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Carluke’s Other Pandemic – The Spanish Flu (1918-19)

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

For the past seven months, we have been trying to cope with the impact and wide-reaching consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not, however, the first time the people of Carluke and the surrounding villages of Law, Braidwood, Kilncadzow and Yieldshields have been faced with a major public health issue.

Throughout 1918 and 1919, the Spanish Flu virus swept across the world, taking the lives of an estimated 20-40 million people, more than those who died in the Great War, and affecting about one-fifth of the world’s population. Interestingly, however, very little appeared in the newspapers of the time. There is a suggestion that the country could not cope with any more bad news and so kept information to a minimum.

Similar to today, the virus came in waves, the first being in the summer of 1918, then a second in October/November 1918 and a third final wave in the late winter of 1918/19.

Unlike today, there was no NHS, no antibiotics, no ‘Test, Track & Trace’, no lockdown, no face coverings or social distancing. Very few people were admitted to hospital. Instead, they were looked after at home by family with bedrest and fluids being the most common treatment. Adding to the problem was the fact that, due to the war, there was a shortage of doctors on the home front.

In the summer of 1918, with the community still dealing with a war that had already lasted four years and had seen over 200 of its men pay the ultimate sacrifice, the virus reached Carluke and, over the next ten months, its toll was felt in many households.

One of the few attempts to limit the spread of the illness was the decision to close schools. This was not a government decision but rather one made by local school boards. At their meeting on 21st October 1918, Carluke School Board examined the absentee rate closely. The meeting was told that, while the normal absence rate was around 10%, all schools under the Board’s authorities were facing significantly higher absence rates. In the town, it was 17% in the Higher Grade School, 24.5% in the Junior School and 25.3% in the Senior Elementary (Primary) School. The village schools were being hit just as badly if not worse. Law, where it was stated that the situation was improving, had an absence rate of 19% while it was 21.7% in Braidwood. Things were not so good in Kilncadzow where the absence rate sat at 27.7% but, of all the schools, Yieldshields was the worst with 44.4% of the children absent. Learning of these statistics, the School Board agreed to close the schools the very next day and keep them closed for two weeks, when they would consider if an extension was necessary. The Evening Schools at both Carluke and Law were also to be closed. They also agreed that all the schools should be fumigated during the closure period. After the two-week closure the schools re-opened and remained so for the remainder of the pandemic.

Very sadly, 37 people in the district lost their lives to the illness, eight of them under 5 years of age. In fact, in contrast to today where the statistics show that it is the elderly who are more vulnerable, it was younger people who were hit most in 1918-19.

Poignantly the first person to die, in July 1918, at the age of 55 years, was George Angus, the father of Carluke’s first VC, William Angus. While each death was felt by family, friends and the community, there were several which hit home a little bit more than most. At the end of July 1918, the Johnston family of Waterlands Cottage, Law faced a triple tragedy. On 17th July, 37-year old Marion Johnston passed away as a result of influenza, having given birth to a stillborn baby boy just two days previously. Then, on 22nd July, her husband, 41-year old Jamieson also succumbed to the virus. As the pandemic drew to a close one family from Hamburg Cottages near Law had to say a final farewell to two of their younger members. On 2nd April 1919, 16-year old Mary Bain Thomson and her 4-year old nephew James Bain Brownlie departed the world within an hour of each other. It appears that Mary, who had been working in service in Glasgow and had recently returned to care for her grandmother, caught the infection from young James.

A full list of Carluke’s Spanish Flu victims can be found in ‘Carluke Parish & The Great War : Book 2 – 1917-19’.

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