1918…Then and Now……

The scenes we have experienced recently in the supermarkets, of empty shelves and people rushing to buy and store up essential items (toilet rolls, pasta!) isn’t a new phenomenon. It has happened in the past during difficult times and will no doubt happen in the future. However, when we look back, I’m sure that we can appreciate that we are in a better position in this country than those who went before us, both in view of the food  and health care that we have access to during this Pandemic……

When the First World War broke out in 1914, two-thirds of Britain’s food was imported. Keeping the shipping lanes open in the Atlantic and North Sea became a vital campaign vital as Germany sent submarines to sink supply ships operating in the Atlantic and North Sea. Britain found itself on the verge of starvation. By the end of 1917 food rationing began to be introduced and by February 1918, general rationing was implemented. Sugar had been rationed from 1916 and in parts of the country in 1917, potato stocks were running low. Sugar and butter remained on ration until 1920. Food hoarding became a problem during the war, with Authorities, and the general public, taking a very dim view of anyone engaged in this. It was common to name and shame in the press along with harsh penalties and imprisonment being a possibility. A newspaper article told the story of a wealthy Kent woman who had nearly a ton of food in her store cupboard! ‘In cross-examination, she admitted that, having forty-seven tins or packages of cornflour in the house….’! The newspaper reported that she was convicted of food hoarding and fined £10, which is approximately equivalent to £572 today.

The NBWTA publication The White Ribbon Magazine April 1918 edition describes another fine handed out – ‘ A lady was fined £50 and £10 costs for hoarding tea – the magistrates deciding that tea is a food’. There had been some discrepancy whereby tea had been described as a beverage rather than a food resulting in another food hoarding charge being acquitted. However, ‘it has now been officially stated…that tea…is food; but beer and wine are not food. Thus every household is liable to have his or her house searched and…..is liable to prosecution and confiscation. The drinker, however, may hoard unlimited sugar and barley so long as it is in the form of beer’.

Jumping forward to today and according to Alcohol Change UK website ‘around one in five drinkers (21%) told us that they have been drinking more frequently since the lock down. This suggests that around 8.6 million UK adults are drinking more frequently under lock down’. Alcohol Change UK commissioned the research to find out whether people’s drinking habits have changed during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) lock down. For further information on its findings go to https://alcoholchange.org.uk/blog/2020/covid19-drinking-during-lockdown-headline-findings

There have been concerns raised about the availability of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for front line staff at this time, which is crucial in protecting them against this virus whilst nursing those who are ill. Back in 1918 following the end of the First World War, during the Spanish Flu outbreak, none of the vital modern equipment we have today was available including respirator masks, oxygen equipment and ventilators. Basil Hood was Medical Superintendent of St Marylebone Infirmary (now known as St Charles) in 1918 and wrote a graphic account during this time. Basil Hood made the nurses wear lint masks, however many refused if they were caring for a fellow nurse who was infected in case it caused distress to their colleague. As today the nurses and caregivers working on the front line were putting themselves potentially at risk, but without the modern protective equipment that we have available.

We know in the past that alcohol was often used for ‘medicinal’ purposes before the harmful effects were truly understood. The White Ribbon magazine March 1919 carries an overseas note that ‘The American Public Health Associates states in a report that alcohol is not good for influenza patients. However the writer of this piece was not impressed with the contradictory advice from another medical correspondent that ’alcohol should in no circumstances be withheld’. It is a relief that today we have reliable and sound guidance if we use reputable sources of information such as NHS website  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/


This image shows a streetcar conductor in Seattle, USA, during the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu#/media/File:165-WW-269B-11-trolley-l.jpg), refusing a person who attempts to board without wearing a mask. We may be following in their footsteps at some point, as there has been speculation about the potential for mandatory wearing of face masks in public.

However,  I think it is fair to say that we are in a better time; modern health equipment is available, we have strict social distancing, lock down measures in place and unlike in 1918 when there were no effective vaccines or antivirals, as we speak the first human trial in Europe of a Coronavirus vaccine has begun in Oxford, developed in under three months by a team at Oxford University (BBC News 23 April 2020).

Keep safe and well – for official guidance on what we should all be doing during this time go to https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus