What was the Spanish flu and how did it affect England?

Spanish flu swept across the globe in 1918, infecting a third of the world’s population and killing up to 100 million people.

Britain was in the midst of the last summer of the First World War when the pandemic struck. As all efforts were focused on ending the conflict, there was no lockdown and all industries worked on as normal.

For propaganda and morale reasons, newspapers did not widely report the seriousness of the outbreak at home. However, they were free to write about its spread in neutral Spain, hence it being named Spanish flu.

But it was misnamed, affecting millions across the globe and possibly spread by US troops coming to fight in Europe.

It was noted for killing more people in their 20s and 30s than other pandemics.

No social class escaped but the mortality rate was worse for the urban poor. This was found not just in the UK but also in studies carried out in countries such as the US, Norway and Australia.

In England, the Registrar General’s figures showed four of the five towns with the worst death rates per 100,000 were in the North East and Yorkshire – Hebburn (1194); Jarrow (877); Kidderminster (849); Barnsley (835) and Wallsend (828).

Meanwhile England’s four least affected towns were in the South – Sutton (188); Woking (225); Winchester (250) and Taunton (272).

Clare Bambra, a professor of public health at Newcastle University, said wealthier people had a “better” Spanish flu pandemic than those who lived in overcrowded homes or worked in factories without social distancing.

She added: “Whilst infection rates may have been relatively uniform, more affluent sections of the population would have had better health care resources, better pre-existing health status and better housing conditions.

“These aspects of inequality are also important over 100 years later when examining the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic.”