“Like nothing in living memory” — the flu epidemic of 1891

“Like nothing in living memory” — the flu epidemic of 1891

By Gareth Dennison | 07/04/2020

“Like nothing in living memory” — the flu epidemic of 1891
East Dene Cholera burial ground. 200450-1


Coronavirus isn’t the first epidemic to hit Rotherham. Gareth Dennison takes a look at how the town has fared with outbreaks of disease in the past

“NOTHING has occurred within the memory of anyone now living which has confined so many people to their homes in so short a space of time.”

Those words could not sound much more topical, given the current lockdown situation and the global chaos being caused by coronavirus.

But the quotation is in fact from an editorial comment by the Rotherham Advertiser — from May 2, 1891.

The paper reported how the town was gripped by an epidemic of flu which affected up to 20 per cent of the population.

Waves of the pandemic hit Britain between 1889 and 1893 as millions were taken ill and a total of 125,000 died.

The Advertiser comment piece said: “The visitation of the influenza epidemic on this locality will long be remembered as the most severe attack of disease which has been known in the neighbourhood for many years.

“Nothing has occurred within the memory of anyone now living which has confined so many people to their homes in so short a space of time, and which has claimed its victims to such an extent from all classes and conditions of society, and has visited young and old alike in the same indiscriminate manner.

“The suddenness and completeness with which it has struck down the apparently strong and healthy, as well as those of seemingly weaker constitutions, is one of the most remarkable features of its attacks.”

The onset of the epidemic was reportedly so fast that anticipation or prevention had not been possible. It was so bad here in Rotherham that it even made the news on the other side of the world.

The Sydney Morning Herald of May 7, 1891, informed its readers in Australia: “In Rotherham, a town of Yorkshire, near Sheffield, there are at the present time about 6,000 persons prostrated through influenza.”

A peculiarity of this particular 19th century flu was that its origin could not be traced to one single cause or influence — such as defective drainage or other sanitary conditions, the Advertiser reported.

Other times, such health issues had been much more pronounced within certain sectors of society or mostly confined to those employed in a particular kind of work.

And the Advertiser piece added: “Those who have followed indoor occupations, equally with those who, from the nature of their employment have spent much of their time in the open air, have suffered from this peculiar and mysterious affliction.

“The suddenness of its outbreak and the rapidity with which it spread over the town and district give it a prominence among epidemic diseases previously unknown in this neighbourhood.”

The height of the epidemic led to a “sensational incident” covered in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of May 12, 1891.

Dr John Kenny, a surgeon from Treeton, had suffered the flu and become so stressed about meeting the needs of his patients that he jumped from a second-storey window.

He had been removed by colleagues from his surgery in the south of the borough and taken to Rotherham’s Crown Hotel.

But on being left alone for a few minutes, the delirious doctor locked himself away, climbed out of the window and jumped.

The Independent report said: “For some time past Dr. Kenny has been overworked, and the influenza epidemic has added to the pressure.

“He has complained of neuralgic pains in the head, and it is thought Dr. Kenny has also been seized with the prevailing epidemic.

“Being a young man of 28 years of age and of sober habits, it was hoped that he would pull though the crisis safely, but his constitution appears to have been affected by his unremitting attention to his patients.”

Luckily, he was uninjured by the ordeal and his illness was “entirely attributed to suffering and excitement of overwork”.

Mark Honigsbaum cited the incident in a piece called The Great Dread for the Social History of Medicine journal in August 2010.

The article discussed the way that the psychoses of influenza could be triggered by an individual returning to work before they fully recovered.

The Advertiser’s 1891 coverage — unearthed by local historian Peter Feek during research — compared the 1891 outbreak in Rotherham to one which had spread across the country in November and December of 1847.

A description in the Times described how that one had “almost emptied churches” and “almost brought the public offices to a standstill, closed the schools, disabled the police force.”

Even earlier in the century came cholera, which travelled across the country and arrived in Rotherham from Sunderland in 1832.

Peter Hawkridge, secretary of Rotherham District Civic Society, said: “The interesting thing about the 1832 outbreak was that it occurred in a court on Westgate and a number of the victims worked at Robert Bentley’s brewery on Canklow Road.

“He gave a piece of land in East Dene for the victims; he had a farm there where his dray horses were pastured.”

There was such fear of this new disease that people refused to let any more victims be buried in the All Saints’ churchyard, according to the civic society’s book Rotherham: A Book of Years.

“Instead they were taken in wicker baskets at the dead of night from their homes on Westgate, and buried in a hastily consecrated piece of land on the edge of Robert Bentley’s farm in East Dene,” it added.

“The panic led to the creation of a short-lived board of health to try and find some defence against the disease. But as nobody knew what caused it, the board didn’t last long.”

The cholera burial ground at East Dene contains the names of 22 victims from that outbreak as well as another eight who perished in 1849.

The memorial — now nestled between housing at Park Road — was rededicated in 2016.