A previous Pandemic – Spanish Flu at the RHN

Since the advent of Covid-19, a frequent question about the archives has been whether there is any mention of the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish Flu spread across the world in 1918 and 1919 and is estimated to have killed at least 17-50 million people worldwide. It spread in waves and ended up claiming 228,000 lives in the UK. In an eerie similarity to the Covid-19 pandemic, it also infected the then UK Prime minister, David Lloyd George.

A search of the archives has revealed information from the House Committee minutes. The committee met each week and regularly reported on illness, absences and medical treatment amongst the staff and patients. The minutes for 1918/19 have multiple references to “influenza”. This began with staff being off sick in late February 1919 and by the following month, it was reported that multiple staff and patients were sick and being isolated because of the disease. However, this in itself did not cause further discussion because it was (as now) standard practice to isolate someone with an infectious disease.

In March 1919, the Medical Officer at the time, Dr Gay, required a new stock of brandy which had depleted rapidly due to its use in treating influenza patients (the use of alcohol as a medical stimulant still being fairly common at that time).

The final mention of influenza that year was in early May when another member of staff became sick. And seemingly that was that. Perhaps as the disease seemed to impact young people more than older people, the hospital authorities were not overly concerned or perhaps more likely these worries and concerns were not officially recorded in the committee minutes.

Oral History Project

The Covid-19 pandemic called for unprecedented measures to be taken at the RHN to contain the spread of the disease. From May 2020, the RHN archive service collected and recorded the impact of the pandemic on the hospital, in recognition of the hard work undertaken by staff to keep our patients safe and also for future generations as part of our shared history.

With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the hospital began recording oral histories with staff to capture their thoughts and feelings at this time of crisis. The oral histories complement the written record of the hospital by capturing personal accounts which are less likely to be recorded or preserved in the future.

The archive service has also been collecting various contemporary materials, photographs, posters, objects and documents associated with the hospital’s response to the pandemic. More information can be found here.

Volunteer Quotes from the Oral History Project

As an oral historian, gathering and preserving people’s memories and stories is extremely important to me, whatever that memory or story might be. I wanted to take part in this project particularly because I am registered blind, the cause of which is brain-related rather than eye-related, and so to hear about other peoples’ brain injuries and how it has impacted their life was of great interest to me. I learned so much from the four participants about courage, perseverance and hope. I found the whole project a very rewarding experience. (Veronica, NLHF project volunteer)

This was an incredible project, getting to hear first-hand accounts of RHN’s experiences and emotions during the pandemic. I was able to hear a range of different staff experiences, from senior executives to hospital volunteers, and my admiration for the organisation grew as a result of hearing the empathy and competence of all who recorded oral histories. Many stories still amaze me to this day, like a frantic race to get to an incoming freighter with PPE supplies, or the nursing team celebrating a huge donation of chocolates by stacking them to the height of their team leader. (Jennifer, NLHF project volunteer)

It was so interesting to hear the experiences and reflections of those who had faced the pandemic “from the inside”, beyond the statistics and news reports. It was obvious how much RHN staff cared about their patients and their families. I felt very humbled and privileged to have been part of this project. (Paula, NLHF project volunteer)

I learned much about the history of the Hospital and the lives of front-line workers. Hearing the reflections of those working throughout the pandemic brought into perspective the tremendous hard work and sacrifices of everyone at the RHN, and I was inspired by the sense of community that the interviewees described. It was a privilege to be part of this project and to contribute to a collection that will form a vital historical record for both the Hospital and the wider public in the future. (Gemma, NLHF project volunteer)

It was such a rewarding experience to be able to contribute to the preservation of an institution’s history, particularly during such a defining cultural moment with the outbreak of Covid-19. Archival work is not just historical, and the Oral History Project in particular was an honour to work on as there was a genuine sense that we were documenting history in real-time for the benefit of future generations. (Amy, NLHF project volunteer)