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 Wish delves 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.