In this year, a pandemic swept across the world. In this year, stringent measures were put in place in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. In this year, millions of people across the world died, more than in the whole of the war.
No, don’t be alarmed. You haven’t missed a crucial news bulletin announcing a massive escalation of Corona virus. ‘In this year’ does not refer to 2020. Eerily it refers to a century ago, to the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918-1920. Like today, the School was affected. Like today, special measures were enforced. Hopefully, fingers crossed, wish on a lucky star etc, there will be fewer casualties of the current virus at the School today than there was in 1918. And as the figure in 1918 was one that would be good news indeed.
The one person at the School who lost her life from Spanish ‘flu was a former pupil who had become a member of staff. May Downes died in October 1918. She was just 20 years of age.
Daughter of Daniel and Frances Downes, May had been born in Upottery, Devon in May 1888, the first of five children. As Tristram Risdon stated in approx. 1632
‘Upottery taketh name of the River Otter … having its adjunct Up in that it is the highest place where its spring maketh itself a river” from Chorographical Description of Devon p.22 and cited by http://www.upottery.com/history
In the 1891 census, the family were at Stillinghayes, a farmhouse which almost exactly a century after May was born became a listed building. However, at the time the Downes family were living there, it was a relative new build having been constructed in about 1870 of ‘Local stone and flint rubble with brick dressings, plastered on the front and white washed elsewhere’ with a slate roof. (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101333691-stillinghayes-farmhouse-upottery#.XnNR3aj7Tcs) Although it was a farm, it was in the centre of the village.
https://planning.eastdevon.gov.uk/ shows its position in the village and an image of the house can be seen on http://mhv.dailyecho.co.uk/homes/homes_for_sale/in/Honiton%2C+Devon/gallery/16951155/ should you have a spare half million or so to spend.
May’s father was a land agent, or a steward, which Wikipedia states
‘was a managerial employee who conducted the business affairs of a large landed estate … supervising the farming of the property by farm labourers and/or tenants and collecting rents or other payments … a land agent was a relatively privileged position and a senior member of the estate’s staff.’
The owner of the landed estate in question here was Viscount Sidmouth, which title stems from Henry Addington in 1805, probably the most unpopular Prime Minister Britain has ever known – and that’s going some!
May’s family moved from Devon to Wiltshire: a 4th child was born in Upottery in 1893 and the 5th in Westbury in 1895. That year, unfortunately, also saw the death of Daniel Downes of Frogmore House, Westbury on 16 Feb 1895. An early Victorian villa, Frogmore House is also a listed building although somewhat blighted perhaps by being attached to a factory on both sides. (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1364393) Sadly, Daniel Downes died in a shooting accident. The Bristol Times and Mirror 23 February 1895 reports the coroner’s inquest and outlines that the deceased had gone out before breakfast, had placed his gun against a haystack ‘for some purpose’ and it had accidentally discharged causing fatal injuries. As Mr Downes was conscious until shortly before he died, he must presumably have given this information. The verdict was accidental death.
His death was the reason for daughter May’s admission to the School in 1899 when she was 11. She was due to leave school in May 1904 (aged sixteen) but was retained as pupil teacher in the Junior school, becoming a salaried teacher in 1908. She is given as a teacher in the 1911 census but in 1913, she switched direction and became 3rd Assistant in Matron’s department. Whether as a teacher or matron’s assistant, May was clearly making herself useful as her successive promotions show: 1917 2nd assistant; 1918 1st assistant on a salary of £75 a year. Where she might have ended up had not a virus intervened, your guess is as good as anyone’s, but on October 30th she died, at the School, of double pneumonia arising from influenza. The majority of deaths in this epidemic were from bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by influenza so May was not exceptional in this.
During the pandemic of 1918-29, disturbingly similar to what is happening in 2020
‘Hospitals were overwhelmed, and doctors and nurses worked to breaking point … In many towns, theatres, dance halls, churches and other public-gathering places were shut, some for months. Streets were sprayed with chemicals and people wore anti-germ masks.’
In this prescient Independent article actually written fifteen years ago (22 October 2005) and now seeming horribly familiar, Jeremy Laurance referred to the world preparing for the next influenza pandemic which ‘England’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, says is now inevitable.’ (ibid)
The epidemic of 1918-1920 is often referred to as Spanish ’flu because, like Italy in 2020,
‘Spain was hardest hit, with an estimated eight million dead which led the BMJ to label the disease “Spanish flu”, though it is thought to have originated in China.’ (ibid)
This theory is not accepted by all virologists however and there is plenty of argufying going on between them a hundred years later. At least the source of the corona virus seems not to be in dispute although how that helps anyone who gets it is unclear.
Spanish ‘flu emerged in the spring of 1918 and soldiers in the trenches became ill with what was then called ‘La grippe’. It spread rapidly as it was highly infectious and probably hastened the end of the war. In fact, so deadly was the pandemic that it claimed an estimated 20-40 million lives across the globe, a significantly higher death toll than the Great War itself.
Glasgow was the first place in UK to be affected in May 1918 but by June it had reached London and the Wandsworth area was one of the worst places within London. All the more remarkable then that only one person succumbed in the whole school then situate in Battersea.
In all, 228,000 people died in Britain mostly from pneumonia or septicaemia. It was swift and, like the outbreaks of the Plague of earlier centuries, those who were hale and hearty at breakfast could be dead by tea-time.
And in a warning for the present time, it should be noted that there was an initial outbreak which then died away only to be replaced by a more vicious second wave.
‘… Armistice Day on 11 November, called to mark the end of the war, set off a second wave of infection. As people gathered to celebrate, the virus swept through them. Parties and parades turned to disaster.’ (ibid)
In contrast with what appears to be the pattern with corona virus, and indeed ordinary ‘flu, Spanish ‘flu ‘…
‘disproportionately struck those aged 20 to 30. Young adults with the strongest immune systems were, unexpectedly, the most vulnerable.’ (ibid)
Although May was the only person in the School to die in the Spanish ‘flu pandemic, she was not the only person affected by it. Two other pupils, Barbara and Joan Essenhigh Corke, became pupils when both of their parents succumbed.
‘Both Henry and his wife Evie died in the flu epidemic of 1919-20, leaving three children, Joan, Norman and Barbara. Apparently no one in the family felt able to take all three of the poor little things, but each was brought up lovingly by a different family member.’ (Recollections by a family member in the Kent & Sussex Courier)
Henry Essenhigh Corke, known as Essie, was a photographer as was his father Charles. They had a studio in Sevenoaks in Kent and Henry became joint manager of the studio when he was just eighteen, eventually taking over the control of the business.
Henry did pioneering work in colour photography, wrote articles for photographic magazines and his lantern lectures were a regular attraction at the RPS annual exhibition. (from http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/nmem/autochrome/Notable_Photographers_detail.asp?PhotographersID=3 )
‘Mother and Child’ Henry Essenhigh Corke (1883-1919); Autochrome, part of Kodak collection, National Science and Media Museum
Although not specifically stated, it is possible that the subjects in the above photograph are Henry’s wife and possibly Joan, his elder daughter.
Henry died on 24 February 1919 at New Park Villa, Eardley Rd, Sevenoaks. On the same street is Tusculum Villa which is thought to be where H G Wells penned The Time Machine.
The image above shows Tusculum Villa as marked by the blue plaque on the wall. Whilst the position of New Park Villa in relation to this is unknown, the style of housing is what is of interest here. And we can safely assume that the Essenhigh Corke home was similar. (Photo from Jackson-Stops – Sevenoaks)
A virological time machine has enabled us to jump back and forth between two pandemics and link them to the School’s history. Let us hope that, like the 1918 pandemic, the corona virus in time becomes a fading memory but one from which everyone ‘may remember the lessons they have here been taught’ (from the Old Girls’ Prayer).