Medical historian Dr Christine Alvin looks at the third wave of the Spanish flu epidemic in Bradford.

THE influenza epidemic of 1918 claimed more lives worldwide, in a few months, than the First World War.

Last week we looked at how the disease known as Spanish flu came to Bradford early summer in 1918, mutating into a second wave in autumn. By early December, it showed signs of abating. Picture houses opened and football matches drew crowds. But February, 1919 saw a third wave.

The Bradford Telegraph reported that there were insufficient hospital beds available for the poorest of the sick and hundreds had died while waiting for beds. The suggestion that the workhouse hospital, St Luke’s, should be taken over by Bradford Corporation was raised, but not considered relevant to the immediate issue of bed shortages. The Infirmary had been requested by central government to provide additional services for returning soldiers and sailors. A new VD clinic had opened in 1917, and in 1918 an orthopaedic clinic. These facilities had added to the strain of catering for ‘deserving poor’ patients, and staff sickness had led to ward closures. The third wave led to 43 deaths before February 8, and by the following week pneumonia was a fatal complication. The papers reported the ‘medical profession is again experiencing a strenuous time’.

Amidst rising fears, the adequacy of precautions was questioned. In some places schools were closed, but not Bradford. Wearing masks was enforced in some places, but doctors were equivocal about their value. Bradford’s MoH thought they could be useful, and recommended home-made ones, stating that ‘Doubtless it would become a common custom to wear this form of protection if some strong-willed persons would set the fashion’. A public health expert advocated that every doctor, nurse and attendant on an influenza patient should wear a mask.

Within a short time the epidemic had spread through the city and ‘In many workshops, factories and offices staff are so depleted that a difficulty is found in carrying on’. Among these was Manningham Mills, where 400-500 workers were absent, mostly women and girls. Schools had hundreds of absentees, 70 Bradford postmen out of 300 were ill by March; ex-postmen awaiting demobilisation came back to work early from furlough.

Reactions to this third wave were at times irrational. Although widely accepted that it was wise to avoid crowded places, crowds flocked to the opening of a war photographry exhibition at Cartwright Hall. Perhaps if some had tried a remedy suggested in a local paper, the rooms might have been less cramped. Eating raw onions was “guaranteed” to prevent infection - even wearing slices of raw onion next to the skin. Again people speculated about the origins of the disease. Tea, exported from China, was named as a possible carrier of infection. There was also concern that paper in library books was spreading it.

The epidemic was at its height from mid-February to early March. In the worst week deaths reached 149, and there were reports of double funerals, with two members of a family buried together, and soldiers dying within a week of demobilisation. There were additional pressures on local cemeteries, following the arrival of hundreds of soldiers with influenza.

At last, however, figures began to fall, and by late March there were few deaths. The final known figure of 621 deaths showed, as the MoH report commented “that the characteristic of this third outbreak was the high death-rate among persons over 50 and children under 5”. A total of 111 children under five died, and 35 under 15.

Despite Bradford’s notorious past record of deaths from respiratory diseases, the city’s experience of the pandemic was no worse than many other towns. The commonly agreed figure of 228,000 deaths in Britain is small compared to estimated totals of 12 million in India, 9.5 million in China, or 2.5 million in Russia. Fifty million is quoted for the whole world, but ongoing research suggests 100 million. A fifth of the world’s population had been ill. More people died than in four years of the Black Death. And, the final irony, more died from influenza than in ‘the war to end all wars’.

But statistics aren’t the only way to look at the pandemic. Another way to consider its effect in Bradford is to look at how local people were affected. Take one family, as reported in a local newspaper, who lost three sons. “The last one had been in the worsted spinning business with his father. He enlisted in 1915 as a private; went to France in 1916 and despite having his foot crushed by a gun carriage, returned to France to continue fighting. He became a Lieutenant in 1917. In 1919 he caught influenza and died in Blackpool, where he’d gone on holiday pending demobilisation. He died aged 23, leaving his family without an heir to carry on the business”.

There must be other similar stories but few were reported, likewise few inquests of influenza deaths, perhaps because the papers were already listing deaths of so many others. But those stories of individuals and their families are perhaps equally as important as the statistics when studying the history of ‘one of the great historic scourges of our time’.