The 1918/19 Spanish Flu - pt 1 of 7

What was the effect of the epidemic on Benfleet?

Just over a century ago Spanish Flu spread over the world and killed millions of people. The exact number who died is estimated to be between 50 and 100 million deaths, or about 3% to 5% of the world’s population. Such a high death rate should have had an impact on Benfleet but there is nothing in the newspapers or records to support this. Therefore I decided to see what could be found.

Background to the death rate

The worldwide death rate from flu is estimated to be 50 to 100 million deaths out of a estimated world population of just under 2 billion people. This means 2.5% to 5% of the world’s population died. Even this shows a wide range. In Samoa 22% of the population of 38,000 died within two months.

However in the UK the death toll from Spanish Flu was estimated to be 228,000 out a population for the UK of about 43,000,000, which means about 0.5% of the population died of flu. Total deaths from all causes were 615,086 giving an overall death rate of about 1.4%.

For Essex in 1918 (excludes the County Boroughs of Southend, East ham and West Ham but includes the districts of Barking, Chingford, Dagenham, Hornchurch, Ilford, Leyton, Romford, Walthamstow and Wanstead and Woodford.) the population for death purposes was taken to be 775,574. Of these 11,777 people died in all (1.5%) and flu accounted for 2, 495 (0.3%) of the Essex population.

In the Rochford Registration District (this included Southend as well as Rochford) there were 1,306 total deaths out of a population of about 94,000 (1.4%) which is consistent with Essex. Therefore we can estimate that 280 died of the flu.

The population of South Benfleet at this time was about 1,600 which means total deaths for 1918 were about 23 of which flu would have represented about 5 of them.

Overall the UK had a high death rate but not at the same as was estimated for the rest of the world. In fact, at UK, Essex and Rochford levels the total death rate at about 1.5% is less than the lowest estimate (2.5%) for global death rate from Spanish Flu alone.

Finding  Hard Details

To try to discover why I used the FreeBMD  site to find how many people died and at what age. This site is an on-line version of the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) for England and Wales.

The BMD records do not hold details for Benfleet alone but Benfleet comes within the Rochford Registration District, which covers what is now Southend, Rochford and Castle Point councils.

The details held in the BMD death records for around 1918 are:

  • surname,
  • first name(s),
  • age, and which
  • quarter of the year they died in.

I explored these details for the years 1916 to 1920 inclusive and then summarised the results to create the diagrams shown in the rest of this article.

The  three Flu Peaks

Various reports and studies indicate that in the UK the flu epidemic covered these quarter year’s in the BMD:

  • 3rd quarter (Jul to Sep) of 1918 with a small peak in early July; and
  • 4th quarter (Oct to Dec) of 1918 with a massive peak in early November; and finally the
  • 1st quarter (Jan to Mar) of 1919 with a peak in early February 1919.

This graph gives a general idea of the peaks. The three waves covered about 11 months but deaths from flu still continued for the next few years afterwards but never with the same level of fatality.

The next few pages will cover five graphs showing the Rochford Registration District overall deaths and then those for the four quarters.

Three pandemic waves: weekly combined influenza and pneumonia mortality, United Kingdom, 1918–1919
History of Government Blog

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  • Certainly interesting given the current world situation!

    By Sam Byford (17/04/2020)

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