December 1918: When Spanish Flu came to Grays

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Extracts from the Grays and Tilbury Gazette dated 2 November 1918.

The Influenza epidemic – Height reached in Grays

Research by Mr Peter Perrin

THE influenza epidemic still continues widespread in Grays and District but, in the words of one of the local doctors, “the worst has passed”. None the less for that, the death rate from influenza, pnuemonia, or allied causes continues high, and one hears on every side of sufferers, not singly but in two and threes. Even whole families have been affected. At Tilbury the disease is very widespread, and in one instance two mothers with the whole of their young families are down with it severly. The greater number of the schools in the Orsett district are closed, and at Horndon-on-the-Hill it is stated that six deaths have occurred within the last few days owing to the epidemic. At West Thurrock it is very prevalent indeed, and in several instances with fatal results. One particularly sad case was that of a young lady who was attending a dance on Saturday evening (27 Oct 1918?), but succumbed to pnuemonia on Sunday afternoon (28 Oct 1918?). The disease, apparently, develops rapidly, and pnuemonia frquently follows.

The local medical men are at work early and late attending to patients, almost to the extent of queues at their surgeries. “I was at work till eleven o’clock last night.” said one doctor on Thursday, “but I think we’ve passed the worst of it.” He agreed that the great danger was the pnuemonia phase of the disease, and pointed out the difficulty people were in with regard to obtaining proper nourishment. This was more particularly the case with milk. People, he said, had been impoverished through lack of fat and meat in their food and, therefore, were more susceptible to the ravages of the disease. It having been suggested that possibly the Government could see their way to increase the meat ration temporarily for a few weeks, he jumped at such a thing. “I believe it would do a great ddeal of good,” he said, “even if it had to be reduced afterwards.” Continuing, the speaker expressed himself strongly on the amount of overcrowding revealed in Grays. “Just fancy a family in ——Road, with six children and lodgiers in addition. It’s shocking! I have never been so struck with the badness of the housing accommodation in Grays before.”

The local undertakers are endeavouring to cope with their mournful work but, the difficulties of labour and the price of materials add to the problem of the rush of work imposed bt the disease.

Infection from Tilbury Ships.

Meanwhile the protest passed by the Grays Council against the state of affairs on certain ships in Tilbury Dock has drawn a remarkable letter from the Port of London Authority’s Medical Officer. His statement that “this Authoity is not empowered to control the influenza epidemic, either locally or otherwise.” opens up a curious problem, for not even the all but omnipotent “Dora” has attempted such a thing.

The letter, addressed to the Port Sanitary Authority by Mr. G.T. Shield, J.P., Chairman of the Council, was as follows:-

“Dear Sir – I must apologise for trespassing upon your valuable time, but at a Committee meeting of the Grays Urban Council it was stated that two troopships had arrived in the West Dock at Tilbury with influenza on board and that a number of deaths had occurred on the voyage. When the local carpenters and other mechanics went on board to work the condition of the ship was such that they refused to continue on board, as they believed they ran great risks, not only to themselves but their families. Our sanitary officials, of course, have no jurisdiction over ships in the docks, and I am taking the liberty of writing you, because one third of the population in our area are dependent upon the work at the docks for their livelihood. The statements were made by members of the Committee actually engaged at the docks, and I believe there must be some foundation for the action of these men. It would allay a good deal of anxiety if you could see your way clear to issue signed statement as to what the Port officials did to prevent the spread of the disease when the ships arrived in the river and before they were allowed to dock.”

To this, Dr. W.M. Willoughby, Medical Officer of Health for the Port of London, replied:-

“The Chairman of this Authority wishes me to explain the matter of your letter of the 11th inst on his behalf. This Authority is not empowered to control the present influenza epedemic, either legally or otherwise, but in doing what is possible to help the sick individuall who is in need of serious attention. From a public health point of view, it is difficult to see an effective line of action. As to the specific ships – the subject of your letter – I have to state that there were no cases of influenza on board on their arrival in the Thames, and since the influenza germ is a strict parasite there was not as much danger in working on those ships as in attending a cinema, shop or other place of foregathering ashore. Nevertheless those ships were fumigated by arrangement with the shipping companies made before arrival. I never object to fumigation of a ship, there is so much in the way of life that is thereby removed, but concealed neither from myself nor the shipping companies that fumigation was not an absolute necessity from the point of view of influenza, it was killing dead germs. The danger is the “mild” case, who unwittingly or otherwise is loose among his felllows handing the germ from mouth to mouth, and when there is no machineery, legal or otherwise, to prevent. In fact, isolated measures are hopeless except in aid of the sick. One week of sun will do what millions of pounds and concerted action ever cannnot do. I fear I have wandered from the point, but, perhaps no further than is necessary in explanation of the medical aspect of the whole case.

A ditty at the time ran thus:-

“A bird came tapping at my window, I called it enza,
I opened the window and in-flew-enza”.

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