Tuberculosis; "Spanish "Flu 1918 and the Flu epidemic of 1892.

Author: Julie Goddard
Date published: 22/05/2014
© Newbury Weekly News


The Great White Plague


Tuberculosis is a disease which has infected mankind as long as humans have existed. However it is only in the last hundred years has it been realised for what it is: an infection by the tuberculous bacillus and only in the last fifty years has a cure been found.


The disease manifests itself in several forms : one produces wasting of the body and was known as consumption or phthisis; another attacks the bones of the spine and is known as Pott's paraplegia (after the name of the man who identified it) and the other attacks the lymph glands of the head and neck and was known as scrofula. For a long time the latter was thought to be curable by the touch of the sovereign of the time in a ceremony known as “Touching for the King's Evil” a practice which continued for many years.


Certainly, over the centuries many people have claimed to know a cure. Many of those suggested or practised would have acerbated the disease rather than cure it. The symptoms of the disease could differ widely, preventing further any link between sufferers to be clearly identified. In some the disease was only a periodic inconvenience, coming and going without reason. On the other hand others when contracting the sickness would have a gradually lingering sickness until death relieved them. Others, for no discoverable reason, seemed to throw off the sickness without treatment. The lack of knowledge of bacilli meant that every sort of treatment was proposed and tried without the certainty of a cure.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth century bleeding and blistering were common practices. By Victorian times the practice was for the sufferers to be kept indoors in the warm with every draught excluded. Of course this was the proposed treatment- for those with the money and time to pursue it. For the less rich, living in overcrowded houses with shared bedrooms the infection soon spread to the other inhabitants. The cough which goes with the chest infection was especially tiresome to those who shared the patient's living space, which in the poorest homes was the living and sleeping room for the whole family. In these conditions the whole family would become sick, losing their children, the weakest members, one by one. The Bronte sisters may spring to mind - not only the well known Emily, Charlotte and Anne, but also their elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth and brother Patrick Bramwell Bronte.


In the twentieth century the reverse treatment, that of keeping the patient in the fresh air, was fashionable and patients in hospital with TB would have their beds wheeled out on to a hospital veranda for the whole day whatever the weather.


The existence of bacillus had been revealed by an English physician, Benjamin Marten in 1722. He suggested that contact between those with the suffering with the disease and others could spread the disease. “It may be therefore likely that by a habitual lying in the same bed with a consumptive patient, constantly eating and drinking with him, or by very frequently conversing so as to draw in part of the breath he emits from the lungs, a consumption may be caught by a sound person”. His findings were decried as ridiculous.


It was not until 1882 that a Robert Koch, a German scientist, isolated the tuberculous bacillus and showed how it could spread from person to person and from animals to humans and that people with no apparent sign of the disease, could be carriers and infect other people. Unfortunately a botched experiment, when patients were injected with a fatal dose of the supposedly safe bacilli and many died, set back a cure by many years.


By the 1920s the risk of drinking milk obtained from cows with the infection was taken seriously and pasteurisation, to kill the germs, was widely introduced- not without outcries against this measure. In addition to pasteurisation the habit of spitting in public began to be frowned on. However, it was not until the late 1940s that the antibiotic streptomycin, given by inter muscular injection was proved to kill the tuberculosis bacillus. Since then more antibiotics have been added to the list of effective treatments. A programme of public heath improvements were begun and preventative measures were introduced to counter where infection would be most likely found The programme of inoculating children and others at risk with the effective BCG vaccine (Bacillus-Clamette-Guerin) became widespread. Those of us alive today should realise that they have been spared one of the horrors which afflicted earlier generations.


Remember the Bronte family members were not the only ones to suffer and die from The Great White Plague as it was known. It is very likely that examination of the death certificates of some families with several members interred in the Newtown Road Cemetery could identify local examples of families succumbing, one by one, to the disease and a lingering premature death.


Julie Goddard









With the centenary of the start of the First World War being marked by great interest in the reasons, the actions and the victims of this war, the “Spanish” flu epidemic of late 1918 and early 1919 should not be forgotten.


With no organised rationing system for food, as there was in the Second World War, many people were badly fed, and low in vitamins. Mothers, sweethearts and brothers and sisters had been living on their nerves for years apprehensively awaiting news that their loved one had died, or was missing. The population of not only this country but in Europe and America were ripe for succumbing to “A visit from the Spanish Lady”, the new influenza like germ which popular opinion associated with foreign parts. As it happens the germ did not come from Spain and there are still conflicting accounts of where it actually started; one being that it evolved in America from two separate germs and progressed eastwards. Easy American victims were young men from the isolated prairie communities who had not been exposed and therefore immunised by contact with city dwellers. These men joined up by the thousand, overwhelmed by the numbers military officials were forced to house them in tents even though it was winter. Men incubating the germ soon succumbed passing on the infection to others as they did so. Then survivors were shipped across the Atlantic spreading the germ as they went.


Influenza reached Britain in the July of 1918.




The Newbury Weekly News on Oct 31st 1918 gave a graphic picture of the disease in the English countryside. “There is a strong smell of eucalyptus, cinnamon and quinine in the streets and places of public assembly. All who are not confined to their homes by influenza are dosing themselves with preventatives. The person who sneezes is regarded as a danger to the public health and anyone who coughs is in danger of being carted off to a sanatorium. Colds are by no means unusual at this time of year... but they are likely to be preliminary symptoms of the prevailing epidemic which has caught so many in its clutches. The health authorities appear to be helpless in combating the spread of the disease. Individual precaution is the only method to method to one adopted and so off to bed directly the temperature rises unduly. Newbury has its fair share of sufferers, and local organisations are temporarily deprived of their most active members. The elementary school children had a half term holiday on Monday. On Tuesday morning there were no less than 600 absentees when the roll was called, over 130 at one school. The excuses were generally that children were suffering from influenza. The authorities had no choice but to close the schools for a fortnight...No. 99 [the Workhouse] is happily free from the epidemic. It is a house set on a hill and absolutely self-contained. To preserve its immunity an official order has been issued suspending all visits to inmates until further notice...”




A study of the Deaths column of the paper around the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 show a gradual increase in the number of notices inserted from 5 to 6 a week to 29 to 35 to 46 at the highest point. It is not only elderly persons whose deaths are recorded, but those in their teenage years, middle-aged couples and young men (however in these, unless stated, it is difficult to decided whether they died of wounds sustained in the fighting, or flu caught in the military hospital where they lay). Mostly the death is recorded as having been from pneumonia or bronchitis, a complication of flu.




It was not until December 6th 1918 that the editor felt he could write “a share of sunshine and bracing air would drive off the flu demon and enable doctors to get a little more leisure. The sick list has lately been a heavy one and funerals have been taking place with lamentable regularity.” It was too optimistic, the death notices continued to be high for two more months, before fading away in the Spring.




Unfortunately I was not able to compile any credible statistics about the deaths of those brought to the Newtown Road Cemetery for burial who had died of influenza proper; this would have meant obtaining the death certificates for large numbers of people. It should be also borne in mind that the cause of death given on a certificate can be misleading, because the symptoms of flu could be mistaken for bronchitis; and it could be a toss up as to whether the cause of death was an infection of the lungs from influenza – or a similar virus. Just remember the words of the Editor of the Newbury Weekly News “Newbury has its fair share of sufferers.”




Julie Goddard


Jan. 2015






Newbury Weekly News 28 January 1892


Item of general interest




January is generally a fatal month, but never in living memory has the death-roll assumed more alarming dimensions. From the obituary column in the Times, which have been known to be lengthy, down to the local newspapers, there has been the same mournful evidence of the abnormal mortality. Last week's column in the N.W.N. Was unprecedented in its length. I counted as many as 58 deaths, 46 of which were well over fifty. There was one death over 90, eight over 80, sixteen over 70, thirteen over 60 and eight over 50.




A walk round the Cemetery will afford convincing proof of the numerous deaths with which the first month of the year has been marked. No. less than nineteen funerals were conducted last week, and still the number of fresh mounds increases daily. I am pleased to learn that the appointment of Mr. Stoodley as sexton has been the means of inaugurating a more satisfactory state of things in the Cemetery, and that mourners and others who have had to attend there to pay the last mark of respect and affection for relative or friend, can now be sure of receiving the greatest consideration and attention at a time when such are most needed.




It is a remarkable fact that while many firms in Newbury have had large numbers laid up with the influenza, the cases at the “Eagle Ironworks” where some 115 men are employed, have been very few. The theory for this exemption is that the coke fires used destroy the germ of the disease.




The Rev. J. Scott-Ramsey, of Oakley, near Basingstoke, makes some sensible suggestions as to the practice of men standing bare-headed at the grave side during a funeral service. He points out that the church, not infrequently crowded and artificially heated, has a temperature that contrasts greatly with that of the churchyard, where a bitter east wind may be blowing, not unaccompanied by rain or snow, while in summer a fierce sun may be beating. Valuable lives are thus unnecessarily exposed to danger through obedience to a custom “more honoured in the breach than the observance.” If public opinion would sanction another form of showing respect, which, instead of entailing risks that have too often cost delicate people their lives, would require only that hats should be raised while the body is being lowered into the grave, a public benefit would be conferred upon mankind. It seems especially to the sad event, which has deeply moved the whole civilised world that this suggestion should now be offered.




Newbury Weekly News 28 January 1892






Extracted by Julie Goddard Jan 2015








Sources:Newbury Weekly News 28 January 1892

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