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1918: Spanish flu and the railways

For this week’s post, we’re delighted to have another contribution from Helen Ford, the project co-lead at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. One of Helen’s final actions before the MRC was closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic was to photograph some more pages of NUR records for the MRC volunteer team to work with during the lockdown. Looking through those files, which covered 1918, the scale of the 1918 ‘flu pandemic became immediately apparent – and so Helen came up with this timely blog post. It’s a great reminder of the events of just over 100 years ago, if sadly now also seen through the eyes of our current crisis. It also points at the valuable detail that is emerging from our project, particularly bringing railway worker health into the spotlight.

On that note, we’ll have more to say about worker health from this data in the future – but for now we’re interested to see if there are any suggestions about health issues that were either specific to railway staff, or that railway workers particularly suffered from (but which might also be found in other workplaces/ beyond the workplace). If you’ve any ideas, please let us know!

We welcome blog posts from guest contributors, so do please get in touch with us if you have an idea!


Several recent newspaper articles and blogs have made comparisons between the current Covid-19 pandemic and the flu pandemic (commonly known as the Spanish flu) which started in 1918. Although the source of the earlier pandemic is unknown – almost certainly not Spain – we do know that its spread was rapid, and it was largely carried by returning soldiers from the trenches and field hospitals of northern France, tightly packed onto ships and trains in the last few months of World War 1. Its impact is clearly reflected in the records of deaths in numerous archive collections including parish registers, hospital records and obituaries.

The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) quarterly reports also provide an insight to the 1918 flu pandemic in the UK. The NUR recorded the deaths of their members and the financial aid granted to families and orphans in quarterly tables. These include the cause of death from both diseases and accidents, which is why they are of value in the RWLD project. Both the Death Claims and the Orphan Fund tables show the increasing number of flu cases from the late summer of 1918 onwards.

Extracts from a more typical page from the June quarter (above) & a page from the December quarter (below), both 1918 Death Claims.

The accuracy of the recorded cause of death can be problematic at this period; several different lung diseases were common, and terminology is often unreliable. Pneumonia appears frequently and seems to have been used interchangeably with influenza. It is possible that in the early days of the epidemic, other respiratory illnesses were recorded for deaths which were due to the influenza. There are many entries for pleurisy, phthisis, bronchitis and ‘complications’ but in order to attempt some degree of accuracy I have counted only those deaths labelled as ‘influenza’ or ‘pneumonia’. Once the pandemic took hold, influenza became more widely recognised and recorded as the cause of death. Some doctors took the precaution of using “Influenza and pneumonia” or “Influenza and bronchitis”, as can be seen in p.58 below.

Page from the December 1918 Death Claims.

From the beginning of the year there are several cases of pneumonia recorded, but the first ‘influenza’ death on 6 January 1918 was Mr F. Smith, aged 38, platelayer for the Midland Railway Company and a member of Ampthill branch. In the first three months of the year there were 11 deaths from influenza or pneumonia. The real outbreak or first wave of Spanish flu was during the summer months, and we can see a steady increase in recorded cases from July onwards. It was of course the railways that brought the survivors of the trenches home and it’s likely that railway personnel were therefore among the earliest workers to be infected.

The quarterly reports of Death Claims in the NUR tables reveal the steady spread of the disease during August and September and as expected, a particularly high number of deaths between October and December 1918. The tables for the last quarter of the year cover more than 15 pages and record 298 deaths from influenza and/or pneumonia during these three months, although there are also some entries from July-Sept included. The entries increase from an average of four per page, until October when they jump to an average of 25 per page. The pandemic continued into 1919-1920 so it will be interesting to look at the total number of railway employees lost to the disease over the whole period. It may also be possible to plot the geographic locations on a map to see if a pattern is discernable.

The ages of the members who died in the pandemic was wide ranging, but the majority were in their 20s and 30s. The youngest I could find was A. Storey, signalman of Harrogate branch who was 17 years old and had only been a member of the union for one year when he died on 28 October 1918.

Page covering payments made to orphans.

We can also tie some of these deaths in with the list of funds paid for orphans from the NUR. At least 134 deaths from influenza/pneumonia are included in the Orphan Fund lists for the December quarter, many of the names occurring in both lists of course.  The tables provide similar details to the Death Claims but also give the number of children and the amount paid weekly.

Mr M. Brundrett, 37, a driver for the Great Central railway left six children when he died in November. The fund paid them 6s 6d per week. Mr S.J. Sambrook of Crewe aged 42 left five children at his death on 21 October.

Some of the other causes of death which appear regularly in the tables include ‘syncope’ (a sudden fall in blood pressure), ‘nephritis’ (kidney disease) and ‘Morbus cordis’ (heart disease). Like the Spanish flu, these diseases were clearly not specific to railway workers, but it would be interesting to know of any other diseases commonly seen in the railway industry or relating to a particular occupation on the railways.

The Spanish flu pandemic was as devasting to the UK population as it was elsewhere. The total number of deaths is thought to have been more than 50 million across the world, but its impact has been largely forgotten. This small snapshot provides confirmation of the effects of the Spanish flu on one industry over a few months in 1918.


Helen Ford

Helen has been an archivist for over 30 years working variously in local government archive services and business archives. She’s been the manager at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick for 14 years and has recently been involved in getting some of the thousands of trade union membership records added to FindMyPast. Raising awareness of the value of union records for historians is an important and enjoyable part of her job.

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