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The “Spanish” Influenza in Enfield, 1918 -1919

From the Parish Magazine, November, 1918.

Owing to the prevalence of influenza, which is of a virulent character, the day schools in Enfield at the time of writing have been closed, and the Medical Officer of Health has requested the Vicar to close the Sunday School until after November 10th, in order to avoid infection as much as possible. The request has been complied with. We hope that the epidemic will have reached its climax before the magazine appears.

Just over one hundred years ago, our predecessors at St Mary Magdalene’s church and in the parish, were having to contend with a global epidemic even before the end of the Great War. And yet, this is the only reference to that epidemic in our Parish Magazines of the time. The Vicar was the Rev. John Thomas.

As you can see, the day schools and the Sunday School were closed but not the church, which carried on its services and activities as usual. This was because the flu epidemic, at the beginning, seemed to be affecting younger people more than older. At Chase Farm, which was still a Poor Law orphanage and school, 242 children and eight staff became ill with the flu. All the children survived. At Forty Hill school, 120 children became ill.

In 1918, Enfield, Edmonton and Southgate were still three separate boroughs. The parish of St Mary Magdalene was part of the Chase Ward of the Urban District Council of Enfield. Chase Ward covered an area of 4,478 acres and had a population of 13,399. This gave an average of 2.9 people per acre, reflecting the affluence of the Ward which still contained many large private residences. In contrast, the most crowded Ward in Enfield was Bush Hill Park with a population of 11,935 living on 792 acres, a density of 15.06 people per acre. Although normal birth and death rates for the two Wards were similar, Bush Hill Park’s infant mortality rate was a third higher than that in Chase Ward.

The Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for Enfield, who ordered the closure of schools and Sunday Schools, was Mr. William Pennefather Warren. His work, together with that of the Council’s Sanitary Inspector, Mr. A.J. Munro, was the overseeing of all aspects of public health, from condemning slum housing and prosecuting owners of unsafe factories to infectious disease control and immunisation to the inspection of foodstuffs to ensure that they were safe for human consumption.

In his Annual Report to the Council for 1918, Mr. Warren notes:

INFLUENZA: The disease began on or about October 5th and lasted in epidemic form until the beginning of December; it was of a very virulent type and caused 127 deaths, - the actual cause of death in nearly all cases was Pneumonia.

Of these 127 deaths from the “Spanish” flu in Enfield, only 19 were of children and only 7 of people over the age of 65. It claimed most lives in the age range of 25 to 65 years. In previous years, the most frequent infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis had claimed only tens of lives.

Mr. Warren further reported:

On November 25th a Medical Inspector of the Local Government Board paid us a visit at the end of which he expressed himself satisfied with the action of your Health Department, and did not make any suggestions as to any further steps to be taken in coping with the disease.

Enfield was relatively lucky. In the neighbouring council area of Edmonton, 218 people died from flu. In many parts of Edmonton, people were living in overcrowded accommodation. This was due in part to a great influx of workers to the Royal Small Arms Factory during the Great War and also, according to their MOH, Sidney C. Lawrence, “in many cases, two soldiers’ wives limit their expenses by concentrating into one house instead of two.” Nutrition and general health had been affected by wartime rationing. These were ideal conditions for the spread and severity of the flu. The flu virus had not yet been identified as such – it was still thought to be a bacterial infection – and so the Chairman of Edmonton Public Health Committee claimed that all the deaths recorded had happened in families living in “dirty homes”. Of course, this was not so. Good hygiene was and is important in the reduction of the spread of infections but, as now, anyone could get flu, and sadly, the Chairman’s wife was a later victim of the epidemic.

It has not been possible to research whether any members of our parish were directly affected by the epidemic but there is one tragic entry for a funeral in the March, 1919 parish magazine, of Doris Marian Potter, aged 14. She was from a middle-class family who lived in Merrivale, a house on the East Barnet road, and her father was a newspaper proprietor. Funerals of children were rare at St Mary Magdalene, so it is possible that she was a flu victim. The MOH’s Annual Report for 1919 records 72 deaths from influenza, of which two were of children between five and fifteen years of age.

The “Spanish” Flu Epidemic was worst in our area between September,1918 and January, 1919. Across the world, the last recorded case was in March, 1920. It did not, as was popularly thought, originate in Spain. Historians now think that it began in an army barracks in Kansas in the USA and was brought to Europe by American soldiers coming to help bring the Great War to its conclusion. The flu was first widely reported in Spain, which at that time was a neutral country and had no restrictions on the freedom of its press. In those countries involved in the war, the press was more careful about printing stories which would lower public morale, so the term “Spanish Influenza” was coined for what is still the world’s biggest pandemic, which claimed an estimated fifty million lives from 1918 to 1920.

Joy Heywood - The Archivist

St Mary Magdalene Parish Magazines, 1918 – 1919
The Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the Urban District Council of Enfield, 1918
The Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Edmonton Urban District, 1918
(Both held at The Wellcome Library and available online.)
Enfield At War 1914 -1918: Geoffrey Gillum and Ian Jones
Spanish Flu: The Virus That Changed the World: Laura Spinney (BBC World History Magazine, June/July, 2017)