As the world struggles with the impact of coronavirus in 2020, challenges posed by a pandemic are sadly nothing new – whether for workers or those individuals being supported.
Delving into the records of the Royal Albert Institution, Lancaster offers a glimpse into how earlier pandemics impacted on a large long-stay institution for people who may be now labelled as having learning disabilities.
During the year from 1918 to 1919 so-called ‘Spanish flu’ swept across the world. It is estimated that around 50 million people died. In the United Kingdom alone, deaths were nearly 250,000. This was all in the wake of the end of the bloody conflict of the First World War.
The Royal Albert Institution did not escape the impact of the pandemic. However, Dr Coupland, the Medical Superintendent, in his 1919 Annual Report appeared to be more concerned about tubercolosis:
‘… there is a high proportion of tubercular mortality, which unfortunately is the present experience of all Asylums and Institutions for the mentally defective.’
This focus perhaps meant that worries about influenza (with pneumonia) were down-played as he commented:
‘Except for the increase in the death-rate, there is little to comment upon during the year. As elsewwhere, influenza was troublesome, and while the cases were numerous they were of a mild type, except during July-August (1918), when pneumonia accompanied the outbreak – at that time causing several deaths. Unfortunately for this class of case, no treatment seemed to be of any use.
‘The Nurse-Matron of the Rodgett Infirmary and her staff have had a strenuous time coping with the influenza cases, luckily escaping the scourge themselves. Some of the cases of illnesses called for much strenuous effort and nursing skill, which was ungrudgingly given.’
(Medical Superintendent, WH Coupland Report September 26th 1919)
References to influenza during 1918 – 1919 also occur in other Royal Albert reports.
‘The mortuary was full of corpses’
Almost ten years after the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 – 1919, another one struck in 1929. As earlier, this pandemic had an impact on the Royal Albert Institution.
(The resident population of the institution during the 1920s was between 700 and 800 individuals.)
Mrs Elizabeth Bebbington (nee Parkinson), had started at the Albert in 1925, when she was aged 18 years old. By 1929, she was Senior Nurse (Sister in today’s terms) on Rodgett Infirmary, the institution’s medical hospital ward. In a testimony, written much later in life, she recalls:
‘I remember in 1929 a ‘flu epidemic’ when the mortuary was full of corpses even on the floor. It was a very bad epidemic but needless to say we weren’t expected to get it and even if we felt ill we had to battle on. Nurses hadn’t to be ill!! And no time off was allowed, we were too busy.’ (E Bebbington, March 31st 1985)(Please click here for more information about Mrs Bebbington and to read her testimony about her life as a nurse.)
40 residents of the institution were recorded as dying during 1927 – 1929, and of these seven were registered as deaths from ‘Influenzal pneumonia’. However, in his annual reports, the Medical Superintendent does not make any specific reference to this cause of death. Although, if you click here there are references to influenza in his regular updates to one of the Royal Albert committees.
This post was reported in the June 2020 Community Archives and Heritage Group Newsletter on documenting the Covid – 19 pandemic.
(Note: This is a topic deserving of further research. As in 2020 with coronavirus, for instance, it is important to know about the lives of those who died during the 1920s. Who were these individuals?)