Fascinating figures and personal testimonies revealing the devastating impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic have been uncovered by BBC English Regions working in partnership with Wellcome Collection, Imperial War Museums (IWM) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

BBC Local Radio stations and regional television will be marking the centenary of the Spanish Flu epidemic on Thursday 20 September and Friday 21 September with interviews, features and programmes revealing for the first time, the impact of the disease on people living in the cities, towns and villages in their local areas as well as investigating the legacy of the pandemic.

BBC Regional television news bulletins will tell the untold stories of those who suffered and those who desperately sought a cure.  There will be online features and content including a searchable map which reveals the numbers in major towns and cities affected by the 1918 epidemic.

The BBC Local Radio programmes will reveal statistics based on medical reports recording how communities in many parts of England were affected by the virus which killed 228 000 in the UK – in places such as Leicester and Coventry where almost one in four deaths in 1918 was due to Spanish flu.

The statistics are brought to life by letters from the archives of Imperial War Museums which provide detailed accounts of the horrors faced by families and communities already weakened by four years of the First World War.  Some of the letters were used for Richard Collier’s ‘The Plague of the Spanish Lady,’ the others were used for research purposes. These letters are part of IWM’s Documents Archive.

Spanish flu, estimated to have caused between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide, was exacerbated by the movement of soldiers and civilians arriving in Britain and the effects of overcrowding, poor ventilation and minimal understanding of viruses.

The letters written in the 1970s by those who had witnessed the effects of the influenza virus describe large families struck down, grave diggers working from dawn to dusk, and hearses carrying more than one coffin at a time.  Doctors were at a loss to know how to treat the virus, and many had to do their best to deal with the pandemic on their own.

The timing of the epidemic seemed particularly cruel; this writer from Coventry (whose letter is kept in the Imperial War Museums archives) describes the anguish of mourning the death of her mother and seven year old sister, while others were celebrating the end of the war:

“It caused quite a sensation ….having to have a double funeral which was on November 11th, 1918 which was the very day the First World War ended. I can remember very well when the cortege was on its way to the Church. Bells, hooters and all sounds of celebration was raving but how silent people stood who realised it was our funeral. It really was a terrible time not knowing who we were going to lose next.”

PhD Researcher at Imperial War Museums, Hannah Mawdsley, who will be providing expertise and advice to BBC Local Radio programmes, has researched this little-known archive of 1700 letters held within Imperial War Museums’ Documents Archive andthey paint a vivid picture of how societies and families tried to cope with a threat that they could not prevent, cure or comprehend.  Over the twentieth century, Spanish flu became known as the ‘forgotten’ pandemic, and many families today are likely to have unknown personal links to this tragic historical event.

During her research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Hannah Mawdsley unexpectedly discovered that her own great great grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Mawdsley, had died of the Spanish flu in Lancashire in December 1918, aged 57.

Hannah Mawdsley said:  “I hope that the BBC Local Radio programmes help people understand more about  a relatively poorly-known aspect of early twentieth century history, and to reveal the voices of ordinary people that lived through this pandemic – as well as help us to understand that we as a society are still vulnerable to global pandemic threats today. “

The statistical data used for this BBC Local Radio collaboration has been compiled from Medical Officer of Health (MOH) reports digitised by Wellcome Collection.  The reports were produced each year by the Medical Officer of Health of a district and provided vital data on birth and death rates, infant mortality, incidence of infectious and other diseases, and could be seen as a general statement on the health of the population.

Working with BBC English Regions to focus on 1918-1919 specifically, they shed insight on regional populations affected by the influenza pandemic. For example, they show how the virus affected the healthier members of the population between the ages of 20 and 45 and not the very young or old; how it was sometimes confused with pneumonia; and that it was particularly prevalent on board ships arriving in UK ports.

As might be expected, it was easier for the flu to spread in more densely populated areas compared to less populated areas. However, those from less populated and overcrowded areas could visit the more highly densely populated towns and cities only to catch the virus taking it back with them to their small town without realising – the virus had a 24-48 hour incubation period.

BBC Local Radio Stations in the North West will be telling the human story behind the statistics using letters containing first-hand accounts of what it was like to live through the most deadly pandemic in human history.

James Niven, Medical Officer of Health for Manchester City wrote at length about the “disastrous influence of influenza” in his report for 1918 “which caused well over 2000 deaths”. This number rose to 3143 deaths by 1919 although the percentage of deaths was far lower than other cities given the large city population. This was likely due to Niven’s drive to tackle the disease. He was one of the only officers to comment on the way in which the virus attacked the lungs: “Flu has a powerful though variable effect in stimulating the organisms…present in the lungs”. He was particularly struck by the way in which this virus affected those in the prime of life, a fact that “requires special study” [Research in the 21st century has since discovered that death was caused by the body’s auto-immune response triggered by the virus, the healthier the immune system the more vigorously it attacked].

Niven stressed the importance of personal sanitation urged isolation on outbreak particularly in public areas, to seek medical advice as soon as possible, take absolute rest, and no return to work for at least 3 weeks. His practical measures and recommendations saved many lives in the June 1918 outbreak. His advice to ban Armistice celebrations [published in the Manchester Evening News not in the reports] was ignored however which accounts for the soaring death rate in the winter attack which caused ‘distress’ and ‘formidable’ mortality according to Niven’s report.

BBC Two will also be marking the centenary of Spanish Flu with a docu-drama on Tuesday 25 September, 9:00pm, The Flu That Killed 50 Million.

Using compelling eyewitness testimony from doctors, soldiers, civilians and politicians, and aided by dramatic reconstructions, this one-off special brings to life the terrifying onslaught of the disease, the horror for those who lived through it, and the hope of the pioneering scientists who desperately sought for a cure. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2018/39/the-flu-that-killed-50-million

Co-produced with Wellcome, and narrated by Christopher Eccleston, The Flu That Killed 50 Million uncovers new and previously unseen archive material, and, in telling the dramatic story of the Spanish Flu in 1918, provides insight into how we might prevent and respond to future outbreaks.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here