During my toe-numbing winter lockdown walks, the pandemic is all around. And not just in the masked passers-by, faded rainbow drawings in children’s windows and public health adverts haunting bus stops and telephone boxes. It is also in everyday echoes of plagues past.
A scraggy patch of green where paths cross in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, east London, is one unassuming reminder. Somewhere beneath the grass surrounded by leafless trees lie the Wood family – parents Christopher and Ellen, and their six-year-old daughter Katherine – who all died in the same week in April 1920, during the fourth wave of the Spanish flu.
You cannot lay flowers at their gravestones; they were buried in a public grave – as are 80 per cent of people who rest here, in one of Victorian London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries. The family’s grave is unmarked, and also occupied by around five others.
A monument to local First World War casualties with soggy poppies clinging to its base stands at the cemetery’s entrance. It lists the names of men buried or commemorated in the wooded labyrinth within. You wouldn’t know it from the memorial, but some of these young soldiers died not in action but of flu.
In October 1918, Hackney-born Private Henry Roney of the Royal Munster Fusiliers died aged 22 of influenza at Devonport Military Hospital, less than a month before the war ended.
Private William Henry Dear of the Sussex Yeomanry, born in Bethnal Green, died aged 18 of influenza and pneumonia after the war’s end, in December 1918. The following February, Private John Salmon of the Norfolk Yeomanry – born in Stepney – died aged 39 of influenza at Ballinasloe Workhouse Infirmary in County Galway.
Between February 1918 and April 1920, the Spanish flu is thought to have killed 20-50 million people worldwide: more than all the soldiers and civilians killed in the First World War combined. About 228,000 British citizens died in what was history’s deadliest pandemic, yet physical monuments to their loss – such as in my local cemetery – are missing. There is no public memorial to the people who died of Spanish flu in the UK.
Historians have many explanations for this national amnesia. The war created a certain fatalism, perhaps a numbness, towards mass death even among the younger generation (who disproportionately suffered both in battle and from Spanish flu) – as well as a collective desire to move on.
More prosaically, the aftermath of war left few resources for an epidemic response. “Conscription led to a shortage in grave diggers and funeral workers,” writes Professor Martin Bayly of the London School of Economics. “Even a shortage of horses and the low-quality feed available impacted on the provision of ambulances to remove the deceased.”
Influenza outbreaks in the late 1880s and early 1890s were also still in living memory when the Spanish flu struck.
“Historically, we don’t tend to commemorate these kind of things anyway,” says public cemetery historian Sheldon Goodman, who curates the Cemetery Club social history project.
“I think collectively, as a nation, we don’t like dwelling on things that don’t make us look like heroes. For example, with First World War commemorations, you had young men dying in battle, in glory, for the benefit of the country – there’s more glory to be celebrated there than, say, a soldier who’s coughing up his guts and lungs in a military hospital, turning blue from flu.”
For our ancestors, disease and premature death were also a more familiar fact of life. In earlier centuries, victims of the Great Plague of London were not considered worthy of memorialising: treated as dirty, they were simply condemned to plague pits outside the city walls.
On other local lockdown walks, there are hints of this past: a plaque on the Bow Heritage Trail marks where cattle were slaughtered during the Black Death in 1361 and at the height of the plague in 1665 before the meat was transported into the city, “so as to keep the air free from filthy and putrid smells”.
Not far from there stands Queen Adelaide’s Dispensary – a handsome Renaissance-style building complete with a clocktower and cupola. Now converted into flats, it was founded in 1849 to bring free healthcare to the poorest areas of east London following a serious outbreak of cholera.
Yet even for the Aids crisis of the Eighties and Nineties, there is still no “national memorial”, says Goodman. Local monuments to HIV/Aids victims stand in Manchester, Brighton and Bournemouth, and the Aids memorial quilt is displayed around the country.
“We lost a generation of men, and it affected a very similar group as the First World War did – young men. In total now, the HIV/Aids epidemic has claimed more lives than the First World War did,” he adds.
“But if you look at the memorial numbers, there are thousands of First World War, Second World War memorials – there’s virtually nothing for an Aids memorial, because of who it affected. It was kept in the shadows in a world that didn’t want to acknowledge what was going on.”
Now, however, we live in an “age of commemoration”, according to Goodman. Along with a “general reappraisal” of how victims of previous pandemics were memorialised at the time, there is an appetite to honour the 119,000 people who have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the UK.
A new public garden will be created in the Olympic Park, east London, with 33 blossoming trees to represent each of London’s boroughs and the City of London. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called it a “lasting living memorial” that will serve as a “permanent reminder of the lives that have been lost”.
Across the country, there is a project to grow a “Forest of Memories” network, with a tree planted for every life lost in the UK because of Covid-19.
Yet parliament has received multiple petitions calling for a more traditional focal point for the country’s grief: a memorial plaque setting out “the full name, date of birth and date of death of each victim”; a monument for “each key worker to be named… and their sacrifice never forgotten”; a “National Pandemic Memorial and Institute, and annual commemoration” to remind and educate people about all past pandemics…
None have gathered the signatures they need to be considered.
“A lot of these commemorations aren’t coming from the top down, they’re not coming from government, they’re coming from people like you and me who see a gap,” says Goodman.
“Those who died are not remembered in the cemeteries largely, they’re not openly remembered by public memorials, so it’s up to people like us to kind of come up with the idea… The scale of death we’ve seen has not really been seen in living memory, particularly for a couple of generations, so I think there will be a greater impetus to commemorate who we’ve lost.”