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17 Sept 2020

The ‘Spanish flu’ and the Tenement House

Written by Ana Sanchez-De la Vega, Visitor Services Supervisor, The Tenement House
The common entrance to a red sandstone tenement block, with steps leading up to the front door.
The Tenement House in Glasgow
With the Tenement House closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 health crisis, I wondered what the 1918 pandemic meant for Miss Agnes Toward, who was living at 145 Buccleuch Street (now the Tenement House) at that time.

The 1918 influenza pandemic coincided with the end of the Great War, peaking between May 1918 and April 1919. The pandemic came in three waves, with the second one having a major impact in Scotland.

In September 1918, just as the second wave of the pandemic was about to reach Scotland, Agnes turned 33. She worked for Prentice, Service & Henderson, at 175 West George Street, a shipping firm where she was earning 30 shillings a week as a shorthand typist, and for whom she would work until the 1960s. Agnes lived with her mother, a retired dressmaker, in a rented tenement flat in Garnethill for which they paid around £20 a year.

Agnes had felt the effects of the war when she lost a dear friend and work colleague, who died during the Battle of the Somme. From her letters, now kept in our archive, it seems that many of her male colleagues left their jobs to join the war at the Western Front; those who stayed may well have faced food and coal shortages in overcrowded tenements.

As working middle-class women, the Towards were better off than most and appear to have lived comfortably enough during the war. From documents kept in our archive, we know that they kept lodgers to receive an extra income, a practice that was very common among middle-class families. However, as the end of the war approached, the second wave of the pandemic really hit Britain. Working for a shipping company, Agnes must have been aware of the spread of the influenza virus, which it’s thought came with returning troops from the ships anchoring at the major port in Glasgow.

A black and white photograph of four young adults posing in a row for the camera. A man sits (second from the left) with three woman, and he has his arms stretched around the back of them. The women all wear close-fitting hats and the man has a type of flat cap.
Miss Toward (on the far right) enjoying an outing with colleagues after the First World War had ended.

To keep up morale after the war, British newspapers focused on celebrating the victory of the troops and were reluctant to talk about the spread of influenza and more fatalities. It was the Spanish press that first began to properly cover the pandemic, as Spain had remained neutral during the war and so their newspapers wrote freely about the rapid spread of the disease throughout the European continent. The term ‘Spanish flu’ was later coined, but the origin of the virus is unlikely to have been Spain, since it’s thought that places where troops lived in close confinement were the ideal breeding ground for the virus. Spain was simply the first country to accurately report the catastrophic effects of the pandemic.

There was no shortage of interesting suggestions in the papers about how best to deal with influenza: some recommended a diet based on porridge, jam and sugar; others urged people to drink more whisky and smoke tobacco. However, with medical supplies scarce after the war, the virus killed tens of thousands of Scots.

Living in a tenement came with a communal responsibility of cleaning the close and stairs of the building. They needed to be swept every morning and washed at least twice a week, and each tenant was responsible for a designated area. The shared garden also had a wash-house and Miss Toward had access to this once a month to use the sink, boiler and mangle.

An old brown piece of card with a printed rota for using the communal wash-house over the course of June 1919 to May 1920. It is displayed behind perspex and the top corners are a little dog-eared,
The wash-house rota for 145 Buccleuch Street in 1919

By the end of 1919, the worst of the virus had passed but the memories remained in a children’s skipping song called ‘In-flu-Enza’. Miss Toward didn’t have any children but she lived next to Garnethill School, so I wonder if she may have heard some of the local children skipping to the song on her way to work:

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza,
I opened the window.
And in-flu-enza.

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