Good Old Influenza

Between late 1889 and 1894 Victorian Britain, and London in particular, was hit by an influenza pandemic that had originated in Russia.

The Russian flu, as it became known, caused widespread disruption throughout the country, and nobody seemed immune to it.

Indeed, it would claim the life of Prince Albert Victor the Duke of Clarence, grandson to Queen Victoria, and heir presumptive to the throne.

A skeletal figure drifts over the coffins of influenza victims.
From The Illustrated Police News, 3rd January 1892. Copyright The British Library Board.


But some people thought that the public reaction to the influenza was, to say the least, OTT.  Amongst them was the journalist George Sims, who gave his opinion on the public attitude to the illness in his Mustard and Cress column.

The Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough,  republished his comments in its edition of Tuesday, 17th December 1889


Good old influenza! Years ago we used to have it and think nothing about it.

But that was in the days before the art of “booming” was invented, and “sensation” was in its cradle.

In those days, a dog could foam at the mouth and have a fit without a hydrophobia craze running round the world, and a Pasteur noising himself and his institute abroad to the four quarters of the earth.

In those days a “strong man” could throw dumb-bells and Indian clubs about at a country fair, or in the street, or on the stage of a music-hall without the intervention of the Court of Chancery, and a plague of strong men sweeping down upon our shores at salaries ranging from £50 to £200 per week.

In those days the arrival of a Yankee gent, with a circus and a stuffed mermaid was not made the occasion of a grand demonstration of Peers and Pressmen at a banquet, with speeches and verbatim reports, and interviews and special trains from the Land’s End and John o’ Groats.


In those days the Society for Manufacturing Mountains out of Molehills was an obscure and insignificant body, whereas today it has its representatives in every capital, its agents upon every newspaper, and its subscribers in every household.

The Society for the Manufacture of Mountains out of Molehills having decided to run influenza as a winter attraction, we have nothing to do but to submit.


It will be the greatest and most wonderful influenza that the world has known.

The sneezing of the mighty hordes of invalids will shake the foundations of the cities; the coughing of the myriad sufferers will fill the air with the roll of thunder.

The army will take it to a man, and the Commander-in-Chief will sit with his feet in mustard and cress – I mean mustard and water  – at the War Office, and wonder what on earth we should do if war were to break out with only six privates and a drummer-boy not on the sick-list.


The police will take it, and poor Mr Monro, wrapped up in blankets, will mournfully tallow his nose and endeavour to prove to himself that the best way to protect the public is to withdraw the police from the streets altogether.

The tradespeople will have it, and all the shops being shut at night in consequence of London being gasless, they will be closed in the daytime, too, in consequence of all the employees being too ill to leave home.


Members of Parliament and Ministers will have it; the Speaker will sneeze his head off in the chair, and be so blind that nobody will be able to catch his eye.

The Marquis of Salisbury will have it, and, while he sits wheezing and coughing over the fire at Hatfield, will thank Heaven that Labouchere, having lost his voice, and living upon a gruel diet, is unable to sit in his place and do and say all the dreadful things he has been threatening in Truth for the last three months.


And it’s quite possible that Jack the Ripper will have it, and be so ill that he will be unable to leave his bed and risk the night air down Whitechapel. In which case not even the great influenza boom will be an unmixed evil.