Historian Alan Roberts concludes his fascinating three-part story on how the Spanish flu pandemic swept across Craven just over 100 years ago.

IT was early 1919 and the people of Craven loved to dance. At Hawkswick they danced until the early hours of the morning. At Halton Gill 180 people sat down to an excellent supper and dancing to piano and accordion ‘was kept up with spirit until 5.30 a.m.’ In Steeton nearly 300 people attended a ‘Victory’ dance with many in fancy dress. Nellie Barker won dressed as ‘Peace’ while Mrs Sexton as ‘Night’ came second.

At Skipton Petty sessions there were several applications for licences for dancing, mainly from Barnoldswick. Superintendent Vaughan of the Skipton Police had no objections, ’No, they have been four years without [because of the war], and evidently they are going dancing mad now.’ The Craven Herald gave its support. ‘Indulged in to a reasonable extent dancing is an exhilarating and healthy exercise.’

The Methodists at Silsden protested. Seventeen dances had been permitted in ‘crowded and suffocating rooms’, yet their one hour of Sunday School in ‘well-ventilated and warm’ rooms was banned.

Meanwhile at Settle all social gatherings such as whist drives, dances and public meetings had been abandoned following warning notices issued by the medical officer of health. In truth the authorities had only limited powers at their disposal. Schools were frequently closed, but they could do little else apart from recommend.

Advice would eventually come from London. The importance of good ventilation and avoiding crowded gatherings was stressed. A gargle was recommended made from one teaspoonful of salt to a pint of warm water with a few crystals added to turn the solution pink.

When visiting influenza patients, people were recommended to wear masks made from three or four layers of the muslin used to make butter and to wear goggles! Sir James Crichton-Browne, a leading psychiatrist, maintained that wearing a face mask was like ‘putting up a barbed wire fence to keep off flies’.

At Israel Farm near Eldroth, brother and sister Tom and Ellen died within twenty-four hours of each other. They had lived there for ‘close on 29 years’. The funeral was held at Austwick Cemetery ‘amid many manifestations of sorrow and regret’. Psalm 39 was chanted and the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ was sung. Their maid, fifteen-year-old Edith, had died from pneumonia following an attack of influenza a few days earlier. Poignantly six of her former school friends acted as the bearers of her coffin.

Ralph Bradley of Bolton Abbey had died from pneumonia which developed after he had caught the influenza virus. He was just 23 years old and had served in the Merchant Navy for three years which had taken him to many interesting places. He had one or two encounters with German U-boats, including one when his ship was hit by a torpedo. He had just returned from Galveston in Texas and was admitted to hospital in Manchester after his ship had berthed at Salford Docks.

Fourteen German submarine officers were held behind barbed wire just six miles away at Raikeswood Camp. Marine Engineer Dietrich and Lieutenant Commander Krech would die at Keighley War Hospital. The onset of pneumonia was so rapid that Lieutenant Schmitz would die in Skipton before an ambulance could reach him. Forty-seven of the 683 German prisoners would die in the influenza pandemic.

In Skipton a further twenty-six deaths were recorded from influenza and resulting complications, bringing the number of fatalities to 56 from a population of just over 11,000. These figures did not include servicemen in the British Armed Forces.

Thirty of the deaths in Skipton were among young adults aged between 15 and 45 years old. The patients probably experienced a ‘cytokine storm’ where immune cells spread beyond the infected parts of the body and start attacking healthy tissues. Perversely young people with the strongest and healthiest immune systems were the ones most likely to die.

There was some spurious health advice at the time, but the basic message still holds true for infectious respiratory diseases. There was an emphasis on cleanliness, wearing masks, and avoiding close contact with others: in twenty-first century language: ‘hands, face, space’.

The twenty-four German officers sharing each of the wooden huts at Raikeswood may not have appreciated the horizontal ventilation the cracks in the walls afforded, but the advice about the importance of fresh air was well-known. Their diet was improved as the flu pandemic hit the camp. The general health of the officers ‘left nothing to be desired’. Unfortunately for them this almost certainly contributed to the high death toll at Raikeswood.

Many leading experts believe that 50 million people died in the influenza pandemic – more than those who died as a result of the First World War. Figures are inexact as some countries did not, or could not record the number of fatalities. In Britain some 200,000 are believed to have died from the then population of 40 million. The proportion of deaths from the civilian population of Skipton was very similar.

We look forward to a day when the present pandemic is consigned to the history books. Lessons will doubtless have been learnt. A case of gone, but certainly not forgotten.