Senior Archivist Gavin delved into our Archive to investigate the impact of the Influenza pandemic on postal workers and measures to stop its spread.

The origins of the ‘Spanish flu’

The ‘Spanish Flu’ global pandemic of 1918 (which got its nickname from the first reported cases being in Spain) was one of the greatest health catastrophes of the 20th century. It is thought the deadly virus spread to the UK through soldiers returning home from the trenches.

Influenza notice, 25 February 1919 (POST 30/4290)

In May 1918 the port of Glasgow became the first place in the UK to record the flu. It reached London in June but by late August people hoped the worst might be over. Alas in October a second more deadly wave of flu returned.

The start of the outbreak

Last week I was able to look at a file (POST 30/4290) within The Royal Mail Archive which covers the effect of the influenza outbreak on postal workers and precautions to stop its spread.

The disease first makes its presence felt with news of the absence of about 40 employees from Cardiff Post Office in late June 1918. Cardiff Postmaster John Stuttard informed the Post Office Secretary Sir Evelyn Murray about the number of people off work sick, going on to say: ‘members of staff on Annual Leave who have not left the City have been recalled for duty and Overtime resorted to’.

Cutting from the Western Mail, 26 June 1918 (POST 30/4290)

By 2 July Mr A Moir, Superintending Engineer of the London Engineering District was reporting ‘an increase in sick absence of 335% … during the month of June’. Further details of large-scale absence were received in the next month or so from Manchester, Belfast, the London Telephone Service, Oldham, and Sheffield.

Cuttings from 23 October 1918 (POST 30/4290)

Social isolation

By October the situation was getting more serious. Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist Mr A FitzGerald of Rathmines, Dublin absented himself from work from 21 to 23 October writing:

‘As you will see from the attached certificate all my family are laid up and I am on the verge of collapse myself’

 

This raised the issue of whether rules should be changed to include the new strain of influenza among those ‘infectious diseases’ which if present would demand isolation.

Letter from A FitzGerald of Dublin, 23 October 1918

On 1 November HE Hewitt for the Chief Medical Officer reported ‘There is no evidence to show that Influenza can be spread by a healthy person … and therefore, placing officers off duty unless they happen to be ill themselves, would not be likely to check the spread of the complaint’. Sources today suggest flu can be spread one day before symptoms develop.

In November the Honorary General Secretary of the Association of Irish Post Office Clerks wrote to the Post Office’s Irish Head: ‘under consideration of the serious nature of the present Epidemic … [my Executive] has instructed me to suggest that the disease concerned should be included in the Regulations’. S G Forsythe responded that although the Medical Officer of Health in Dublin recommends ‘careful ventilation in Post Offices, and suggests that the Medical Officers of the Post Office should be liberal in recommending sick leave ..The Infectious Diseases Notification Act has not been applied to the disease in Dublin’. Nevertheless, Forsythe took a sympathetic approach to the case considering that ‘Fitzgerald’s absence for 3 days … is justifiable on the ground of domestic distress’ particularly given he ‘is a most trustworthy and conscientious officer’.

‘The weaker sex’?

J Newlands of the Central Telegraph Office in London noted that far more women were off sick than their male colleagues. His explanation shows unscientific attitudes prevalent at the time:

‘I share the opinion of others that coughs and colds are in some cases due to the injudicious wearing of clothing of a kind which is unsuitable for our variable climate. This is notoriously the case with certain of the female staff. How otherwise is their excessive susceptibility to Influenza to be accounted for’

 

Here Newlands’ letter has been annotated in the margin: ‘the weaker sex?’ If absentees continue ‘there will be a great difficulty in carrying on the work of the office because the rest of the staff will again be subjected to quite a severe load of additional work.’ The problem was being exacerbated by the ‘large influx of military, police and private messages during the night’ as the war drew to an end with Newlands requesting additional staff to assist.

Sick absences in the Central Telegraph Office October 1918 (POST 30/4290)

Letter from J Newlands of the Central Telegraph Office, 23 October 1918 (POST 30/4290)

There are also reports from November 1918 that ‘in consequence of the Influenza epidemic in rural Ireland, most of the deliveries of letters are late and some do not take place at all’ leading to an appeal for the temporary employment of assistants.

Details of delays with Post in Southern Ireland (POST 30/4290)

Precautions

On 14 February 1919 John Sinclair – the Post Office’s Chief Medical Officer – suggested his advice to staff on preventing the spread of the flu be ‘printed and issued for exhibition in the various offices’. The notice appealed: ‘The individual must be taught to realize and acquiesce in his duty to the community’, reassuring that, ’War rations are fully adequate to the maintenance of good health’. It suggested as a preventive measure that:

’The throat should be gargled morning and evening, with disinfectant gargle’ before warning: ’At the first feeling of illness or rise of temperature the patient should go to bed at once and summon his medical attendant’

 

This prevention notice continued to be amended and printed over the next few years.

Influenza notice, 25 February 1919 (POST 30/4290)

Impact on Headquarters staff

The impact of influenza also shows in the Post Office’s staff journal (St Martin’s le Grand) with January 1919’s edition commemorating the deaths of two young members of Headquarters staff: Leslie Atkin-Berry, Private Secretary to the Postmaster General and Mildred Candy of the Secretary’s Office. According to a later report, 63 Headquarters staff died from influenza in 1918.

GPO HQ Departments Influenza absences and deaths 1918 (POST 30/4290)

I was unable to look at the Chief Medical Officer’s reports for 1918 and 1919 which no doubt cover the impact of the outbreak but will try and do so when I next get the chance to visit The Postal Museum.

During the pandemic, over 50 million people died worldwide and a quarter of the British population were affected. The death toll was more than 225,000 in Britain alone.

– Gavin McGuffie, Senior Archivist