Lockdown 100 years on: How Spanish flu gripped Norfolk a century ago

Norwich city centre in the 1920s after the Spanish flue of 1918

Some things never change – the junction with St Stephen’s/Westlegate/Rampant Horse Street in Norwich has always been busy. This was the way it was in the 1920s just after the Spanish flu struck Norfolk in 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

After the death and destruction of the First World War the globe was struck by another crisis: the Spanish flu pandemic.

But how did the disease impact life in Norfolk?

Cows making their way down Ber Street in Norwich during the 1920s showing calmer times after the Spanish flu of 1918. 

Cows making their way down Ber Street in Norwich during the 1920s showing calmer times after the Spanish flu of 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Diving into the Eastern Daily Press archives the newspapers at the time paint a picture of limited lockdown measures compared to the ones we have lived through 100 years on during the coronavirus pandemic.

They might have unfolded a century apart but the newspaper coverage of the Spanish flu feels vaguely familiar in 2021.      

Death toll estimates for the First World War range from 15-22 million people. Figures on the National Archives tell us that 886,000 British soldiers did not return from the conflict. 

But the armed forces who were returning brought Spanish flu with them.

Declaring the end of the First World War in an EDP newspaper clipping November 12, 1918. 

Declaring the end of the First World War. EDP newspaper clipping November 12, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

The influenza epidemic of 1918 earned this name not because it originated from the Iberian Peninsula, which is unlikely. Instead Spain - as a neutral country with fewer restrictions on newspaper reporting at the time - covered the fallout more freely and the first reported cases emerged there. 

Estimates put the global death toll from the disease at 50 million with one-quarter of the British population affected. 

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But what do the archives tell us of those times and how the people of Norfolk lived through them? 

Reports on death tolls from around the world and then the UK poured in as the disease spread from cities to rural areas.

International reports of death tolls from the Spanish flu in an EDP newspaper clipping October 24, 1918. 

International reports of death tolls from the Spanish flu. EDP newspaper clipping October 24, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Report on the death toll during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918

Report on the death toll during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping from July 6, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

National reports on the Spanish flu in an EDP newspaper clipping July 2, 1918. 

National reports on the Spanish flu. EDP newspaper clipping July 2, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Medical advice for mitigating the spread of influenza punctuated the pages. Readers were advised to isolate if showing symptoms, ventilate enclosed spaces, take personal precautions like using handkerchiefs to prevent droplets from spreading and gargle in the morning and evenings.  

Advice for people living in Norfolk on preventative measures during the influenza pandemic of 1918 in a EDP newspaper...

Advice for people living in Norfolk on preventative measures during the influenza pandemic of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping October 25, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Several schools and businesses had to close across the county. Back then this tended to be because staff were incapacitated by the flu rather than a legal obligation. 

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918 in an EDP newspaper clipping November 5, 1918. 

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping November 5, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918 in an EDP newspaper clipping November 8, 1918. 

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping November 8, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918 in an EDP newspaper clipping December 7, 1918. 

Local reporting from Norfolk during the Spanish flu of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping December 7, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Cinemas were a notable public space where limited closures were enforced but eventually removed.

Public notice declaring Norwich cinemas closing due to the Spanish flu in an EDP newspaper clipping November 6, 1918. 

Public notice declaring Norwich cinemas closing due to the Spanish flu. EDP newspaper clipping November 6, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

Public notice declaring Norwich cinemas reopening during the Spanish flu in an EDP newspaper clipping November 25, 1918. 

Public notice declaring Norwich cinemas reopening during the Spanish flu. EDP newspaper clipping November 25, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

There were concerns that medical supplies and provisions were inadequate. Rationing lingered so components such as alcohol for disinfectant ran low.

Challenges securing medical supplies during the influenza pandemic of 1918 captured in an EDP newspaper clipping from...

Challenges securing medical supplies during the influenza pandemic of 1918. EDP newspaper clipping December 10, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital closed its doors to visitors with limited exceptions.

Norfolk and Norwich hospital closes to visitors from EDP newspaper clipping November 11, 1918. 

Norfolk and Norwich hospital closes to visitors during the Spanish flu. EDP newspaper clipping November 11, 1918. - Credit: Archant Library

And even as the influenza pandemic wound down there were concerns about the health implications left in the wake of the disease.

Contemporary concerns after the Spanish flu started to wind down shown in a newspaper clipping from March 20 1919.

Health concerns after the Spanish flu started to wind down. EDP newspaper clipping from March 20, 1919. - Credit: Archant Library

The Spanish flu of 1918 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 might be more than a century apart and this is not a simple case of history repeating itself. But the archives show that we do share several experiences with our forebears 100 years ago. 

To explore the Eastern Daily Press and search our archives from your computer to revisit stories and clippings like these, subscribe to Local Recall by visiting localrecall.co.uk or clicking here.

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