itself as “an online archive of the Canadian war experience.” It was an obvious place to look to further our series of posts on the influenza pandemic that happened more than a century ago. Featured below, with thanks to CLIP, is a letter from Jeanette “Nettie” Bridges to her mother back home in New Brunswick. Nettie was a VAD stationed at a hospital in Reading, Berkshire, when she contracted influenza in October 1918. She had only recently married a Canadian soldier.
The story has a happy ending: Nettie and her husband survived both the pandemic and the war, and returned home to raise a family in Canada. But reading Nettie’s words reminds me how grateful we must be to the healthcare workers looking after our most vulnerable just now, all across the globe. A dear old friend of mine works in public health in Ottawa; my niece is working in a hospital as part of her nursing studies; and another good friend and neighbour works in the emergency room of a busy Toronto hospital. This post goes out to them and their ilk as a small way of saying thank you.
Now wasn’t it just like me to be one of the influenza victims, but when I tell you that one third of the staff on night duty & a great many on day duty are down with it you would probably have been more surprised if I had escaped.
I never felt better in my life than I did last Thursday just a week to-morrow. We went for a long ride on the top of a tram that morning before we went to bed and the air was beautiful. I was so well wrapped up too. had a sweater under my great coat & the latter has a nice big opossum collar on it now. Went on duty that night feeling fine Friday morning about 5 o’clock my throat began to feel raw, but I didn’t think much of it. At 7:30 just when we come off duty I felt a bit shivery so took a dose of quinine as we had been told to do if we felt that way as a precaution (two of our staff at least of no.3 where Mary is had died of influenza and pneumonia a week before and everyone was being very careful).
After breakfast I told Mary I thought I would go right to bed as I didn’t feel extra well, I kept getting hotter and hotter and by 10.30 my temperature was 101 so by 1.30 I was in a bed down here (they send one of the hospital ambulances for me).
The Sisters Sick Quarters or Sick Hut is down at No.1 and consists of 2 little hut wards of 5 beds each very cosy with a nice bright fire burning in the grate day and night. Pretty chinez sheets and little rose puffs on the bed, so it is very comfortable would be very lonely to be in a ward alone as no one is allowed in to see us but as the other beds are occuppied by 2 V.A.D’s & 2 Sisters we keep each other company.
Mary and Marion send me flowers & grapes or something each morning and bring my letters down to me but I’m not allowed to see them, so far they have both escaped. …
I was glad everyone was pleased with the wedding especially Mr & Mrs Mackay & you and father. you are really the only ones that count.
We are very well looked after here – a day nurse and a night nurse both from the London hospital Whitechapel where Stanley was. They had to send to London for help as none of our staff could be spared to nurse us. The medical officer (same one that looks after the offices) comes in to see us morning and evening and we have every attention. The pain in my head legs and back was something desperate and you have a cough. On Sunday I developed bronchitis which was quite natural knowing me tendency in that direction. I have an inhaler every four hours of eucalyptis and benzoine am really all better now and if I was home would be up, but in the army you have to do as you re told. Have been on chicken diet and actually get it for my lunch each day. I will probably be allowed to sit up by the fire tomorrow afternoon.
The Influenza epidemic has been dreadful all over England. So many of the officers in our hospital here have had it and lots of the Tommies down where I was that’s when I caught it, as I was looking after dozens who had it.
By the time you get this I will be up and as fit as ever so don’t worry about me. The rest in bed is great.
I don’t think I will get many wedding presents till I get home. The chest of silver will be perfect but I think will wait till I get back.
Tea has come in so I must stop. We have lovely thin bread and butter and jam and tea at 4.30. …
A great deal of love to you and father and I do hope you have a good maid by now.
Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic. Alberta, Canada, 1918. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.
Given the bizarre situation the world finds itself in of late, Tracy and I thought it might be interesting to do a series of posts about the influenza pandemic that swept through the world a century or so ago, right at the end of the First World War. We’ll search out old photographs, diary entries and letters, as well as newspaper accounts and advertisements, to see how people responded to the outbreak in a time vastly different than our own. Since the middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wishdelves deeply into the First World War period, the flu came up time and again in our research. So to start off our series of posts, here’s an excerpt from the story. It begins in 1918, when our great uncle Ernie, then 13, was sent from London to stay with family on a farm in Laindon.
Small Ernie was a fish out of water in Laindon, a green place dotted with farms and hedgerows, and where the fields were covered in pale pink cuckoo flowers and dancing dog-daisies. Instead of the familiar city noises of traffic and too many people, there were the barnyard grunts and snuffles of livestock, and the solitary sound of your own footsteps on gravel paths. At night, there was absolute quiet except for the chirp of crickets in the long grass outside the house, or the thrum of rain on the roof’s wooden shingles. Ernie slept in an unheated room in the attic where silverfish clung to the damp rafters, and although he shared the chores with cousin Percy, … to Ernie fell the worst jobs, like mucking out the pigpen. In the eyes of a 13-year-old as fastidious as Ernie, farm life surely seemed a lot like a punishment.
Ernie wasn’t the only Londoner discovering the charms of rural life. With three million men away fighting, and women filling the jobs they’d previously held, it seemed only sensible to the men at the Board of Agriculture that women could also be encouraged to undertake agricultural work. Those farmers still on the land, though, were reluctant to accept female workers, expecting that they would not be capable of performing the physically demanding work, while women themselves, particularly rural women, saw farm labour as a step below even domestic service. Recruiters decided to target the urban middle class, and organizations such as the Women’s Defense Relief Corps had some early success, advertising the work as a holiday for women to try their hand at haymaking, fruit picking, and harvesting, while the Women’s Farm and Garden Union offered free training on gardening and farming techniques.
By 1916, with food shortages an increasing problem, it became apparent that a more concerted effort would have to be put into recruiting female labour. Under the auspices of the newly created Department for Food Production, the Women’s Land Army was formed, and advertisements began to appear nudging women to their agricultural duty. “God Speed the Plough and the Woman Who Drives It,” read the caption below one poster. It depicted a woman guiding a horse-drawn plough against a golden sunrise, as if the call were not just patriotic but divine. At a rally in London, crowds turned out to watch the spectacle of a parade of tractors driven by ladies. At another, women carried rakes, hoes and other farm implements, and banners fluttered, declaring “We Are All Fit,” and “The Lasses are Massing for the Spring Offensive.” The women who volunteered for the Land Army were outfitted by the Department with high boots, a knee-length tunic, a felt hat with a round brim to keep the sun off of fair skin, and breeches. The Land Army Handbook, issued to all members, felt it prudent to make this cautionary statement: “You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man, but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.” Although the papers claimed they looked “particularly well” in their mannish garb, not everyone was so admiring. In one village, locals threw stones at the arriving Land Army recruits, because they disapproved of women wearing pants.
Laindon, too, had its Land Army girls. One girl assigned to milk and care for the cows at a dairy farm later recalled the early morning walk through the dark fields from the house where she was billeted. She munched bread and jam as she went, and eyed the bobbing glow of hurricane lamps as others also picked their way between shrubs and along mud paths to work. A day off was unheard of, but she and the rest of the Land Army girls were allowed to attend the Sunday service at St. Nicholas, the little church on the hill at the centre of the village. Tired from her early starts and the hard work, she often “simply could not keep awake,” and was caught napping on several occasions. …
Like Ernie, the Land Army girls had been displaced by circumstances beyond their control. Although they were here in Laindon to do their bit for the war, they were likely no less lonely than Ernie, and could attest to the truthfulness of the words spoken by the Minister of Agriculture, Rowland Prothero, in a speech in London: “It is hard work – fatiguing, back-aching, monotonous, dirty work in all sorts of weather.… The accommodation is rough, and those who undertake it have to face physical discomforts.… There is no romance in it; it is prose.”
He might have been speaking of Ernie’s reality too. Ernie wasn’t a shirker, but he was physically small, and preferred wielding a paint brush to lugging a slop bucket. He’d never known animals, and pigs were much larger and stronger close up than one would expect them to be. There are hints that his relatives had little confidence in his abilities. And perhaps, with all he’d been through since the day he’d watched his father keel over while polishing his shoes, Ernie hadn’t quite come into his own. Despite growing up in some of the dirtiest areas of London, he’d always been meticulous, careful to wash his hands and keep his shoes polished, and a future among the pigpens of Aunt Ada’s farm must have been hard to accept. Whether he, like the Land Army girls, found encouragement in the words of the appeal posters tacked to the walls behind postmasters’ counters countrywide – “Make your motto ‘Forward!’ and stick to it like glue” – at the end of the day, curled in a blanket in his attic room, Ernie was miserable.
Yet Laindon was a safer place to be than London when the Spanish Lady came to call. A particularly virulent and deadly strain of influenza, the illness was labeled Spanish simply because neutral Spain reported her cases freely, while those countries still at war at first gave it little press. The outbreak almost certainly did not originate in Spain, but the name – Spanish flu or Spanish lady – stuck, and the illness gained yet more monikers. The Purple Death was one, on account of its victims developing heliotrope cyanosis and turning the shade of amethyst as the person suffocated, choking on thick scarlet jelly that filled the lungs. Death came quickly. Dr. Roy Grist, a Glasgow physician, described the course of the flu in a letter to a colleague, saying that it started almost benignly, with what appeared to be an ordinary case of “la grippe” – sore throat, headache and fever. But within hours, patients “very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen…. A few hours later you can begin to see cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes. It is horrible.”
In Britain, the illness first appeared in Glasgow in May 1918, and traveled south by June. Crowded London was hit hard. Its citizens and myriad wartime visitors were pressed together on trams, in movie theatres, in workplaces, in overfull, substandard housing, and moved cheek by jowl through the streets, so it was inevitable that London and the bigger towns and cities would bear the brunt. Hospitals were already overflowing with war casualties, nurses and doctors were overworked, and incredibly, this particular virus preferred those in the prime of life to the very young or the very old, so soldiers and sailors were easy targets, especially since they lived and worked in such close quarters. At first, there was uncertainty about what the illness actually was, with some newspapers attributing it to “trench fever” brought back from the front, since it had similar characteristics such as sudden fever, headache and sore muscles. Others referred to it as a “mystery disease,” labeling it a plague, or a form of malaria. One London newspaper went so far as to suggest that the disease was “directly traceable to the German use of poison gas, the after effects of which have induced growth of a new type of streptococcus,” while American rumours said it was some kind of germ warfare started by German agents put ashore in U-boats. Yet another paper took an oddly humourous angle, dubbing London “the city of sneezes,” and reporting that everyone seemed to be “carrying on a kind of sneezing competition as to the number of times he or she can ‘T-s-c-h’ in the course of a day…. There is one strange coincidence, however, about this sneezing epidemic,” the article continued with its tongue firmly in cheek. “It synchronizes with the outbreak of [ready-made] suits. Troubles never come singly.”
The flu carried its victims off almost haphazardly, taking a half-dozen or more from a school, twice that from the workhouse, an entire family elsewhere. Cinemas and pubs closed their doors, and few shops other than the druggists’ had a line-up. City streets were sprayed with disinfectant, and people tied handkerchiefs over mouths and noses to keep the flu at bay. Advertisers, seeing an opportunity to sell their products to a public hoping to avoid contracting the illness, climbed aboard the influenza cart. Everything from mints to beef teas was touted by their makers as having curative or preventative properties. Consuming Oxo Beef Cubes would “fortif[y] the system against influenza infection,” while gargling a single tablespoon of Condy’s Remedial Fluid mixed with water was billed as both a “prevention and cure.” The Dunlop Rubber Tyre Company placed ads that showed a man on a bicycle, and stretched rather far to make a link: “If the influenza fiend has had its grip on you, let your bicycle help you to throw it off. Get out into the fresh air whenever you can and ride gently along…. Dunlop tyres … mean no troublesome tyre worries to interfere with your bicycle cure.”
Despite the dubious link, Ernie would have enjoyed the Dunlop tyre claim, and in Laindon he probably took every chance to follow the company’s advice to ride. Ernie had been an avid roller-skater back in his old Marshalsea Road neighbourhood, so the move to a bicycle was a natural progression, and all his life he would love to cycle. A photo taken several years later attests to his comfort on two wheels. He slumps casually on the seat of a sturdy bicycle, one hand dangling at his side, the other resting on the handlebar. His right foot sits on the raised pedal, his pant leg is tucked into a sock so as not to get caught in the chain; the other foot is planted on the ground, holding his balance. Dressed in a wool jacket, vest and tie and with a flat cap shading his eyes from the slanting sun, he gazes steadily at the camera. In most other early photos of Ernie, there is a Chaplin-esque look about him – a thin-shouldered vulnerability that lifts off the paper – but in this single shot, that quality is absent, replaced by a confident, relaxed demeanor.
If you’ve gone down rabbit holes in search of elusive ancestors and found yourself in a maze-like world of tunnels and loops and switchbacks, you’ll understand the tale I’m about to share. Those of you who’ve read The Cowkeeper’s Wish will know who Jennie (Jane) is: one of the cowkeeper’s granddaughters, married in 1890 to a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, and our great-great aunt. Some of the Vanson story we’ve told in the book, and some in a previous post. They’re an interesting bunch. From a brush with the law to their connection with one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, this part of our family tree has skeletons aplenty in its closet, and I stumbled across a few more while trying to puzzle out what had become of Jennie and her daughters after Jennie’s husband Richard died of tuberculosis in 1911.
For people of our family’s social standing, it wasn’t easy to be a widow in the early days of the 20th century, before pensions and social safety nets, and it was even harder if you had children to worry about. Two months after her husband’s death, forty-year-old Jennie wrote on the census form in a messy scrawl that she lived at 30 Burdett Chambers in Lambeth (the same address she’d shared with her shoemaker husband), along with two of her daughters: eighteen-year-old Florence, a tailoress, and the youngest, Ada, who was four. Jennie reported working as an office cleaner, and although she also wrote answers to the questions regarding her years of marriage and children, someone, presumably the enumerator, stroked through the numbers with a heavy pen, since as a widow she need not have recorded them. But the information she’d penned remained legible, and what I read offered no surprises: she’d been married for twenty years, and had borne six children, of whom four were living and two were dead. A further census search revealed that her other surviving daughters, Nellie Jane and Alice, resided nearby. The eldest, nineteen-year-old Nellie Jane, lived at 45 Trinity Square in the neighbouring Borough, in the home of John Alexander, a surgeon and clinical assistant at the Evelina Hospital for Children. Dr. Alexander had taken over the practice operated at the Trinity Square address by his father, Charles Linton Alexander, who had died in 1887. Nellie Jane was John Alexander’s “general servant, domestic”, so her day was spent sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, laying fires and serving at mealtimes.
I found Jennie’s other daughter Alice, also nearby, living with her uncle George Vanson, his wife Edith and their daughter Isabel a few blocks east along Waterloo Road from Burdett Street. Despite her young age, fourteen-year-old Alice had a more unusual job than her sisters or her mother, employed as an apprentice perruquier (wig-maker) for H&M Rayne, a company that made costumes for the theatre industry.
Cousin Isabel, a couple of years older, also worked for Rayne, learning the skill of costume-making. H&M Rayne was headquartered just steps from Uncle George’s Webber Row address in Lambeth, so given the close proximity of the costumier, living with her Uncle George was a sensible choice for Alice.
If Alice and Isabel’s jobs sound interesting, Uncle George and Aunt Edith’s were more mundane. George was a dock worker, one of thousands of casual, unskilled labourers whose livelihood depended on what work was available when he showed up at the docks each morning hoping to be selected for a crew. A docker’s work was hard, dirty, and poorly paid, and a shift might last an hour or two, or stretch into the night, and depending on the cargo – lead, asbestos, fertilizers – could be dangerous. Edith toiled as a charwoman, an occupation not unlike George’s in that it was hard work and the pay meagre. To be a char was to be at the bottom of the domestic service hierarchy, and for most women, charing was a last resort before knocking on the workhouse door. George and Edith were barely getting by, so Alice and Isabel’s income was surely welcome.
Edith was about thirteen years older than George, and he was her second husband. Her first, Frank Pitcher, had been an inmate at Cane Hill Asylum, a place that readers of The Cowkeeper’s Wish will be familiar with. Admitted in 1888 when Frank and Edith had been married eighteen years, his admittance documents say he’d been “getting gradually worse for four years” and that he’d been “living apart” from Edith for some time. Poor Law records describe him as a “lunatic” who refused medicine, and occasionally food, believing them to be poisoned. He wandered aimlessly, his case notes state, required constant supervision and was “very wet and dirty night and day.” The casebook also revealed that his next-of-kin was his stepmother, as his wife’s whereabouts were unknown.
But in fact, Edith hadn’t gone far. I found her in 1891, living with her children in St Margaret’s Court, a street described by social investigators as “a bad quarter,” and yet also “a little village by itself” with a “brave show of flowers at west end.” St. Margaret’s Court was one of many narrow passages that led off Red Cross Street in Southwark where Jennie Vanson resided, newly wed to Richard, and was presumably where Edith was still living when she met Richard’s brother, George. Frank Pitcher remained a lunatic asylum inmate until his death in 1893, and three years after he died, in 1896, Edith married George Vanson. In my search for the trail of Jennie and her daughters, the coincidence of Cane Hill was interesting, but other than that, I dismissed George and Edith as just another of many poor couples that connected tangentially to The Cowkeeper’s Wish. But in fact the lives of George and Edith and Jennie and her daughters would be inextricably linked, and as I traced the path of the Vanson women, George would insistently appear, and eventually take on a new importance.
After finding Jennie and her girls on the 1911 census, and relegating the story of George and Edith to a sidebar, things got complicated. I looked for anything that would move the Vanson women forward in time, and discovered that Alice, our young perruquier, married in 1918 to an older man named Arthur Polley and moved to northeast London, where Arthur had his own business as a retail grocer. Ada, just four years old in 1911, married Edward McCarthy in 1932, and Florence, the tailoress, wed Fred Thomas, a carman, in 1914, and had at least two children, both born during the war years.
All of Jennie’s daughters, then, except the oldest, Nellie Jane, who’d worked for the doctor in Trinity Square, were so far accounted for. Nellie Jane proved somewhat trickier. In my hunt for her I came across a 1936 marriage index entry for a 45-year-old Nellie Jane Vanson and a 36-year-old Reginald Thomas Sanson in Eastbourne, Sussex. At first it seemed silly given the rhyme of the last names and Nellie’s age, and what on earth would a Vanson girl, come from generations of working class Londoners, be doing in a resort town on England’s south coast? Surely it wasn’t Jennie’s daughter. But then I found a death index entry in Eastbourne for a Jane Vanson, age 84 in 1955 (so born in 1871 as was our Jennie), and I reconsidered the Vanson-Sansons.
Eastbourne in the 1930s wasn’t a very big place, and I reasoned that if Jennie had died there in 1955 there might have been an obituary placed in the local paper, and it might tell me if I had the right woman. I wrote to the cemetery board in Eastbourne to ask about Jane Vanson’s burial record, and I wrote to the Eastbourne Library (which holds the Eastbourne Herald newspaper archives) to see if they could find an obituary. Both replied, and from the cemetery board I learned the exact date of death and an address on Cavendish Avenue, Eastbourne, and from the library I received an obituary for Nellie Jane that gave the same address. Things were falling into place, and it certainly seemed that this was our Jennie and her oldest daughter Nellie Jane. But how had they come to be in Eastbourne, and when, and had they come together? Was it just Nellie Jane and Jennie or was other family in Eastbourne too?
I went back to the Electoral Rolls for London and continued to fill in the missing years, first coming across Flo and Fred in 1919 (with Fred’s rank, regiment and serial number, so he’d been in the Great War) at #2 Brigade House, Southwark Bridge Road. Brigade House was part of the London Fire Brigade’s Southwark headquarters, so perhaps Fred’s job as a carman meant he drove one of the horse and wagon fire engines. In 1929, Flo’s Uncle George, the dockworker, husband of Edith, suddenly popped up at their Brigade House address. But by 1933, Fred was alone at #2. No Flo, no George. Within two years, Fred had a new partner at #2, so maybe Flo died, although I’ve found no death record that matched. George, too, was gone, but he turned up at Rowton House, a hostel for down and out men on Churchyard Row, behind St Gabriel Street in Newington.
That George’s circumstances were so reduced was a sad turn of events, and yet things might have been much worse. The Rowton House lodging houses were the best of what was available in terms of shelter for vagrants and poor single men according to the author George Orwell, who’d written from personal experience of homelessness in London in 1933. The facility where George lived had been built in 1897, the third such structure of its kind erected by Montagu Corry, 1st Baron Rowton. Lord Rowton had sought to improve the lot of poor single working men whose choices, if they had no home of their own, had ranged from filthy, bug-infested dosshouses and spartan hostels to penny sit-ups, where a penny bought a man a spot on a bench in a warm building, but did not allow him to lie down, to a park bench with the likelihood of a constable prodding him to move along.
When Rowton House in Newington Butts opened on Christmas Eve in 1897, there were 805 private sleeping cubicles with sheets, blankets, a quilt and a chamber pot, and pegs on which a fellow could hang his trousers. There were bathing facilities and lavatories in the basement, and a dining room on the ground floor that seated 400. A hot meal could be had for pennies, or a man could cook his own. There was a reading and smoking room, a barber and a tailor and a shoemaker. A man could pay for his room a week at a time in advance, and guarantee his spot, or he could take his chances and hope for a room, paying nightly. The newspapers of the day were impressed with Rowton House, and soon after the Newington location opened its doors, the South London Chronicle wrote that “the utmost good fellowship prevailed” among the inmates, and “the bill of fare [on Christmas Day] would not have shamed a high-class restaurant.”
By the time George became a resident in 1932, a wing had been added, increasing Rowton’s capacity by several hundred beds. On a night with a full house, George’s snores would have joined in a chorus with more than 1,000 other souls tucked into tiny cubicles over six floors. An account written in 1935 for The Sunderland Echo gives an idea of what life was like in Rowton House for George and men like him, past seventy and likely living on the pittance of a government Old Age Pension. He’d have kept the same room at the hostel by paying the weekly amount, and for a few more shillings he had the option of renting a locker where he could store his few possessions. In the morning, a bell-ringer travelled the hallways rousing George and the rest of the residents from their cubicles, and after a wash at the basins in the basement he and some of the other Rowton men gathered in the dining hall, making tea if they had a bit of leaf and a pot and a cup stowed in their locker, or purchasing porridge, a boiled egg and toast for a penny from the canteen. After breakfast, George might have spent some of the day in the smoking room – being illiterate he’d have had no use for the books in the reading room, and all Rowton Houses had strict rules against card playing. If the weather was fair, perhaps he’d have taken a stroll and sat for an hour on a bench in the sun before returning to Rowton in time for the evening meal. Afterwards, those with a few extra coins in their pocket would sally forth to the pubs for a pint. Those without money to spare had an early night in their cubicles. The Sunderland Echo reporter, when he’d arrived at the hostel to research his article, had received a warning from one of the officials at the house: “Keep to yourself, chum; there’s some queer men in here.” And yet the writer found the Rowton House inmates to be mostly “respectable working men, quietly dressed,” even if one or two “showed their toes sticking through the ends of their boots.”
George lived at Rowton House for thirteen years, a spartan existence toward the end of a life that had held few comforts. I wanted to know more about how he got there. In 1911 he’d been working the docks and sharing his roof with wife Edith, daughter Isabel, and niece Alice, the apprentice perruquier. In 1929 he was presumably a boarder with another niece, Alice’s sister Flo and her husband Fred. Where had George been in the years in between?
A further search located George on the Land Tax register for 1916, renting a house in St Gabriel Street, Newington Butts, a short stroll from Rowton House. The 1918 Electoral Rolls confirmed the address, and also offered the surprise of his sister-in-law, our Jennie, the mother of Flo and Alice, living with him. I was intrigued. Had George’s wife Edith died? If so, I could find no recent record. I checked for a marriage record for George and his brother’s widow, but found nothing there either. George would have been 55 and Jennie 42 in 1918, and I supposed their co-habitation could have simply been a platonic arrangement of convenience, two middle-aged relatives with next to no money supporting one another in shared lodgings. The Electoral Rolls confirmed that this relationship, whatever it was, continued until 1929, when 66-year-old George turned up at Flo and Fred’s. Did Jennie kick him out? Or did George leave on his own? And after all that time, why?
Those kinds of questions are likely never to be answered one hundred years on, and yet, it’s difficult to stop looking. I turned my focus back to Eastbourne and discovered that another of Jennie’s children, Alice, the one-time perruquier who’d married the greengrocer Arthur Polley, had also moved to Eastbourne. In 1939, the couple had still been running their grocery in northeast London, but the 1948 Kelly’s Street Directory for Eastbourne yielded an address for Arthur and Alice just a few doors down from Nellie Jane and Reginald Sanson’s Cavendish Avenue address in Eastbourne. When he died in 1951, Arthur was relatively young at just 63. Perhaps he’d been unwell, and he and Alice had moved to the seaside for his health. That left Jennie and Ada in London.
Ada, Jennie’s youngest, had been not quite five years old when her father Richard died of tuberculosis. Most likely she barely remembered him. The man to feature more prominently in her life as a father figure had been her uncle George, with whom she and her mother lived for so many years. But in 1929, George moved to Flo’s, and Ada too left when she married Edward McCarthy, a loader for the London and North Eastern Railway working out of the Farringdon Street Goods Station.
Mother and daughter remained in close proximity, though, living in different blocks of the Guinness Buildings on Brandon Street in Walworth, tenement housing erected for the urban poor that consisted of spare, two room flats with no running water or electricity, a shared toilet and sink on the landing, and pay access to bathing facilities two days of the week. They resided separately at Guinness Buildings until Jennie moved in 1954 to Eastbourne, where Nellie Jane, her husband Reginald, and the widowed Alice lived.
This might have been the end of the story, minus the unknowable details, but for a random search I did on the British Newspaper Archive website, completely apart from my Vanson research. I forget the exact parameters I searched on, but a March, 1934 headline I came across was provocative and sensationalist: “Girl Enveloped in Flames from Head to Feet. Young Hotel Servant’s Terrible End After Clothes Caught Fire.” The article appeared on the front page of the Eastbourne Gazette, and told of a young woman employed by the South Cliff Hotel in Eastbourne as a live-in chambermaid and waitress. Just off duty, the girl had been alone in her bedroom making notes in the laundry logbook when the skirt of her uniform caught fire on the gas flame of room’s heater. She was immediately engulfed in flames, and ran screaming into the nearby hotel kitchen where a porter had the presence of mind to fetch an eiderdown quilt and smother the flames. Her clothing was burnt completely away, and the porter, with the help of other staff who’d come running, laid her on her bed and covered her with blankets. She was admitted to the Princess Alice Hospital “suffering from extensive burns on her arms, legs, abdomen, chest and all over her back up to her neck,” and died the next day “due to shock following severe burning.” The inquest reported that there’d been no guard on the gas fireplace, but acknowledged that “most of us do use [gas fires] in this way.” The hotel was never considered to be culpable, although the Coroner made a point of saying that guards could be had “at very little extra cost, and they are well worth it, because they are just the thing to prevent clothes from igniting.” It was a sad tale indeed, but most interesting for me was that the young chambermaid’s name was Grace Vanson.
In all my efforts to discover the story of Jennie (Jane) Vanson and her daughters, I’d never come across anyone named Grace, but I was suddenly certain, in the way one can be with a hunch, that this was another of Jennie’s girls. The newspaper articles referring to the tragedy of Grace’s death quoted a sister, Miss Mary Jane Vanson, thanking the South Cliff Hotel’s management and staff “who had done everything that was possible for her sister” and I wondered, might the reporter have gotten it wrong, and Mary Jane was actually Nellie Jane? Elsewhere in the paper was an item of thanks “to all friends for the beautiful floral tributes and letters of sympathy” posted by Mrs. Jane Vanson and family. The Vanson story, I felt sure, had not yet revealed its final chapter.
Grace was 20 years old when she died in March of 1934, which meant she’d been born around 1914. I searched for, and found, an entry in the indexes for a birth registration that fit only too well – a Grace Vanson born in Lambeth in 1913 to a mother with the maiden name of Evans. Our Jennie had been born Jane Evans, but her husband Richard had been dead two years by the time of this Grace’s birth. If Grace was indeed Jennie’s daughter, who was the father? The only way to find out was to send for the birth registration, and when it arrived, it confirmed what I had suspected: Grace’s parents were Jane Vanson “formerly Evans” and her brother-in-law, George Vanson, a “waterside labourer”.
So how had the relationship that produced a daughter come about? Had George been a stalwart presence, supporting Jennie during Richard’s awful illness? Had he been a comfort she couldn’t do without after Richard’s death? Or had she been the one to offer George care in his time of need, when his marriage to Edith fell apart? Or was the real story something less noble, a matter of acting on impulses and giving in to attractions? One thing is certain: George’s wife Edith and their daughter Isabel were alive and living in a house on Inglemere Road in Mitcham, Surrey by 1918, and where they remained until Edith’s death, oddly enough in the same month and year as Grace’s – March, 1934. In contrast to Grace’s demise, fraught with tragedy and pathos, Edith’s, at the ripe age of 84, while surely sad for her unmarried daughter and companion Isabel and her Pitcher offspring, was in comparison, unremarkable and ordinary. Did Isabel send a note to her father at Rowton House, sharing the news of his wife’s death? Did George ever hear about his daughter Grace’s tragic end in the seaside resort town of Eastbourne?
George died of heart failure and a stroke on the 21st of January, 1945. The record states that he was 79, but counting from his birth in 1863 he was actually 82. The record also indicates that George’s regular place of residence was still the tiny cubicle at Rowton House in London, yet his death occurred at an address in Worthing, a coastal town only a few miles from Eastbourne. It’s tempting to think that this means something, that perhaps George was reconciled with Jennie and the remainder of her family in the end, but I’ve found nothing to substantiate the idea, and in 1945 Jennie still lived in London at Guinness Buildings. Sometime in 1954, she left London and moved in with Nellie Jane and her husband, sharing their tidy two storey rowhouse just a few blocks from the seafront. It must have seemed like a different world to her. Instead of the traffic and people noises she’d heard all her life, she’d have heard the cry of gulls and the crash of the surf. In place of the familiar smells of vehicle exhaust and sewers and other people’s cooking were the odours of fish and tangy salt water. On warm days she and Nellie Jane and Alice might have strolled the beachfront promenade, or walked out on the pier, and turned their faces to the sun. She didn’t live long after her move to Eastbourne, but it’s nice to think of her in that tranquil setting, spending her last days in the company of her daughters. Jennie died on the 19th of March, 1955, and was buried at the Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne.
Eastbourne Gazette, Wednesday, March 21, 1934
Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, Friday, July 19, 1935
South London Chronicle, January 1, 1898
Rogues and Vagabonds: Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985, by Lionel Rose, Routledge, Oxon, 1988