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Newport Pagnell's Flu Pandemic

The grave of Sergeant A. E. West,
a victim of the influenza outbreak.
Just as the First World War was coming to an end, so another scourge began to afflict mankind, in the form of a pandemic of ‘Spanish Flu.’

In fact at an estimated 25 million this would claim more lives than the war, and it was a tragic irony that locally several soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches would fall victim to the outbreak on their return.

The flu strain occurred in three waves, with the first, in the early summer of 1918, being comparatively mild. However, in August a more lethal strain emerged, and it would be from this that 26 year old Sergeant Instructor F. Fincher, of the King’s Royal Rifles (Cadet Battalion) died on October 25th 1918.

A Territorial before the war, he had been mobilised with the County regiment, but was discharged after sustaining a serious wound to his neck in the trenches.

He then joined the King’s Royal Rifles (Cadet Battalion), and it was their members who formed a firing party at his funeral, held at St. George the Martyr’s Church, Wolverton.

Boosting local morale, throughout the war the talented musician, Mr. C.K. Garratt, from Newport Pagnell, had locally arranged numerous concerts and entertainments, but sadly his young wife died from the epidemic in late October.

In fact such was the severity that with many teachers being affected it had been necessary to close the Council Schools at Wolverton, whilst at the railway works, and McCorquodales printing works, some 40% of the workforce was absent.

At Stantonbury over 500 inhabitants were ill, and amongst the hundreds more at Wolverton there would be several deaths, including that of Mr. George Scrivener, a body maker at the railway works.

Aged 37 he had succumbed on October 22nd 1918, and it was because his wife and six children were also affected that he had moved to his mother’s home in Victoria Street.

Twenty two year old Miss Gladys Sykes, ‘a bright and attractive person,’ also became a victim. Her parents lived at 1, Radcliffe Street, Wolverton, and for some while she had been employed delivering milk for the Co-op.

In Europe the disease was also raging, and at No. 9 Casualty Clearing Station, Italy, 34 year old Driver Frank Lamble, of the Royal Horse Artillery, died from pneumonia following influenza on October 30th 1918.

He had seen much severe fighting in his three years in France and one year on the Italian Front, and at 95, Church Street, Wolverton, he left a widow and a five year old son.

Also on October 30th Eddy Leonard, the only son of Mr. & Mrs. Leonard, of Bletchley, died from influenza in France. He had been a bell ringer at St. Mary’s Church, and in his memory on the Sunday the bells were rung half muffled.

Also regarding Bletchley, here there were now many cases of influenza, and dated October 28th 1918 a lengthy document- signed by the Medical Officer of Health for the district, Dr. E. Nicholson, and the Clerk to the Council, by which body it had been raised - had been issued headed ‘Epidemic Catarrh and Influenza,’ giving advice on preventative measures.

Despite 30% of the pupils being absent the schools were still open, although bills posted in the town announced that because of the epidemic the Picture Palace had been closed.

In other manifestations a shortage of staff caused some shops to occasionally close, or only be open for reduced hours, whilst as for the Bletchley Road Sub Post Office, this had been shut for several days towards the end of October.

In fact emphasising the seriousness of the situation, 34 year old Lieutenant Newbery-Boschetti, of the Royal Naval Reserve, had died from the epidemic at Maidenhead.

For some years his family had been resident at Far Bletchley, and it was after the death of his father that they assumed the name of Newbery, being known as such until Mrs. Newbery and her children went to live elsewhere.

Through the winter of 1918/1919 came the third deadly strain of the virus, and at Hanslope the funeral took place on Saturday, November 2nd 1918 of Miss Cox, the 60 year old headmistress of the Church End Schools.

During the previous fortnight, by the end of the first week of November there had been over 20 deaths in Stantonbury, and, with these being mostly from pneumonia following influenza, no other town had suffered to such an extent.

Abroad on active service, there was tragic news regarding Lance Corporal Herbert Staniford, for having been admitted to the General Hospital, Salonika, on November 5th, 1918, he died the following day from pneumonia.

Before joining up he had been well known in Leighton Buzzard and Fenny Stratford, being a special constable and a brother of the St. Martin’s Lodge of Freemasons.

The flu epidemic continued throughout the month, and Mr. and Mrs. S. Johnson, of 48, Queen Anne Street, Stantonbury, would receive official news that their youngest son, twenty eight year old Sergeant David Johnson, of the 7th Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, had died at a military hospital in France on November 27th 1918.

After three years of strenuous service in Salonika he was on his way home on leave when he contracted the illness. Locally the disease was still widespread, as also much further distant, for on December 5th 1918 Private Victor Page, the second son of Mr. & Mrs. Victor Page, of Aylesbury Street, died of pneumonia at Salonika, to where he had been sent a few months after arriving in France 3½ years ago.

His youngest brother, Gunner B. Page, was still in France, whilst the eldest brother had lost a leg in the earlier part of the war. Within two hours of each other, Mrs. Annie Dorrill and her five year old son died on Saturday, December 7th 1918.

Mrs. Dorrill’s husband, Bombardier Joseph Dorrill, had served throughout the war with the Royal Horse Artillery, and it was while on the Western Front with the victorious British troops that he heard the news.

His other children were daughters aged 7 and 2½, with the family being resident at 29a, Mill Street, Newport Pagnell. Her home being in London Road, Newport Pagnell, also on December 7th, and also from influenza, at Northampton Hospital the death occurred of Mrs. Louisa Woolhead, whose husband was serving in India as overseer of a regimental tailoring department.

As for 21 year old Private George Daniells, the second son of the late Mr. George Daniells and Mrs. Daniells of 44, Caldecote Street, Newport Pagnell, he tragically died on the eve of his anticipated return to civilian life.

Hopes had been expressed for his recovery, but he was deemed not strong enough to make the journey from No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station, where he died on January 16th 1919.

He was buried the following day in Valenciennes cemetery. Previously in the employ of Dr. C. Bailey, he had enlisted in the Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry in May 1915, but on account of his health was transferred two months later to the Ammunition Column of the R.A.S.C., with which he served on the Western Front for almost two years.

The following month on the 27th Sergeant Alfred West, M.M., of the 2nd Battalion Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, died at the Gravesend Military Hospital from influenza. Aged 27, he was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. A. West, of Broughton, and being on the Special Reserve had been mobilised with his regiment. Wounded in the retreat from Mons, he subsequently witnessed much hard fighting in France and Flanders, and would receive his promotion on the battlefield. Then for having carried an officer to safety under heavy fire he was awarded the Military Medal.

After the Armistice, Sergeant West served with the British Army of Occupation, and it was whilst on his way home to begin work on the farm of Mr. Adams, at Broughton, that he contracted his illness.

Only nine months before he had married Mrs. Lake, of Priory Street, Newport Pagnell, whose first husband had been killed early in the hostilities.

From Gravesend, the body of Sergeant West was brought for interment in Newport Pagnell Cemetery on Wednesday, March 5th, and amongst those present were several soldiers who had been on active service.

Even in April the flu epidemic was still claiming victims, and on Wednesday, April 2nd 1919 Aircraftsman Harry Sear, of the R.F.C., died in the Military Hospital, Norwich, from pneumonia, following influenza.

He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Sear, of 83, Newport Road, Stantonbury, and had been apprenticed in the finishing shop at Wolverton Works.

Aged 17 he voluntarily enlisted in September 1918, and after a while at Halton Camp, Wendover, was transferred to an aircraft station at Yarmouth.

There he contracted the illness, and his remains were brought for interment at Stantonbury. By now the Reverend Bennitt, of Bletchley, had returned to England from active service with the R.A.M.C. in Salonika, but no sooner had he arrived than he became seriously ill.

He was then sent to the Military Hospital at West Bridgford, Nottingham, from where he wrote in a letter; ‘Early in November I was sent to Salonika; at about the time when the troops advanced against Bulgaria.

There was a great deal of malaria and influenza, and a strong reinforcement of R.A.M.C. was sent out. However, by the time we arrived, an improvement had taken place, and only about half our number were needed.

Personally, I was put in the Army Pay Office at the Base Depot, and have done very little R.A.M.C. work at all. However, from another point of view, my work in the Army has been of value.

I have frequently taken services, both week-days and Sundays, and it does seem to have been a good thing for me to have shared in the ordinary daily life among the men on an exact equality rather than as a Chaplain.

At any rate, I have learnt more of the general point of view of the men of all branches of the service than otherwise could have been possible.’ As printed in an issue of the parish magazine he continued ‘I expect to be back at home by the second Sunday in April,’ and indeed having made favourable progress he was able on Sunday, April 13th to conduct the services at St. Mary’s Church, where he was heartily welcomed by the parishioners.

By now the flu strain had thankfully run its course, and although there would be further outbreaks during the 1920s, these would prove far less severe.