History

Long Read: Chelsea in the time of Spanish ‘Flu

Has football and Chelsea faced a scenario like this before? It is a question asked by more than a few people in recent days with the pause button pressed on the 2019/20 season for an as yet unknown length of time.

Of course there have been plenty of breaks over the years due to bad weather, with some of those prolonged, and war has intervened as well. But when it comes to a global pandemic having an impact on the sport, what became known as the Spanish ‘Flu just over a hundred years ago is the closest comparison.

However while there are some similarities between then and now, there are significant differences too. For a start, the Spanish ‘Flu was much more likely to make those the age of professional footballers seriously ill than the coronavirus of today, and the medical expertise available and measures taken were very different too, including those affecting football.

In a two-part look back to that time, club historian Rick Glanvill has the story of the Spanish ‘Flu and its impact on Chelsea Football Club…
 

Part one: How football kept calm and carried on despite the ‘Blue Death’

‘In 1918, the death rate in Britain exceeded the birth rate for the first year since Government started maintaining records in 1837,’ UK Foreign Office blogger Tara Finn noted a few years ago.

Well of course, you might think, because that was during World War One. Wrong. The high mortality was not for those who fell in battle, but those who succumbed to the Spanish ’Flu pandemic.

There are parallels and contrasts between the H1N1 strain of Type A influenza that emerged just over a century ago and the COVID-19 or coronavirus that is such a concern at the moment.

Today, football, in common with all organisations staging large gatherings, has taken a pause but in 1918 the game, already reduced in time of war to small regional competitions rather than the Football League, saw no reason to close its gates. In fact Chelsea competed for and won a trophy while the deadly ’flu raged on in 1919, and the national League resumed in September 1919 despite its lingering presence.
 

Back then, little was generally understood or conveyed to the public about how the ’flu was transferred from one person to another, there were no proper vaccines, nothing like the National Health Service to handle the widespread outbreaks, and remarkably little government action to change the behaviour of the public.

Spanish ’flu was far more likely to lead to death than the current pestilence, and by 1920 almost a quarter-of-a-million people in Britain had died. And even as the mortality rate increased, war-time restrictions limited the reporting of the pandemic for fear of damaging morale. As a result, when neutral Spain’s King Alphonso XIII was infected it received huge coverage, so “Spanish ’Flu” is the name it has erroneously carried through the ages.

Unlike today, the virus’s spread throughout the world in the last months of the war was accelerated not by international business or tourist flights but by troop movements to and from the battle zones. And it did not primarily hit the elderly hardest, as COVID-19 does, but young adults.

The first wave to hit Britain in May 1918 was virulent, but caused sickness rather than death. The second wave appeared around October 1918 and proved far more deadly and enduring.

People weakened by the virus quickly developed fatal conditions, especially pneumonia, even as it appeared they were actually over the worst of it. Some called it the Blue Death because of the colour it turned victims’ lungs.

What made matters worse was that prior to the NHS, many doctors were on war duty and the regionalised Local Government Board (LGB) was not geared up for guidance on health. In 1918 its chief medical officer, Sir Arthur Newsholme, actually drew up plans similar to today’s measures, such as preventing large assemblies of people or overcrowding on public transport, which would clearly have impacted on football and everything else. But he shelved them because war was the priority.

Public gatherings, including sports, remained unaffected. In London, tens of thousands must have passed on the ’flu at the Armistice celebrations on 11 November 1918, and the Lord Mayor’s Show two days earlier, a 5,000-strong cavalcade involving tanks, airplanes, and low-flying airships.

That month well over 100 fell to the ’flu in Chelsea alone. So heavy was the toll across the UK, especially on those aged 25 to 30 years of age, that funeral schedules stretched into the evening and bodies lay unburied for days.

As well as propagating false ‘cures’ (eat raw onions and porridge, gargle with salted water or even potash, and glug whisky), newspapers took it upon themselves to issue advice, including what we now call ‘social distancing’.

Take a less-crowded train or bus, they suggested, cough into a handkerchief, isolate the sick, and ‘give up shaking hands for the present, and give up kissing for all time.’ And though schools and factories in the capital remained open throughout the epidemic, libraries and post offices were fumigated daily to reduce contagion. Regional Sanitary Authorities claimed that ‘fresh air and cleanliness, both of person and place, are the keystones of defence’ against the virus.

It is such thinking that probably prevented football being shut down in 1918, and the idea of closure never seems to have been discussed, not even in Parliament. In fact, while the scourge was still prevalent in January 1919, football authorities busily attempted to restore pre-war normality. The FA announced the Football League would return the following August, and that international matches could soon be staged.

Remarkably, throughout the chaos, Chelsea regularly attracted 20,000-plus crowds to ‘London Combination League’ games at the Bridge from September to April, and embarked on a successful campaign in the London region version of the 1919 Victory Cup.

The Pensioners saw off Queen’s Park Rangers in the March quarter-final at the Bridge by two goals to nil, then whacked Crystal Palace 4-0 in front of their own fans at Selhurst Park in April. The final was played at Highbury on the 28th of the same month against Fulham, who were beaten 3-0, attracting a 36,000 crowd. Thanks notably to Harry Wilding, who scored in each game, Chelsea remain holders of that trophy.

All of this continued despite Tom Logan and Harry Ford being among those players reported as being escorted by the ‘Spanish Lady’. Thankfully, both recovered but December brought the tragic news that ’flu had claimed Chelsea’s former outside-right Angus Douglas, 29, who had made over 100 appearances for the club before joining Newcastle. Even closer to home, two of the club’s vice-presidents, both Members of Parliament, William Hayes-Fisher and William Joynson-Hicks, contracted but survived the disease. Other footballers who fell victim, though, were former Gainsborough Trinity winger Johnnie Pattinson, and Young, a Millwall half-back.

Football was not alone in keeping calm and carrying on. A General Election went ahead at the height of the pandemic in mid-December 1918, and West End theatres reported record takings the same month. Both seem unfathomable now.

Eventually the tide turned and new cases of influenza subsided. Overall around half the two billion people on earth and a quarter of Britons contracted the virus at some stage. It is estimated 20 to 50 million died worldwide of Spanish ’Flu-related causes, and 228,000 in the UK.
 

We are a lot better off than our forebears 100 years ago. Thankfully, lessons were learned. The LGB’s crucial failure to act with social isolation measures probably led directly to its powers being transferred to a new, national Ministry of Health in 1919, but it was another 29 years before the NHS was born.


Part two - the story of Angus Douglas - will be published tomorrow

 

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