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.
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.
Over our years of work on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, much of our research was focused on the WW1 period, and through that time we made many connections with people engaged in their own projects. One of these was A Street Near You, a digital mapping project begun by James Morley, whose intention was to demonstrate the phenomenal possibilities of linking First World War data sources.
Since it’s Remembrance Day, I thought it fitting to zoom into a place on the map that is special to me, and to see who turns up thanks to James’s magic. At the time of WW1, Perth Avenue in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas Street West, was part of a working-class neighbourhood humming with industry and surrounded by railroad tracks. (For an excellent, quick read through the neighbourhood’s history, visit One Gal’s Toronto and her piece on Perth Avenue.)
The City of Toronto Archives has some great old photos of the area in this period, showing baseball games in the local park, little children at school, rail lines criss-crossing the neighbourhood, and old cars parked on somewhat bleak looking streets. Of course the cars weren’t old then, and neither were the houses. Many of the houses on Perth were built in the 1910s — new at the time of WW1.
The area had fewer residents than it does now, so people up and down the street surely knew each other. (Today this is still true, which is a rather lovely and unusual thing in a big and bustling city.) When someone’s son or husband died, it was likely a loss for larger area too. James’s map links eight war deaths to Perth Avenue in Toronto — there may well have been others, of course, and a quick zoom out shows a lot more deaths in the larger area. As you’ll see, a closer examination of the Perth Avenue addresses also yields links to other streets nearby.
So who were the eight with ties to Perth?
John William Lawrence was working as a clerk when he enlisted in April 1915, but barely saw service. According to his service record, he was underweight and sickly, and hospitalized upon arriving in England in 1916. Thereafter he was diagnosed with bronchitis, influenza and tonsillitis, and he was eventually discharged as physically unfit — he probably shouldn’t have passed the medical examination in the first place. Age 37, he died of cancer in February 1920 and was buried here in Toronto, in Prospect Cemetery. He and his wife Nellie lived on Weston Road and then on St Clair, and his mother, Elizabeth Todd, lived at 49 Perth Avenue.
William Horace Taylor was born in Toronto, but served with the British army. He died in Belgium in October 1917. So far I haven’t found a link to Perth Avenue, but I’ll keep looking.
George Henry Joseph Jordan enlisted in 1915, and was working as a labourer. According to George’s service record, his family moved from nearby St Helen’s Avenue to 103 Perth, where they remained, minus George, on the 1921 census. His father, also George, worked as a painter. Just 19 when he died in July 1916, George Jr’s casualty record states: “Previously reported Missing, now Killed in Action. He was one of a party detailed from his Battalion and attached for duty with a wiring party … and while putting out wire at the Bluff, Ypres … an enemy mine exploded and Private Jordan with many of his comrades was killed.”
Frank Sanderson Batty enlisted in 1915. At that time, he’d been living with his parents on Margueretta, just east of Perth, and working as an electrician. The family had come to Canada from Scotland in 1907. Frank’s service record shows that he died on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and puts his parents, Herbert and Mary Ann, at 189 Perth Avenue. A nephew, born the year he died, was named after him, and went on to serve in the next war.
Edward Charles Largen lived in the UK and served with the British Army, but his parents lived at 215 Perth Avenue. His father was a chef who at some point had worked at the Ontario College of Agriculture in Guelph. Edward died at the Somme in July 1916, but a letter exists, written to his parents from Belgium the year before, and reads, in part, “At present we are having a very pleasant time camping out in a field almost out of the sound of the guns. The weather is beautifully warm and life’s worth living. … There is still plenty of fighting before us, however, and I hope I have the luck to see it to the finish.”
George Robert Williams was living with his wife Rena on Campbell Avenue, a couple of streets east of Perth, when he enlisted in 1916. At that time, he was 22 years old and employed as a shipper. He had come to Canada from England in 1910, and he and Rena had married in September 1914, in the early days of the war. At some point during George’s time overseas, Rena moved to 271 Perth. His service record states that on Nov. 8, 1918, just a few days before the war ended, he was hospitalized in France with influenza. The outbreak was deadly and widespread, and claiming lives here at home in Toronto too. George Williams was pronounced dangerously ill on the 14th, and died the next day.
James Oakley was a bricklayer at the time of his enlistment in 1916. He was living with his mother Ann at 357 Perth Avenue, just across from the park where the baseball photos were taken in those days. Unlike most of the men above, James had been born in Toronto. His 1888 birth record says his father Thomas was also a bricklayer, and the family was then living on Manning. James’s service record tells us he was wounded in the back and arm in September 1918, and died soon after of shock from those wounds. I came across this photograph of him by contacting a woman who has him in her online family tree. She told me that the photo came to her all the way from Florida, via a stranger who’d acquired the image, and wanted to see it returned to family.
James Martin was born in Belfast and living with his wife Elizabeth at 479 Perth when he joined the army. His service record tells us he was working as a labourer, and had a tattoo of “an English dancing girl” on his right forearm. He was on the old side for soldiering — 38 when he enlisted in 1914 — and had served with the British Army in the Boer War. In 1916, he was working as a transport driver for the service corps when he fell from a wagon and injured his head. His application for a pension was complicated by the fact that he tested positive for syphilis. The board wrote, “We found this one of the most difficult cases to decide upon.” Though his disability was considered total and permanent, the pension was denied. Lengthy notes in his file discuss paralysis, speech difficulties, and impaired memory: “Speech is thick. Has difficulty in pronouncing common words. … Mentally stupid. Says he lived on Perth St Toronto but cannot tell what Province Toronto is in. Nor whether it is in North or South America. Knows it is in Canada. Understands and carries out all commands fairly when not too complicated.” Unusually, James Martin’s record contains a letter handwritten by him on stationary from Granville Special Canadian Hospital in Ramsgate, Kent, expressing his eagerness to get home. “I may also mention that I have a wife and child in Toronto, my wife who is at present time, in a delicate state of health, which I am afraid is partly due to anxiety on my account, and would I am sure improve on my return to her.” James Martin was invalided to Canada and died in October 1918.
Often when we visit with writers’ and researchers’ groups, we talk about the importance of layering your resources when you build a big multi-generational story like The Cowkeeper’s Wish. If you want to tell a social history as well as a family saga, as we were keen to do, you need to dig for details in all kinds of different places — in the census, birth and death records, of course, but also in the newspaper archive and in war diaries and philanthropist’s notebooks and so on and so forth. When we first began this project, we never imagined how many resources we’d use to search for clues to our family’s past. It is a thrilling experience, I can happily report. You start to feel a little like a detective when you do this kind of work, and the more practiced you become, of course, the better you are at sleuthing. I’m working on a new book now — not family-based this time, but also non-fiction, and set at the end of WW1, so I am using many of the same resources and approaches we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and also realizing that I am hooked on telling true stories pulled piece by piece from the past. There’s no better job for someone who loves crumbly rippled ledgers and curled photographs and maps with streetnames that no longer exist.
Tracy has this same pull to the past, and so we were both delighted to see the cover design for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, which is in its own way a layering of resources. The images were cleverly put together by Anna Comfort O’Keeffe at Douglas & McIntyre, and each one she selected has a meaningful connection to the story.
The frilled gold on the outer edge of the cover image, as you can see here, comes from our grandmother’s baptismal certificate. You can see it is signed by E. C. Carter — that’s the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, who died just two years later on the Titanic. The family story goes that he and his wife Lilian (who my grandmother was named for) were dear friends of the family — though that’s probably not really true, since they came from very different backgrounds at a time when background really mattered. More likely, they were enormously admired by our family members, who must have been devastated when they died. The connection gave us a fresh new way to weave the story of the Titanic into our own tale.
This next layer in from the outer edge is a letter written by our great uncle, Joe Deverill, in 1923, saying goodbye to his younger siblings as they leave England for Canada. He offers brotherly advice — “mind who you mix with on the boat” — and urges them to remember that “although the (Old Home) has broken up we are still Sisters and Brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.”
Next in from Joe’s letter is a portion of Charles Booth’s poverty maps, made as part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London. Social investigators colour-coded the city as to level of poverty: black streets were vicious and criminal, dark blue were very poor with chronic want, on up to light blue, purple, pink, red and finally yellow, reserved for the wealthy upper classes. Booth’s maps, and the notebooks his investigators used to record their findings as they prowled the city, were an excellent way for us to “see” the neighbourhoods we were writing about.
The cover also features an image of the Metagama, the ship our grandmother came to Canada on, in the care of a family friend. It was 1919, and the ship had only recently been used as a troop carrier.
Below the Metagama is a photograph of our grandmother as a girl (with bathing cap), playing at the beach with her new Canadian friend. Beside them floats the lucky penny our great uncle Joe had kept in his pocket the day the Mary Rose sank. This mix of personal and historical imagery is an excellent fit with the book itself, which is both an intimate family story and a social history.
After years of research, seeing all these pieces of the puzzle worked into the cover image for our book was a lovely surprise, and still serves as a reminder of the many places that hold clues to the past for those who love to go searching.
As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.
Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.
Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”
In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.
Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.
But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?
Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.
Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.
The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.
“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. … I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”
Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.
But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.
Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.
“Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906