York and the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic

One hundred years ago, the ‘Spanish Influenza’ attacked York

Hello, I’m Chloe – from January to March of this year I’ve been on a placement at York Explore, researching the impact the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu had on York. As a History Masters student, I’m used to research, but this has been a new and exciting experience for me!

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Chloe researching the 1918 influenza in York Explore’s reading room

I’ve been looking through newspapers, diaries, council minute books and cemetery records, and have found some surprising results. First, a little background information. The title “Spanish Flu” came from reportage from Spain; their press was uncensored, unlike in Britain, so it looked like they were suffering more from the epidemic. The flu killed around 100 million worldwide, with 200,000 in England and Wales.

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Extract from York Workhouse death register, 1918

The first wave hit York in July 1918, with a second more deadly wave in October. I’ve found answers to:

  • Who was most at risk from influenza?
  • How did local authorities respond?
  • Which areas of York were badly hit?

As well as much more! This information will be displayed as an exhibition on Sunday 18 March at York Explore Library and Archive, Library Square, 11.30am-3pm. Come along to our archives reading room to find out more about how York was impacted by the flu, and see some of the original documents I used.

It has been an interesting, but also an emotional experience for me. I was surprised at how different the Spanish Flu was from the bouts we have now. I didn’t know much about it before, so this placement has been eye-opening for me. There were times when I smiled, particularly after reading a newspaper notice apologising about a shortage of Bovril, which was believed to help prevent the flu. On the other hand, it was sad reading through cemetery records and seeing all the lives cut short through this epidemic.

Looking through the archives has been a personal experience. There are such a variety of documents – this type of research is so different from reading a history textbook. You get more of a sense of the people living through this experience one hundred years ago. The staff and volunteers at York Explore are all friendly and I would encourage you to visit.

You can find information on how to get to York Explore here: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/york-explore/

Hope to see you at the exhibition, and thanks for reading!

Chloe

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Final thoughts…

Three months go really fast, especially when you always have something to do and you enjoy what you do. So have been my three months working at York Explore Archive: quick, but really interesting. Certainly, working with Julie-Ann, Tiffany and the volunteers who work in this project has been a wonderful experience that I will never forget.

In these months, the archive has allowed me to learn how York was between 19th and 20th centuries. It was, without doubt, a very different city from the one we know today: for example, The Shambles was not so dreamful as to open Harry Potter shops for tourists. Streets such as Walmgate or Hungate were areas where some of the poorest people of the city lived. And, of course, York was not the clean and healthy city that we know today. Nonetheless, the huge amount of documentation of the Health Committee and other institutions show that the health care was a matter of great concern to the authorities.

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Butchers selling their wares in The Shambles in the 1890s

It would be really hard to try to explain in a few lines everything I have learned, so I think I am not going to try to!. I think it is much easier if you come to the archive and discover yourself all the possibilities it offers. So, I want to encourage all people living in York to come to this lovely centre one day to learn a bit more about this astonishing city, or even encourage them to work as volunteers on one of these projects. I can guarantee that if you come you are going to discover many of the secrets that this city hides. After all, an archive like this is a “box” where the entire memory of a city is stored, waiting for its citizens to open it up to learn.

Finally, I want to finish this post by thanking all the people who have supported me during these months to make this possible. All of you are an important part of this incredible experience.

Thank you so much everyone and thank you for reading,

Carlos Parra