There is no doubt that Spanish Flu ravaged many families but for it to happen to that particular group of boys at that time is yet another sad chapter in the history of Smyllum
All of them were inmates at the Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul until it shut in 1981.
The child abuse inquiry in Edinburgh has heard weeks of harrowing evidence from former residents, with one describing a “culture of evil” at the home.
According to our research, the first person in Britain to fall victim to the virus was 15-year-old David Clabby. The son of Patrick, a general labourer, and Rose, he died at 9am on May 18, 1918, with a nun called Sister Angela signing the death register.
His death was initially put down to “acute enteritis” but later amended by Dr ATA Gourlay, medical officer at Lanark’s Lockhart Hospital, and John T Wilson, medical officer for the County of Lanark.
The first UK victims of Spanish Flu were at Smyllum Park orphanage where they were buried
Their report, submitted to the procurator fiscal in Lanark on July 4, 1918, states that David’s cause of death was “influenza (epidemic) 12 hours”.
The next boy to die was 11-year-old Daniel Daisley, whose coal miner father William was dead and whose mother Margaret Mulgrew could presumably no longer cope with looking after him.
The third victim was 13-year-old James McBrien, the son of shipyard labourer William (deceased) and Bridget. His death at 11.30am on May 19 was again put down to acute enteritis – a sudden bowel inflammation – before being corrected by the two medical officers.
Patrick Gaffney, 13, the son of deceased quarry miner James and Mary, was the next to succumb at 4.30am on May 20. The correction by Gourlay and Wilson reveals that Patrick fought the influenza virus for three days.
By now, the nuns must have realised something was terribly wrong and the next two victims were taken to the old County Fever Hospital in Motherwell. Thirteen-year-old Robert Woods – whose parents were registered as “unknown” – passed away at 7pm on May 22.
Although the cause was correctly identified as influenza, Gourlay and Wilson later amended the register to show him as the fifth victim of the epidemic. Three days later, at 4pm on May 25, 12-year-old Smyllum inmate John Donaghy also died from influenza at the fever hospital. Once again, the medical authorities registered his parents as “unknown”.
Meanwhile, the disease continued to rage back at the orphanage and, at 4.45am on May 26, nine-year-old Francis McLuskie became the youngest victim of the epidemic.
His father, Edward, was a coal miner and his mother Bridget was dead, with the cause again being attributed to enteritis before being corrected by Gourlay as “supposed influenza”. The last victim of the outbreak was Malcolm Dow, also aged nine, who died at Smyllum at 8.30pm on May 28.
His father, Malcolm, was in a workhouse and his mother, Williamina, was dead. Gourlay correctly identified the cause as influenza. The appalling conditions at the orphanage are illustrated by the fact that another child died during the 10 days of the epidemic – Nicholas Quinn, eight, from tuberculosis on May 24.
Spanish Flu wiped out 50 million lives
In a final tragic twist, the eight influenza victims – along with young Nicholas – would most likely have been buried in the common ground at St Mary’s cemetery. Although the existence of this ‘mass grave’ has been known about for many years, it emerged last year that at least 400 youngsters from Smyllum had been interred there between 1864 and 1981.
“We will never know what conditions these children and young men had to endure but the fact they were able to go out to work suggests they were reasonably fit and healthy.
“They were maybe starting to look forward to the future and think about leaving the orphanage, maybe creating lives for themselves after a difficult childhood, and suddenly they were struck down by this deadly disease.
“Smyllum has been brought to people’s attention because of the abuse that took place there and the mass burial plot in the cemetery, and now it seems that it was also the first place in Scotland to suffer as a result of Spanish Flu.”
Smyllum Park was where Spanish Flu first hit the UK
Meanwhile, one of Scotland’s leading authors and historians has backed the creation of a memorial to those who died in the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Trevor Royle, who has written more than 30 books on war and empire, is also a member of the Scottish Commemorations Panel set up to mark the centenary of the First World War.
He said: “Spanish Flu first came to the UK in May 1918 and the first cases were recorded in Glasgow. General medical opinion is that conditions of warfare in Europe where large concentrations of young people were in place helped to spread the epidemic very quickly.
“The death toll in Britain was less than a third of the 750,000 who died in the war but, even so, what is absolutely shocking about the epidemic is that it came at the tail end of the war.
“People at home had been horrified by seeing large casualties on the battlefield and suddenly they had to face up to many thousands more being killed on the civilian front, including many people who had survived the actual fighting.”
Mr Royle said Britain was “no stranger” to deadly epidemics, with a number of cholera outbreaks throughout the 19th century, but this was on a different scale.
The medical authorities did not know how to respond, with citizens even being urged to smoke more cigarettes to kill the germs in their lungs. Other advice, such as wearing face masks or washing tenement closes with disinfectant, would have been more effective.
Mr Royle added: “The Scottish health authorities thought the flu could be kept at bay by a daily dose of porridge.”
He said the panel had no direct funding and could not erect memorials but said he would be “very surprised” if the centenary of Spanish Flu wasn’t discussed at a conference in St Andrews in June. He added: “If there was a local initiative to do something in Lanark, we’d certainly support something like that.”
The source of the 1918 flu pandemic is shrouded in mystery, although some experts now believe the virus developed in the filthy and overcrowded British military camp at Étaples in France.
Returning soldiers brought Spanish Flu to the UK
Others say it originated in the Far East and was spread to Europe by American soldiers when the USA entered the war in 1917, with some of the earliest confirmed cases recorded at army bases in Kansas.
The initial reports of this deadly new danger were quashed by both sides but newspapers were free to report on the illness ravaging neutral Spain, leading to the misleading nickname Spanish Flu.
Servicemen returning from the Western Front brought the flu home to Britain, with the first cases recorded in Glasgow then other ports, including Liverpool, Southampton and Portsmouth.
The first wave was comparatively mild and in June 1918 The Times reported that the “man in the street” had read about the epidemic in Spain and “cheerfully anticipated its arrival here”.
But the number of deaths continued to rise throughout the summer and a second wave in the autumn recorded far higher fatality rates, with the epidemic reaching its fearsome peak in October 1918. Schools, cinemas, theatres and any public buildings where large numbers might congregate were closed down, while church attendances fell as people tried to avoid infection.
Across Britain, children who had grown up in the shadow of a distant but devastating war on the continent began to sing a new skipping song:
I had a little bird, / Its name was Enza, / I opened the window. / And in-flu-enza.