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Untold stories of how Spanish flu killed thousands in Yorkshire revealed

Hannah Mawdsley has uncovered the stories of people who witnessed the Spanish flu kill tens of thousands in the UK.
Hannah Mawdsley has uncovered the stories of people who witnessed the Spanish flu kill tens of thousands in the UK.
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The untold stories of the devastating impact of Spanish flu on Yorkshire has been explored by a researcher for a major new BBC project. Chris Burn reports.

While there has understandably been much focus this year on the centenary of the end of the First World War, 1918 was also memorable for another reason; the beginning of an outbreak of an influenza pandemic which is estimated to have caused between 50 million to 100 million deaths across the globe – millions more than died in four years of armed conflict.

Now a century on, the untold stories of the human cost of the Spanish flu, which killed 228,000 in the UK, is

being explored as part of a major new project. The pandemic was exacerbated by the movement of soldiers and civilians arriving in Britain and the effects of overcrowding, poor ventilation and minimal understanding of viruses.

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 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

BBC local radio stations and regional television will be running special interviews, features and programmes today and tomorrow 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.

In Leeds the medical report from 1918 details 1,401 deaths from influenza, 16 per cent of the total number of deaths.

William Angus, the Medical Officer of Health for the city, revealed that “in the last quarter of the year, the whole hospital (Leeds Infant Hospital) was devoted to the treatment of cases of that disease in young children”.

The following year significant numbers continued to lose their lives to influenza with 623 deaths as a result of the pandemic – nine per cent of the total number of deaths.

The second wave of infection in the winter months of 1918 lasted nine weeks in Leeds and its “virulence was much exalted”.

This was put down to the fact that cooler temperatures meant “closed windows” and “impure atmospheres” prevailed and nurtured infection. The dead often lay in houses for several days and the mortuary opened to receive bodies by mid-November to ease the desperate situation assisted by Leeds clergy.

In 1919, in York 59 people (five per cent of fatalities) died as a result of influenza and the Medical Officer of Health, Edmund Smith, recorded that both Clifton and St Paul’s School were each closed for one week. Five deaths of children of school age occurred, along with one teacher while the County Hospital Committee refused to receive any known cases of influenza.

New details have been uncovered for the project by Hannah Mawdsley, a PhD researcher at Imperial War Museums, who has researched a little-known archive of 1,700 letters written in the 1970s and recalling the events that were held within the museums’ documents archive.

During her research, she unexpectedly discovered that her own great great grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Mawdsley, had died of the Spanish flu in Lancashire in December 1918, aged 57.

She says: “I hope that the BBC Local Radio programmes help people understand more about a relatively poorly-known aspect of early 20th 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.”

BBC Two will also be marking the centenary of Spanish flu with a docu-drama on Tuesday, September 25, called The Flu That Killed 50 Million and narrated by Christopher Ecclestone.