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The Spanish Flu Epidemic in Badsey, 1918-1919

As the country is in the grip of the global Covid-19 crisis, it is time to reflect on a pandemic which afflicted the world a century ago.  The so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919 is estimated to have killed more than 50 million of the 500 million people it infected, including 228,000 in the UK. Some dozen or so Badsey residents are known to have died from the virus, and many more were struck down.  It was the world's biggest single natural human catastrophe - a flu pandemic that killed more people than both world wars put together in a fraction of the time.

The pandemic came in three waves:  the first in the early summer of 1918, returning in October/November 1918, then again in February/March 1919.

The first wave of influenza, early summer 1918

There is no evidence to suggest that the Vale of Evesham was affected by influenza in the early summer of 1918 when the pandemic first hit England.  There was no mention of it in the Parish Magazine, or in The Evesham Standard or Evesham Journal.  However, in other parts of the country, influenza was beginning to take a hold.  Mela Brown Constable (who had lived for a time in Badsey before the war) was then working as a Unit Administrator with the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Bulford Camp, Salisbury Plain.  She wrote to her fiancé, Cyril Sladden, on 26th June 1918:

To put the top on everything, an epidemic of the new type of influenza, brought over from Spain, has broken out, both amongst the men and the women.  We have 85 women down with it and get on an average 6-9 fresh cases every day.  I’ve got it myself now!  Temp yesterday 101°, this came down to 97°.  I don’t know what it is at this moment 2.30 pm – but I feel much warmer than I did this morning!  However I am in bed and being properly looked after….

Writing makes me rather tired but I was determined I would get a letter off to you if I died for it! 

The epidemic was already being referred to as the Spanish flu, even though it was widespread throughout Europe.  Spain was not hit especially badly compared to other countries but wartime censorship exaggerated the effects of the virus there.  While Britain, France, Germany and the United States censored and restricted early reports, papers in Spain – as a neutral country – were free to convey all the details of the pandemic.  This made it look much worse there, so the name spread with the disease around the world.

Influenza reaches the Vale of Evesham, October/November 1918

It was not until the end of October 1918 that The Evesham Standard mentioned the epidemic.  By now influenza was spreading rapidly all over the country.  In an article entitled, “Wave of Influenza, How to Avoid Infection”, The Standard spelt out the explicit instructions which were given in a pamphlet issued by the Local Government Board:

  • Constantly flush bedrooms and living rooms with fresh air.
  • Avoid overcrowded rooms and places of amusement.
  • Not more than one person to one room for sleeping purposes where anyone is affected.
  • The wet cleansing of all infected places is important.
  • Indiscriminate spitting is specially dangerous.
  • Prolonged mental strain or over-fatigue and still more alcoholism should be avoided.
  • The only safe rule is to regard all catarrhal attacks and every illness associated with rise of temperature as infectious and to adopt at once precautionary measures.
  • Isolation of the infected is the most potent preventive of the spread of the disease.
  • A person attacked by influenza or catarrh is earnestly asked to recognize that he is a likely source of infection to others, and that some of those infected by him may die of the infection.
  • Sneezing and coughing in public should be avoided where possible, and in every case a handkerchief should be held in front of the face.
  • Expectoration is absolutely prohibited.

It went on to say that there was nothing specific available to the public which could give immunity from attack, but there were certain precautions which were recommended:  “Night and morning the throat should be gargled with a solution of one in 5,000 permanganate of potassium in water containing 0.8% of common salt, and in addition some of this solution should be poured into the palm of the hand, drawn up through the nostrils, and expelled through the mouth.”

The situation in Badsey

Influenza had definitely reached Badsey by the middle of October.  On Monday 14th October, Mr Frank Amos, the Headmaster of Badsey Council School, reported that 50 children plus one teacher, Miss Crisp, were away with influenza.  Three days later, Dr Fosbroke, the County Medical Officer, communicated with the school Managers and authorised the closure of the school until Monday 28th October owing to the serious outbreak; 85 children were absent and others failing.  Further closure was considered necessary and, in the event, school did not reassemble until Monday 11th November which, coincidentally, turned out to be Armistice Day. Many of the children were still not well enough to return to school and were unable to participate in the holiday granted on the afternoon of 12th November to celebrate the cessation of hostilities.  However, by 22nd November, Mr Amos was able to report that most of the children had returned from their illness, and the attendance was fairly good.

Whilst no children died of the flu in Badsey, eleven adults died in a period of less than four weeks, and it was not just the elderly who died.  On 23rd October, Charles Binyon recorded in his diary: “Influenza has taken one victim – Mrs Percy Hall, and there are an extraordinary number of cases.”  This was Rosa Helen Hall, the 36-year-old wife of John Percy Hall; she left behind four young children, the youngest less than a year old.

The next to succumb were William James Hands, 68 (father-in-law of the Vicar of Badsey) and Mrs Alice Sandford, aged 35.  Both were buried on 30th October.  According to a report in The Evesham Standard, Mrs Sandford had attended the wedding of a relative at Evesham although she had not properly recovered from the flu; this then developed into pneumonia.  (The wedding was likely to have been that of her younger brother, Charles, who married Alice Taylor in the autumn of 1918.)  Alice left behind nine children, the youngest aged only one.  The children were split up, with half going to live with their grandparents, the other half remaining with their father. 

The following day another Hall family funeral took place, that of Percy Hall’s sister-in-law, Louisa Hall, who was married to Percy’s eldest brother, Thomas Henry (Harry) Hall.  Harry, too, perished, dying just 12 days after his wife.  Both were in their thirties and were good friends of Charles Binyon.  Only two months earlier, the three had been on a cycling trip together in Cambridgeshire and frequently went out for Sunday afternoon cycle outings in the Vale and the Cotswolds. Following Louisa Hall’s death, Binyon went almost daily to visit Harry. He tried to get a nurse for him, but the doctor said it was impossible and that he could not last another two days. On the evening of 8th November, Binyon noted:  “H Hall sent for me to make his will. I fetched the Vicar and we managed this between us. He wished me to act as Executor. He could only just sign his name.”  The next day’s diary entry read:  “Beautiful day. Harry Hall died at 3 am. He seemed to suffer no pain. I can hardly realise that both my companions on the trip to Ely are dead.”

On 1st November, the funeral took place of Charles Keen, the son of Mr William Keen, a well-known Badsey market gardener.  The report in The Evesham Standard described him as “a tall, fine young fellow, and a prominent member of Badsey Rangers Football Club.  He was of a frank, genial disposition, and had many friends who deplore his loss.  He was 34 years of age and leaves a young widow and one child.”

Charles Smith, 65, of Bowers Hill, was buried on 4th November.  A widower, he was the father of nine children, ranging in ages from 10 to 36.  The next day, Mrs Annie Maria Kyte died, aged 45, leaving behind eight children, the youngest being six.

As Mela Brown Constable said in a letter to Cyril Sladden:  “Influenza is raging everywhere – the Camps are in quarantine and all leave has been stopped ….. Badsey has suffered badly from this flu epidemic - you’ll see many changes dearest when you get back amongst the villagers.”  Cyril’s own sister, May Sladden, had had influenza but was up and had been out, and almost well again.

It wasn’t just long-term Badsey residents who died.  Badsey Manor House at that time was being used as a prisoner of war camp and many of the prisoners were suffering.  Three days after the war ended, 33-year-old Private Johann Rosskopf died.  He was a member of the 1st Bavarian Reserve Division and a married man with three sons; he had arrived at Badsey Manor House Prison Camp in February 1918. Two days later he was buried in Badsey churchyard, close to the graves of three Badsey soldiers who had died in the past year.

Under the title “A Dark Month”, the December 1918 Parish Magazine recorded:

The terrible epidemic, which has afflicted nearly the whole world and has proved a formidable rival to the war, has unhappily left its marks on Badsey. From October 23 to November 18 inclusive there were 13 funerals at Badsey, ten of which were those of influenza victims. To these must be added one more, Mrs Russell, of Pear Tree Corner, having been buried at Middle Littleton ….. There was only one death at Wickhamford from the epidemic, which happily now seems to be dying out everywhere, and none at Aldington.  [NB - The Wickhamford parish register does not record any burials in 1918, so it is not known who this refers to, unless possibly it was Charles Smith of Bowers Hill, as occasionally that area of the village was mistakenly referred to as Wickhamford.  So, a lucky escape for Wickhamford.]

By Christmas 1918, The Evesham Standard was able to report as follows:

Happily the influenza appears to be on the wane although further deaths at Evesham are still reported.  It has been calculated that throught the world six million people have perished of influenza and pneumonia during the past tweleve weeks.  It has been estimated that the war caused the death of 20,000,000 persons in 4½ years.  In the same period at the epidemic rate influenza would have killed 108,000,000.  Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world.

The suffering of servicemen

Many Badsey servicemen were suffering also. Particularly poignant was the death of Private Harry Sadler who died at Gosforth on 18th October of pneumonia following influenza. He had only joined the colours a month earlier. He was buried at Badsey on 23rd October with local members of the VTC forming a bearer-party. Perhaps, understandably, his mother wished the funeral to be as quiet as circumstances would allow, with no volleys and no “Last Post”. The choir, however, attended and sang in church and another hymn at the graveside, and the organist played the Dead March.

Other soldiers reported to be suffering were Lieutenant Harold Allsebrook, Private Ernest Crane and Sergeant Jesse Colley, all of whom  were in a critical condition for some days with pneumonia, but mercifully all recovered.

Far away in Mesopotamia, John Cull, the baker’s son, had been taken ill with the deadly virus. With cruel timing, just as the bells were celebrating the armistice on 11th November with a merry peal, Mr Cull received a telegram to say that his son had died of influenza on 25th October. His mother had recently received a letter from him saying that there had been fatal cases of influenza, but he was in the best of health. To compound the misery, a memorial service arranged for 22nd November was postponed for almost a month owing to Reverend Allsebrook’s illness.

A doctor’s view

Arthur Sladden, who had grown up at Seward House, Badsey, the son of Julius and Eugénie Sladden, was a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, based in France.  He spent much of the war working on infectious diseases and was very critical of the stance taken by the Government.  In a letter to his father of 29th October 1918, he wrote:

I hope this influenza epidemic will soon abate.  It is causing everyone a great deal of anxiety in every country apparently.  With a properly organised Ministry of Health some big attempt might have been made in view of the spring epidemic to find some protective inoculation but it's no one's business in particular and so nothing has been attempted.  A lot of preliminary work was done out here in the Army, but no effort to carry the thing to a practical and useful conclusion has been made and so all we can do is to "hope for the best".

A few days later he wrote to his sister, Kathleen Sladden, on 2nd November 1918:

I hope this influenza epidemic will do good in one way, in leading to a proper co-ordination of preventive medicine - and yet I have doubts, we are essentially a "wait and see" nation and on this point I can quote you an excellent example.  The Army has a medical service, co-ordinated and organized and disciplined up to the last degree.  It had an influenza epidemic in the spring; it knew or could have known that the autumn would see another outbreak, very likely more virulent.  It had in its possession numerous reports of investigations made early in the year, and under its control many eminent research workers etc, and yet neither in France nor at home were any steps taken to try and forestall or minimise the autumn outbreak.  On October 14th the War Office called a tardy meeting of experts to consider the matter!  And by the time their action can be realised, in practice the epidemic will be waning by natural processes.  So even if a Ministry of Health or a State Medical Service is formed, we shan't necessarily get on much further, unless they get very good men in control.

fluThe final wave of influenza, February/March 1919

The third and final wave of Spanish flu took place in February/March 1919.  This would have been a time when many soldiers were returning home and perhaps brought the virus with them.  As The Evesham Standard noted on 22nd February 1919:  “Influenza is again rampant in some parts of the district….. It seems that the influenza fiend means to be as impartial as possible.  Places which escaped the former visitation are now subjected to the scourge while parishes which suffered severely then are now immune.”  The Evesham Standard of 8th March 1919 reported:  “Influenza is again troublesome and this time some old people in the Evesham neighbourhood have been affected.  There is a good deal of illness in Evesham and district.”

Above:  Advert for First Aid Disinfectant Soap.

Left:  Adverts for Veno’s cough cure and Thalassoll.

We do not know whether Badsey was affected by this wave, but there was no mention of flu in the school log book, so one assumes that Badsey got off lightly on that occasion.  In addition, there was no significant increase in deaths. 

Throughout 1919, adverts appeared in the local press advocating the good use of soap and possible preventative tonics.  This included a rather dubious one publicizing the supply of thalassoll which was said to be useful as a check to influenza.  Quite what they were selling is not known, but it would appear it might have been something to do with sea water, as thalassotherapy is the use of sea water as a form of therapy.


Fifty seconds of fame – The Badsey Society on Radio 4

On Friday 22nd May 2020, The Badsey Society had a brief 50 seconds of fame when it was mentioned on BBC Radio 4 in a programme called Pandemic 1918.  This was a three-part series in which virologist Professor John Oxford looked at the spread and impact of the 1918-1919 flu.  Despite massive advances in health care and medical science, the parallels to today are stark; the threat of such a pandemic occurring again should be at the heart of disaster planning for all governments.

So how did The Badsey Society come to get a mention?  A researcher from Made in Manchester Productions, one of the leading independent radio production companies in the UK, had discovered the Sladden letters on our website, in which there are a number of references to the flu.  In particular, they wanted to dramatise an extract from a letter written by Mela Brown Constable to Cyril Sladden on 26th June 1918.  Permission was granted and an interview with the producer, Ashley Byrne, took place the next day by phone. 

The series began airing on Radio 4 on Friday 15th May 2020, but Mela’s letter appeared in Episode 2.  If you missed hearing it live, you may listen to it on the BBC website.  The Badsey Society mention comes in at 6 minutes 27 seconds from the start, but it’s worth listening to right from the beginning in order to get the context.

The third and final episode will be on Friday 29th May and will examine the long term impact on people, communities and on general health. [Update 29th May - We're pleased to report that The Badsey Society was mentioned yet again in Episode 3 when two extracts from the letters of Dr Arthur Sladden were read (those of 29th October 1918 and 2nd November 1918, see above).  Arthur's first letter begins 11 minutes 46 seconds into the broadcast - we're on air for nearly two minutes this time!]

Maureen Spinks, May 2020

See also articles about other epidemics: