Now beyond living memory and with little written about it at the time, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 remains little known.

But it has parallels to today and Warrington historian Ron Phillips has been taking a look at what happened. 

It was overshadowed by the horrors of the First World War, to a great extent ignored by officialdom and not fully understood by the medical authorities.

An illness with flu like symptoms to begin with, it could kill a patient within a very short time of its onset. The cause was a virus, an organism so small that it was not until 1934 that the invention of the electronic microscope allowed it to be seen.

The pandemic of 1918-19 is said to have started in the US, when a farm worker in a poultry farm picked up a virus from ducks. Shortly after this happened, the man was drafted in the Army, as the US entered the First World War. He was sent to a large and crowded training camp where his symptoms emerged.

He recovered but other men at the camp caught the illness and some died, but many recovered.

The soldiers were then packed into crowded trains to take them to a port, from which they embarked for Brest in France.

The troop ships, ill-ventilated and with thousands of men on board, acted as incubators and hundred died on the nine day crossing of the Atlantic. Those who survived disembarked to infect the inhabitants of Brest before moving on to transit camps elsewhere in France, where they would mingle with soldiers, many wounded or ill, who were remaining home to convalesce.

It is easy to see how this disease spread in an era when the world was less inter connected than it is today.

The reaction of the military authorities, already coping with the bad news of the human slaughter and misery caused by the war was to suppress news of the illness that was suddenly breaking out everywhere.

In Britain the chief medical officer was in fact a military man and he put no measures put in place to protect the civilian population.

Soldiers were coming back from France and elsewhere in increasing numbers as the first world war ended in November 1918.

They travelled by troop ships across the Channel and thence by railway trains to their home towns, mingling with the population.

Warrington Guardian: Customers social distancing in a queue outside a Morrisons supermarket

The idea of social distancing was not even thought of with regard to this new disease, although the British population of the time were used to the idea of isolation for infectious diseases such as diphtheria.

Why was it called Spanish flu. The Spanish nation was not involved in the First World War and therefore applied no censorship of the press. When the Spanish King Alfonso caught the condition, it was national news.

It then became international news, passed on by papers in many countries, and hence the un-named flu like disease now had a name, although an inaccurate one.

Several decades later medical scientists gave it a code name. and tried to study how it was spread and how the spread could be mitigated.

What do we now know that was unknown in 1918-19? We know that a virus invades a cell of its host, reproduces itself many times and is then expelled into the air when the host coughs or sneezes.

The virus travels in minute droplets of water which are breathed in by other people and the process starts again.

A second method of transmission is via the droplets of water which fall on frequently touched surfaces.

The virus is thence transferred by the hands of the new host when the hands touch the mouth, nose and eyes.

Hence people in 2020 are told to keep their distance, perhaps wear a mask and wash the hands regularly.

Warrington Guardian: A couple wear masks as they go for a stroll at the time of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic

Back in 1919, in Britain no such advice was given. The disease presented in three waves, autumn 1918, spring 1919 and finally in summer 1919.

The middle wave was the worst for fatal outcomes. There was no health service, people had to pay to see a doctor or to stay in hospital.

Doctors were in a short supply as many had been drafted into the armed services.

The general population was debilitated by wartime conditions and poor food supply as well as by diseases such as tuberculosis.

Many lived in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. It was quite a different picture lived in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation.

It was quite a difficulty picture from that of today, No restrictions were put on everyday life, hence the economy already weakened by the war was not greatly worsened, but the death toll was high.

Warrington did not escape the disease which killed more than 30,000,000 people worldwide.

The outbreaks were worst in the most densely populated parts of the town where people lived in crowded conditions.

Because of the true cause of the Spanish flu was unknown, and the fatal form took only a few days to kill its victim, hospitals could only offer palliative care, although most of the poorer citizens could not afford even this.

The death toll in the worst month for Warrington was 70 in one week.

The most vulnerable age group to die was people in the 20 to 40 band whose strong immune systems over reacted or went into overdrive and attacked their own bodies.

Undertakers and cemeteries were overwhelmed and some poor families buried their dead children in secret not having any money for the usual formalities. It was not a time to remember but to forget.