This is a period in the history of our schools like no other before, just as it is an unprecedented period in our lives. Both our junior school and our infant school are virtually deserted today – just 18 children out of a possible 740 are here; classrooms are empty and the corridors quiet. It can never have been like this in term time before.
At least that’s what I thought. And then I heard a radio programme about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 which killed 50 million people worldwide, and began to wonder what effect that dreadful event would have had on our schools back then. We are fortunate enough to have the logbooks for the infant school going back almost to the start of the 20th century, so I was able to turn to the entries for summer and autumn on 1918, when waves of influenza swept across the country, to see the impact in Caister.
What I discovered was that school closure because of an epidemic is nothing new. In fact, at the start of the last century, it was a relatively common event. And scanning through the log books it is quickly apparent that the culprits were generally not influenza-type viruses, but the bacterial diseases which we have long since vaccinated ourselves again – measles, mumps, and most commonly of all, whooping cough.
There was a short closure for influenza that year – at the end of October into the first week of November. Mercifully there is no mention of any deaths. In fact, the biggest impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic on the school was that it struck down its formidable headmistress, Mrs Gertrude Fagg, whose colourful entries in the log books, along with her brutal assessment of the children in her care, are never surpassed in these chronicles, either before her arrival in 1907, or after her retirement. Mrs Fagg was ill in the spring and again in the early autumn and seems never to have really recovered; her repeated attempts to return to work scuppered by further illness until her eventual retirement through ill health in September 1919.
But the effect of the Spanish Flu epidemic was overshadowed by other, more local epidemics which caused much longer school closures. Even in the year 1918, the school was closed for longer by a measles outbreak in February and March – 6 weeks – than for the influenza. And again in early 1919, a further three weeks for whooping cough.
So, finding the prevalence of these diseases in the year of the flu pandemic, I turned back to start of the log book and read from the beginning, curious as to whether these extended closures were the norm. The earliest log book we have starts in January 1904. Mrs Lilian Cunningham is the headmistress and she records, in her elegant cursive handwriting, declining attendance through the first few months of the year. At times the weather is to blame; measles, influenza and scarletina is mentioned; but as the weeks tick on into March two words dominate the pages – whooping cough. By May 6th only 51 out of 118 children are attending and a notice is received “from the Medical Officer of Health ordering the school is closed due to an epidemic of whooping cough.” The children will not return until June 14th.
Whooping cough is never far away over the coming weeks and months, and while other maladies such as scarlet fever make an appearance, for the infant children ‘chincough’ as it was colloquially known, is a frequent danger. In 1907, the last month of the summer term was lost to an outbreak of mumps, and then whooping cough returned in December, causing the Medical Officer Dr Royden to again order the school closed until the beginning of February.
Mrs Fagg, who has taken over as headmistress that autumn, is unimpressed by both the closure and the impact on the children. On October 18th she writes:
“I find the children in this school, especially the first class, very backward which considering the 11-week vacation is perhaps not surprising. There are very few letters the first division of the sixes can write correctly.”
I hope that isn’t a foretaste of what we can expect when the current lockdown ends. Her entry on November 1st suggest that the conditions in which the children were working may have been at least partly to blame:
“I find that there are only three ragged dusters for the school which are washed quarterly – they are most unpleasant. There are no towels whatever and the dinner children have to begin afternoon school either unwashed or dry themselves on handkerchiefs (if they have any). I consider this most unsatisfactory and I am writing to the Education Office about it.”
Hardly the level of hand washing we have become accustomed to in our current predicament.
Such conditions, accompanied by the overcrowding Mrs Fagg also complains about, would undoubtedly have contributed to the spread of highly communicable diseases like whooping cough, which is passed on through airborne droplets or direct contact with infected throat or nasal discharges.
Children under five are particularly susceptible to the illness, which explains why the impact of whooping cough on our infant school seems to have been disproportionately greater than measles or other diseases. This is because of their undeveloped larynx, which is where the convulsive cough originates. It is also why the illness affects girls more severely than boys – the expansion of the larynx in boys, which becomes obvious in puberty, begins to differentiate early on, thus offering a fraction more protection.
And it is hardly surprising that the authorities were so wary of outbreaks of the disease. Epidemics had spread across the country with increasing frequency in the years leading up to these records – there was a severe outbreak as recently as 1898 and before that in 1878 and 1866. And while understanding of the illness was growing – the bacterium Bordetella pertussis had been isolated by Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou in 1906 – a vaccine was not widely available until the 1950s. One mitigating factor would have been the relatively low population density in Norfolk compared to the big cities, where incidences and fatalities were far more common.
It seems remarkable that there are no deaths of children recorded in the log book associated with any of these outbreaks. Generally the school was closed for a few weeks and when children then returned, attendance was good. However, the impact on learning is a repeated theme too and that is something we will also need to be mindful of back in 2020, when the current lockdown ends. While we won’t characterise it in the language Mrs Fagg was fond of, we are aware that there will be many children who will have missed a lot of learning.
This is no fault of their parents. Even some serving teachers have struggled to educate their own children at home, including your correspondent, despite the plentiful resources provided by schools. If it was the case that missing school had no impact on learning, then there would hardly be any point in schools existing at all. We are all looking forward to getting back into the classroom to help all our children catch up as quickly as we can – we will fix it, we promise. As one of my colleague headteachers has written elsewhere, we are teachers and that is our superpower.
But what it is perhaps worth remembering that, while the current situation is difficult for many of us, it is not unprecedented, and the perils of life a century ago, especially for our children, were much greater than they are now.