Historian Peter Holme reveals the impact Spanish Flu had on Westmorland in 1918

I saw a little bird

Its name was Enza

I opened the window

And in flew Enza

THAT child’s playground rhyme from 1918 may sound innocent but it related to the world’s worst pandemic ever.

It is estimated that up to 100 million people (25 per cent of the world’s population at the time) succumbed to “Flanders Gripe”, or “Spanish Flu”, as it is more commonly known.

In the early part of 1918 there had been a mild ‘flu epidemic, which went virtually unnoticed but a small paragraph almost hidden in the middle of the Gazette of October 26 signalled the start of the pandemic in Westmorland.

It read: “The prevalence of influenza throughout the country has led the medical officer of the Local Government Board to recommend the adoption of a number of general precautions, including the avoidance of overcrowded dwellings or other places, the “flushing with air” of every occupied living room or bedroom and the treatment of all catarrhal attacks during the prevalence of influenza as infectious.”

The districts most severely affected by November 2 were Kirkby Stephen, Tebay, Bowness, Ambleside, Kirkby Lonsdale and, to a lesser degree, Kendal. However, by November 9 Kendal was feeling the full effects.

The Gazette reported there had been 50 deaths in a fortnight in Westmorland and by December 7 the paper recorded 19 deaths in a week.

Dr Henderson, the Medical Officer of Health, reported to a council meeting there had been 30 deaths in the borough with fresh cases being reported every day.

The average number of deaths at this time of year was from three to five per week.

In Appleby the average number of deaths in a year was 14 - there had been 11 in nine days.

There were numerous suggestions for cures advertised – Dr Williams “Pink Pills for Pale People” and “Dr Hunter’s Fever Cure, a recognised prophylactic in cases of influenza 1/- a bottle.” Neither worked.

One farmer claimed he cured himself by drinking paraffin oil.

Dr Howarth, Medical Officer of Health for London, strongly urged people to eat fat bacon. Another blamed the bacon from America, which was packed in borax.

Dr Henderson said an excellent precaution was “to gargle the throat and mouth and sniff up the nostrils warm water to which had been added a teaspoon of common salt and sufficient Potassium Permanganate to make the solution a deep pink.”

There were numerous reports of multiple deaths in a family. One household buried four daughters; in another all 11 members of a family living in one house were seriously ill; in another three members died on successive days the mother dying while her eldest and youngest daughters were lying dead in the house.

There were still outbreaks being reported in March 1919 although the disease was getting milder.

A Mr Mallock of Kirkby Stephen suggested his sheep in Hawes had also suffered from the ‘flu and this was confirmed following experiments by RAMC officers in France, who identified it as a virulent form of Swine Flu. Sadly one of these researchers died of the disease.