Spen’s great flu epidemic

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A NUMBER of books have been published recently which relate to events in the Spen Valley such as Barbara Lumb’s Spen Valley Story, Peter Fawcett’s Ring of Gold, a very well researched historical book of handbell ringing, and Trees Fewster who compiled the poems of Wilfred Booker– a Man of Gomersal.

Now we have Cruel Lives – a history of some West Yorkshire epidemics written by John Brooke, with a chapter devoted to the 1891 Spen Valley influenza epidemic which claimed around 240 lives in a four week period and which also had a devastating effect on Batley, Birstall and Staincliffe.

Influenza is a highly infectious viral disease that affects the respiratory tract. It is usually a winter disease, but in the case of the Spen Valley it occurred in May 1891, caused by poor diet which lowered people’s resistance, general social conditions and the damp houses in which so many lived at that time.

Not everyone who died was from a poor family, the victims included businessmen and tradespeople.

In Heckmondwike and Liversedge the disease was reported to be extremely prevalent and the appearance of the cemetery had changed considerably owing to the large number of new graves.

Excrement disposal was a main issue of the day and the River Spen was heavily polluted with sewage which freqwuently omitted offensive smells.

Since those awful days there have been great improvements in medicine, housing and the environment, and it’s not too late to pop down to the doctor’s for a flu jab.


Firthcliffe Parade