Rowntree’s, York, and the 1918 Flu Pandemic: A New Blog Series

Cat Oakley

The First Peak

In mid-June 1918, people across the UK began to fall sick. An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post described the signs of their illness for readers fortunate enough to have escaped infection so far:

“Those people who have not yet been affected will be interested to learn that the first symptoms…are an attack of aches and pains all over the body, along with dizziness. Then follow headache, pains in the back, and occasionally sickness, with a feeling of absolute helplessness.”[1]

The disease caused acute suffering. In the most severe cases, the infection led to an immune system response known as heliotrope cyanosis, in which the body turned black or blue as fluid leaked into the lungs and drowned the sufferer. There were also multiple incidences of delirium and psychological disturbances, leading to violence and self-harm.[2]

As the illness spread throughout the population, it disrupted patterns of everyday life which had already been transformed by the turmoil of the First World War. Northern England, with its industrial base and high urban population, was badly stricken. In some streets in Sunderland, every household was affected, and entire families laid up. In Newcastle, police, fire brigade and hospital staff were absent in significant numbers, and in Manchester, more than 200 tramway car drivers and guards went off sick.[3]

In York, all elementary schools were closed in the first week of July and remained closed throughout the whole summer.[4] Independence Day celebrations planned for American troops stationed in the city – including a baseball match, tea at the Assembly Rooms, and a parade – were all cancelled. Cinemas and other places of entertainment were designated as off-limits for soldiers, though they remained open for civilians.[5] Across the city, trained medical staff struggled to meet increased demand for their skills as they contended with an existing national shortage of doctors and nurses. In January 1918, over half of the country’s doctors were on military duty, and of those remaining, nine in York reported at one point that they had visited 6000 cases between them in response to the outbreak. Edmund Smith, the city’s Minister of Health, reported that “the professional nursing staffs of the city and district were absolutely overwhelmed.[6]

This was the ‘Spanish flu’, so-called because Spain, which remained neutral during the First World War, did not censor news of the epidemic whereas participating nations did. From its origins at a farm in Kansas, USA, the virus spread across the globe, beginning its journey in early March 1918 and ending with the last recorded infection around May 1920. Throughout this period, one in three people on the planet – 500 million – were infected, and one fifth them died.[7] In the UK, a quarter of the British population contracted the virus and one estimate places the national death toll at 228,000.[8] Mortality figures are, however, likely to be underestimates: many deaths will not have been recorded as influenza-related but as pneumonia, tuberculosis, bronchitis or even suicide, all of which were documented secondary complications.[9] The arrival of the virus in England and Wales can be dated around mid-June 1918 and by the end of July, it had diminished. In mid-October, it returned, and this “second peak”, far more deadly than the first, lasted until the end of the year, only to be followed by a third wave between February and May 1919.[10]



US woman sick with influenza in her home in 1918 with young child crying nearby

Image from the American National Red Cross photograph collection of a woman in the US suffering from influenza during the second wave of the 1918 pandemic. An accompanying note to the photograph says that the Red Cross Home Service was called to the house by the woman’s sister, who had not seen her for a week. The sick woman’s husband was away fighting in France. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.

A Forgotten History

“Don’t talk about influenza. It is already wearing itself out and will go all the sooner if you don’t talk about it. Influenza is a disease that likes to be noticed.”

– From a public information leaflet circulated by a senior London hospital official in 1918[11]

This advice from one senior medical official, circulated in a public information leaflet in 1918, captures one contemporary attitude to the flu. The government was centrally concerned with the war effort, and wartime censorship may played a part in suppressing information about the scale and spread of the epidemic at the time. But the pandemic has also gone relatively unnoticed in the years since. Despite the scale of disruption to everyday life and the massive death toll, it has been largely overlooked by historians and epidemiologists over the last 100 years. As we experience the extraordinary transformations wrought by COVID-19, it’s difficult to imagine that the 1918 pandemic was an unremarkable event for those who experienced it, even amidst the scale of horror and suffering brought about by the First World War. The two events are a century apart, so any comparisons must take into account the many differences between them, but there are also many remarkable parallels.

Why do we know so little about the Spanish flu? A growing number of historians have been exploring the answers to this question in recent decades.[12]

Those of us with an interest in social history might some highlight key factors at play which sound familiar in the context of today’s crisis. People of all social backgrounds were susceptible to the 1918 virus. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that working class communities and those living in poverty were hit particularly hard and their experiences under-documented. In addition, the history of the pandemic is, at least in part, a history of care work, and the history of care work is predominantly the history of another marginalised group: women. “Women were the ones who registered the sights and sounds of the sickroom, who laid out the dead and took in the orphans”, notes historian Laura Spinney.

Spinney also points to the dominance of Western historiography, noting that deaths in Europe and North America were lower than in other areas of the world which were more severely affected.[13] One very early report published by a medical officer of the British Empire in 1920 examined the effects of the virus in the Punjab province of India, and the historian David Killingray has done important research on the effects of the pandemic in Africa and the Caribbean, but there is still much more to explore in this area.[14] We might therefore ask ourselves what social history research with an intersectional approach could reveal about the experiences of the working classes, women, and people of colour in former British colonies during the 1918 pandemic.

The Rowntree Lens

I took up the post of Director of The Rowntree Society in early February this year and over the last few weeks, have began the work of immersing myself in the rich histories and legacies of the Rowntree family, company and charities. The Society exists to facilitate and support activities that engage critically and creatively with these histories through collaborative work with partners in the public sector, education, the voluntary sector and the cultural industries. Our work is driven by our belief in the continuing importance of the Rowntree legacies to the local, national and global challenges facing our contemporary world. As the world entered lockdown, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not just one of the most pressing of these challenges, but that it has profound implications for the others.

Members of the Rowntree family undertook pioneering work driven by their Quaker values, advocating for equality, democracy and social justice; work which is continued today by the three charitable trusts Joseph Rowntree established in his name in 1904. At The Rowntree Society, we believe that historical perspectives have a distinctive role to play in helping to navigate the current crisis and uncertain future. We share the perspectives of the Social History Society on the distinctive contributions historians can make in navigating the complexities of our situation:

This is a time of illness, grief, and profound economic and social change.

As historians, we know context is everything. We know that we must analyse the short term in relation to longer term trends.

Much cultural and social history is qualitative in nature, describing and explaining changes and continuities in earlier societies. It complicates our understanding of the past and warns against simplistic comparisons with the future.[15]

Mindful of historical precedent and the resonance of Rowntree heritage, we have found ourselves wondering: How did the 1918 flu pandemic affect the Rowntree family and Rowntree workers? How was the outbreak experienced among vulnerable communities in early 20th century York – those living in the slums Seebohm Rowntree wrote about in his pioneering survey of poverty published in 1901, and those working on the Rowntree & Co. cocoa estates in the British West Indies? What were the responses of Rowntree family members to the crisis as individuals, as employers, and in their roles in civic and public life? And what might the answers to these questions tell us about life with COVID-19, and the world that lies beyond it?

The fullest answers to these questions lie in the archives. The Borthwick Institute at the University of York is now home to the Rowntree Archives, and an important collection of materials relating to medicine and health in the city. Other relevant records are kept by York Libraries and Archives. Both are currently closed due to the lockdown (though doing some fantastic work around the continuation of their services online). It’s tantalising to have these documents so near and yet so far, and I’ve developed a renewed appreciation for our libraries and archives now that they are temporarily inaccessible.

In the face of these closures, I reached out to the archivists there, together with our volunteers, trustees and local history groups, for help in finding some provisional answers. My original plan was for a single blog post, but the search turned up more information than initially expected. I’ll therefore be sharing thoughts and information on the 1918 pandemic, York, Rowntree’s and COVID-19 in a new blog post series here on our website.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think. You can get in touch with us via email at, on Twitter @rowntreesoc, or through our Facebook page.


Collating sources for the blog series while libraries and archives are closed has been a collaborative project, with help from the following people:

Anne Grant and Stan Young, The Rowntree Society

Margaret Atherden, PLACE York

Janet Jawando and Dennis Shaw, York Cemetery Genealogy

Dick Hunter, Clements Hall Local History Group

Gary Brannan, Borthwick Institute for Archives

Hannah Mawdsley (@HannahMawdsley)

Julie-Ann Vickers, York Explore

Joseph Oakley


[1] “Influenza Plague Still Active”, Yorkshire Evening Post, Wed 3 July, 1918, p.3.

[2] Hannah Mawdsley, “‘Infectious’ Humour in the Face of History’s Deadliest Pandemic”, Viewpoint, pp.4-6 (p.4)

[3] Influenza Ravages, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Wed 3 July 1918; “Influenza Plague Still Active”.

[4] Martin Knight, The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in the towns of the West Riding and York, Place: 2016, p.p. 22-23

[5] “Influenza Ravages”, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Wed 3 July 1918

[6] Fred R. van Hartesveldt, “The Doctors and the ‘Flu’: The British Medical Profession’s Response to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919”, International Social Science Review 85.1-2, 2010, p. 32; “Medical Officer of Health report for York, 1919, Borthwick Archives, MOH/Y/10, cited by Gary Brannan, “When the Guns Fell Silent: York and the 1918 Flu”,

[7] Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, Jonathan Cape, 2017, ebook, n.p.

[8] Jennifer Meierhans & Daniel Wainwright, “Spanish flu: ‘We didn’t know who we’d lose next’”, BBC News, 20 September 2018

[9] Knight notes that “In 1918 there were about 2,700 pneumonia deaths compared with an average of about 1700 in 1916, 1917, and 1919.” (p.10) Several inquests reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post in Spring 1919 delivered verdicts of suicide in which influenza was cited as a factor (see also Knight, p. 43).

[10] Knight, p.8

[11] “Hints to the Public”, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Thurs 31 Oct 1918, p.6

[12] See Laura Spinney, Pale Rider; Mark Honigsbaum, Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, Macmillan, 2009; Hannah Mawdsley,; David Killingray and Howard Philips (eds.) The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919: new perspectives, Routledge, 2011; Niall Johnson, Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: a dark epilogue, Routledge, 2006.

[13] Laura Spinney, Pale Rider, ebook, n.p.

[14] Thomas Herriot, “The Influenza Pandemic 1918, as observed in the Punjab, India”, PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1920,; David Killingray, “A new ‘Imperial Disease’: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and its impact on the British Empire”, Caribbean Quarterly 49.4, December 2003

[15] “COVID-19 and the future of our discipline”, Social History Society, May 7, 2020

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