Health, Pandemics and the Victorian Post Office

Guest blogger Professor David Green from King’s College London describes the impact of the deadly Russian flu on postal workers.

The contents of this blog are adapted from an original contribution to The Conversation, first published 29 May 2020.

In our project, Addressing Health, we’ve been researching the health of postal workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although we’ve only just started work on the project, which is funded by the Wellcome for the next three years, we’ve already encountered some interesting parallels with the present COVID-19 crisis. In this blog, we reflect on one of those – the first global pandemic associated with the “Russian” flu in the 1890s.

A man with influenza, taken in hand by a doctor, surrounded by dancing politicians. Wood engraving by Pépin (E. Guillaumin), 1889 © Wellcome Collection

The Post Office was very concerned about outbreaks of epidemic disease, partly because of the fear that disease could be spread through the mail, and partly because of the concerns that it could spread from the mail to the workforce. With up to eight deliveries a day in London, the postman was someone with whom members of the public, particularly the middle classes, came into contact on a regular basis. The question of whether sickness can be contracted as a result of contact with these vital ‘key’ workers of nineteenth-century Britain was, therefore, a pressing one for the Post Office.

Central Telegraph Office, a sketch in provincial gallery from The Engineer, 18 Dec 1891, (POST 118/2018)

To guard against the possibility of contagion, the Post Office insisted that workers had to be vaccinated against smallpox before being taken on. But it was more difficult to ensure that they, and the public they served, remained safe during outbreaks of other kinds of disease, including influenza. This concern was brought to the fore during the outbreak of Russian flu between 1889 and 1893.

The 1889 outbreak of influenza was first reported in the Russian city of Petropavlovsk in September of that year. Within a few weeks it had spread throughout Russia, and by early November it had appeared in most European capital cities.

In mid-November it appeared in the UK, spreading rapidly in London and other large towns and cities, from Edinburgh in the north to Brighton in the south. Alarmingly, it appeared to first infect those who were central to the smooth functioning of Victorian society – politicians, doctors, postal workers, bus and tram drivers, as well as those who worked in banks and insurance offices.

Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, fell ill in January 1890 and was incapacitated for several weeks. And Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence, who was second in line to the throne, died from the disease aged just 28.

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury by London Stereoscopic Company – NYPL, Public Domain

There had been no large outbreaks of flu since 1847, and most doctors had only experienced it through reading about it in textbooks. The germ theory of disease was still relatively new, and there was no knowledge of viral transmission.

Many doctors still believed that disease was caused by miasmas – rotting organic matter spread through the air. The speed with which the flu spread appeared to provide evidence that it was airborne.

Others considered it to be spread by infection and by contagion, citing evidence that it appeared to spread most rapidly along lines of transportation and communication, often infecting railway employees and postal workers first.

The Duke of Clarence, Source: W & D Downey/Wikimedia

The first wave of Russian flu in Britain petered out in 1890, but the lull was short lived and there were other waves in 1891, 1892 and 1893. At the height of the first wave, it was estimated that 400,000 Londoners were affected – about 10% of the population. Taking into account not just deaths ascribed to the flu but also those from respiratory illness linked to the disease, such as pneumonia, the Registrar General thought the number of excess deaths in the UK was at least 132,000 – equivalent to twice that number today taking into account population size.

Postal workers

While the causes of the disease remained unknown until the 1930s, some suspected that it might have been transmitted through the post. The timing of the outbreak coincided with the Christmas period, a peak time for mail deliveries.

In several instances, postal workers were among the first to be infected with the disease. And the early appearance of the flu in post offices across the country focused attention on the mail as a vector of transmission. In Cheltenham, Newport and Cardiff, postal workers were among the first to be infected with the virus.

In Market Deeping, a small and isolated village in the Cambridgeshire fens, the flu first infected a postal clerk who had travelled to the General Post Office in London. Particularly worrying were cases where people were thought to have contracted the disease after receiving letters through the post.

The suspicion that mail was one of the main ways the illness spread appeared to be confirmed by the very high rate of infection among employees at the General Post Office in London compared with other postal workers.

A report on the first wave of the epidemic by the Local Government Board’s medical advisor, Dr Franklin Parsons, recorded that over a third of all telegraph operators had contracted the illness, though the figure was lower for workers elsewhere in the central headquarters and in other London post offices.

Elsewhere, doctors pointed out that those who actually delivered the mail were less likely to contract the disease than other postal workers, blaming the spread not on contact with the mail but on contagion from those who had already had been infected. Long hours of work in overcrowded offices rather than letters were blamed for the spread of the infection among postal workers.

The high rate of infection among telegraphists was blamed on the very cramped conditions in which they worked and the intensity of the tasks they had to perform. Listening intently for hours to the constant clicking of a telegraph machine was thought to exhaust the nerves and increase susceptibility to the disease.

Central Telegraph Office, General Post Office, London, Source: Illustrated London News, 12 December 1874

Occupational Health in the Post Office

The incidence of the Russian flu in different sections of the postal workforce highlights the importance of the workplace environment for understanding health. The Addressing Health project will be exploring not just these outbreaks of disease but also the day to day ailments that workers suffered and which, in many cases, forced them to retire early. We’ll be using the pension records of around 25,000 workers, held in the archives at the Postal Museum, to find out about sickness rates, taking into account age, the nature of the work and the type of place in which they lived.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project or want to get involved, please visit the Addressing Health website, follow us on Twitter @PostalHealth, or on Facebook or contact us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

– David Green, Department of Geography, King’s College London

Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.