Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Russian flu pandemic 1889 - 93

The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893

  • Date: 14/03/20
  • Mark Honigsbaum, Social History of Medicine, August 2010

The ‘Russian’ influenza across Europe and the morbidity of leading politicians and other members of the British establishment occasioned widespread ‘dread’ and in some cases panic. Some 125,000 Britons perished in the pandemic.

From The Illustrated Police News, 3rd January 1892. Copyright The British Library Board.
This dread of influenza was fuelled by the high mortality rate in northern towns such as Sheffield, as well as by the disease’s association with pneumonia, neurasthenia, psychosis and suicide. However, the key factor was the growth of mass circulation newspapers and the way that the influenza drew on fin de siècle cultural anxieties about urbanisation and the increasing speed of modern life.
In the autumn of 1890, Winston Churchill wrote a curious poem entitled ‘The Influenza’. Then a 15 year-old pupil at Harrow, Churchill’s precocious verse was inspired by Europe’s recent experience of the ‘Russian’ influenza, so-called because the epidemic had first broken out in St Petersburg in the autumn of 1889. To this impressionable young schoolboy and future British Prime Minister, the influenza was a ‘vile, insatiate scourge’, a disease that was no respecter of nationality or class. Tracing the Russian flu’s ‘noiseless tread’ from China and over ‘bleak Siberia’s plains’ to Russia, Alsace and ‘forlorn Lorraine’, Churchill wrote:
The rich, the poor, the high, the low
Alike the various symptoms know
To Churchill’s insular way of thinking it was only because of a quirk of geography—‘the streak of brine’, as he put it—that the flu’s power ‘to threaten Freedom’s isle’ had been dissipated. Nevertheless, he recognised, the flu had eventually breached even ‘this thin line’.
When Churchill wrote his poem no one had experienced a pandemic of influenza for 42 years. To most laymen and the majority of medics, influenza was little more than a synonym for a bad cold or catarrh. The Russian flu changed all that, sweeping across Europe and North America in three waves that left no doubt as to the disease’s extensive morbidity and its connection with modern communication and transportation technologies. Unlike the earlier 1847–8 pandemic, the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press. In Britain, some four million people were sickened in the 1889–90 wave alone, and some 27,000 died. Taking into account the subsequent 1891 and 1892 waves of the disease, and the severe recrudescence of influenza in 1893, some 125,000 Britons perished in the pandemic. Yet while the mortality from these later waves equalled and, in some locales, surpassed those of earlier nineteenth-century cholera and smallpox epidemics, it has been argued that the Russian flu ‘occasioned little overt distress and left no discernible imprint on public memory or institutions’.
In this article, I will argue that this characterisation fails to take into account the profound cultural and psychological impacts of the pandemic. In particular, I argue that the morbidity of leading politicians and other prominent members of the establishment, coupled with the high mortality associated with the 1891 wave in northern towns such as Sheffield, occasioned widespread ‘dread’. This dread of influenza was fuelled by the growth in cheap mass circulation newspapers and periodicals and the competition between Reuters and other specialist wire correspondents to keep Victorian readers abreast of the latest news of the pandemic. Indeed, the rapid progress of the influenza across Europe via the railway network and the near-instantaneous reporting of the outbreaks via the worldwide telegraphic network made the Russian influenza as much a media event as a disease event. 
In this sense, the Russian influenza was peculiarly ‘modern’—a pandemic that seemed to be intimately linked to modern trade and transportation technologies and the increasing speed of global communications. This association between the pandemic and modernising tendencies at the fin de siècle was further exacerbated by the way that the influenza seemed to single out the urban middle classes and, in particular, male heads of households for attack, as well as by the fact that the earliest recorded casualties were precisely those considered most essential to the smooth functioning of Victorian society and economy, such as diplomats, post office workers, lawyers, and the employees of banks and insurance firms.
The article is divided into four sections. In the first, I trace the initial wave of morbidity and examine the way that the media’s focus on the ubiquity of the attacks amplified the popular fears of this ‘new disease’ from Russia. In the second and third sections, I examine the impact of the more lethal secondary wave on Sheffield and the Palace of Westminster and look at the way that the suddenness of the attacks and the dread of the respiratory complications drew on male anxieties connected to work. In the fourth, I turn to the neurological complications and examine how the dread of Russian influenza could itself become a nervous symptom of the disease. Influenza, I argue, has an unusual, chameleon-like ability to take on the characteristics or ‘spirit’ of the age.
 In 1889–93, the disease mirrored and reinforced anxieties about the pace of social change, urbanisation and an economy unsettled by the long agricultural depression that had begun in the 1870s. ‘Overwork and anxiety’—common tropes of modernity—were widely regarded as predisposing factors. At a time when mental states were framed in terms of neurological function and ‘nerve’ illnesses were thought to be traceable to organic processes, particular anxiety attached to the debilitating nervous sequelae of influenza, which included lethargy, depression, neurasthenia and, in some cases, psychosis and suicide. Indeed, long before the more severe secondary wave of the pandemic, the flu’s relentless progress from one European capital to another and the ubiquity of the attacks gave the Russian influenza an unusual purchase on the popular imagination. 
While medical experts may not have regarded influenza as a particular threat to the individual body, in striking such a large number of people at the same time, including some of the most prominent figures at Westminster, the Russian influenza was perceived as a direct threat to the political and social body.
An interesting read. For Reuters read 24hour news and for mass circulation newspapers read Twitter and Facebook. Note, this paper was written in 2010 so cannot be accused of being influenced by our current problem. Ed. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Cancellation of activities

Dear All,

Owing to the fluid situation regarding the Covid 19, pandemic, we have no choice but to cancel the remaining activities which were planned for the current lecture season. The annual trip will also be cancelled.

With great regret. 


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Huw o Ddowlais

A Report on the March Meeting of Resolven History Society

A brief history of Dowlais

This month’s speaker needed no introduction since it was the ebullient Huw Williams of Dowlais, who this year chose to speak on the history of his own community. He began by stating that everyone had heard of Dowlais, mainly because of the roundabout on the A465 at Dowlais Top. However, as in all communities the settlement includes areas and districts which have all contributed to the huge history of such a small place.

Huw then proceeded to describe the geography of Dowlais and how it was separated from its larger neighbour, Merthyr Tydfil. The hill at Pen-y-darren , was crucial in this respect, as was the limestone plateau at “Twyni Gwynion”, which supplied much of the limestone to the iron industry and was now better known for its restored steam railway. The Morlais brook, now covered , was remembered as being highly polluted from the prevalence of industry , yet was still a popular play area for the children of the area. The area known as the “Bont”, which featured a long forgotten bridge was now the site of the Martyr’s football ground, Penydarren Park. Much of the old settlement of Dowlais was now subsumed by modern developments such as the OP chocolate factory, the Stevens and George printers and the Pant industrial estate which hid the far older site of “Ffair y Waun”, the old hiring and horse fair. This was also the site of a market “Ffair y pêr a’r fala”, which supplied Merthyr Tydfil should the harvest be good.

In 1757, the Merthyr Furnace was sited at Dowlais, as a result of investment by a group of Bristol investors, a purely capitalist and speculative venture. This was taken over by John Guest and his son Joseph John Guest , who was born in Gellifaelog House in Dowlais. They became sole owners in 1830. The Guests spoke Welsh and communicated well with the workforce of the ironworks. Indeed,Charlotte Guest the wife of the second John Guest is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion after she also mastered the language. The connection with the pioneering work of the Cornishman Richard Trevithick and his development of the steam engine in 1804 at Dowlais was also noted as was the development of the huge static steam engine at Dowlais which powered the site. By 1840, the Dowlais Iron Works was the largest works in the world and employed some 15,000 workers. This was serviced by the Brunel built Taff Vale Railway which took the iron to be exported from Cardiff Docks. To put it mildly there was no love lost between the Guests and the Bute Family (see last month’s report) and indeed the titanic battles over leaseholds led to the early death of both the first Marquis and Guest himself in 1852. Former MP for Merthyr, and now Lord Ted Rowlands has recently published a book based on the journals of Charlotte Guest, which recount this period.  They finish abruptly on the death of her first husband as the younger Charlotte quickly eloped with a new beau.

Agents then took control of the works which now became part of a greater industrial concern, Guest Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN) which still exists today, (though has recently severed its last ties with steel. Ed). This enabled the works to diversify to become a steelworks as against an ironworks.  The point was made that the Crawshays of Merthyr had abandoned the Cyfarthfa works and never became a steelworks.  The crucible of the industrial revolution was now beginning to decline and the point was made that the possible results of the emissions from this industrialization had returned with a vengeance in recent months owing to the recent floods at Pontypridd ( of course, few of the settlements would have existed without industry , Ed.).

The twentieth century, heralded a great change. The Guests largely abandoned the area and became part of London society. Even the Dowlais Steelworks largely decanted itself to Cardiff East Moors , in order to avail itself of a more economically favourable location. By 1930, the Dowlais works closed its doors for the last time putting some 8,000 workers on the dole and increasing the unemployment rate of the area to 80%. This led to mass deprivation and a visit by a monarch Edward V111, who stated bleakly that “Something must be done”, shortly before abdicating and retiring with an American divorcee (that would not happen today, would it? Ed )

Following the second world war,Hoover came to Merthyr and provided another mass employer for a few decades. Dowlais, is now to all intents and purposes, part of Merthyr, though the last remnant of the steel industry in the specialised steel unit at Dowlais prevailed until 1987.

The Chairman,thanked Huw Williams for a very interesting and stimulating talk.

Trefor Jones.

Monday, February 24, 2020

March Meeting

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Hirwaun Cottages?

The Editor has recently received a very kind letter from Anne Thorne of Llanllwni in Carmarthenshire, who points out that the use of "Hirwaun Cottages", for the two houses which were destroyed in 1965 along the now B4242, is incorrect. The letter and translation is produced below.

Dear Trefor Jones,

           May I congratulate the website produced by Resolven History Society. As you can see from my address I live a long way from the Vale of Neath but I hail from Glynneath and have many connections with Resolven. That is why I am writing to you now.

I was browsing through the site and came across a reference to a landslip between Abergarwed and Resolfen that happened in 1965. One of houses destroyed was  the home of my grandparents  and was named Llwyn Helig. This event  has obviously played an important part in my family history.
There is a reference to the name "Hirwaun Cottages", however, I have never heard the houses referred to by that name, in fact the second house was named Fairview. The third house was named Hirwaun House , and ironically was the one that was not demolished ( though it was feared that it was the most in danger)  but subsequently was taken down voluntarily following the landslip.

It is not my intention to question the integrity of the site but instead to confirm the proper names of the houses involved. I would be grateful for any further information from your members and any further pictures of the event in addition to those currently on the website.

Many thanks once again for the website,

Anne Thorne 

It  appears that the confusion comes from the fact that one of the three houses ( as against two) included  "Hirwaun" and it may be a colloquial echo or Chinese whisper by reference to the group of houses in the subsequent decades. It certainly shows that the decision to broaden the activities of the Society to include a research element will be a rewarding one.

Diolch o galon unwaith eto i Anne Thorne am ddwyn sylw i'r elfen bwysig yma o'n hanes lleol, sydd yn cael ei cholli mor gyflym gyda threiglad amser a newidiadau cymdeithasol yn ein cymdogaeth. 

Y Golygydd.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Anything new?

The past fortnight has witnessed two named storms Ciara and Dennis which has led to extreme weather. Two buses from the vale of Neath had a prolonged stay in Ireland following the recent Six Nations rugby international and roads were flooded in a red alert locally on the weekend of the 15th and 16th. Yet, are these events so unusual or are our memories and life rimes extremely short. Here are some pictures from the famously wet winter of 1911 and more recent ones from the 1960s.
The River Clydach ( Uchaf ) bursts its banks in 1911, flowing over the retaining wall into Commercial Road.
Alluvial debris outside the New Inn Public House. I K Brunel had made sure that the Clydach flooded the village not the aqueduct that he had constructed at Resolven, Commercial Road is therefore the natural bed of the river which returns to its natural course given the chance.

Vale of Neath Railway flooded

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A History of the Bute family in Wales

The famous 'Animal Wall' in Burgess's Gothic masterpiece/

Cathy Graham, Secretary, welcomed Mr Steve David on behalf of the members, who had braved the blustery weather in the aftermath of Storm Ciara to hear a talk about the Bute family.

Mr David started by asking the question how a family from the west of Scotland came to own Cardiff Castle and huge estates in South Wales.  Coats of arms in Cardiff Castle point to the history of the Stuart family of Bute, who were related to the Stuart kings of Scotland.  The link to Wales came about through the marriage in 1766  of John, Lord Mountstuart to Charlotte Windsor, heiress of Herbert, Lord Windsor.  The Herberts, as descendants of the Earls of Pembroke, held huge estates across South Wales and were the fourth richest family in the country. In lieu  of a dowry, Charlotte’s father gave land which ran from Cardiff Bay to Hirwain Common, a vast acreage but not considered very good land.  Lord Mountstuart’s second marriage to a daughter of the Coutts family brought additional wealth.  In 1796 Lord Mountstuart was created the first Marquis of Bute.  At the time when the iron industry was developing, the Butes held the majority of land where the ironworks were being built, but this was not generating good returns.  The rent charged to Crawshay for the land where he had his works was £38 per year.  In 1802 Crawshay had personal fortune of £8 million, whereas the Mountstuarts were struggling to support their lifestyle.  In 1806 a report shows that Cardiff had no real export trade and was a poor port.  No coal was exported because there was no way of transporting it from the interior. The first Marquis of Bute died in 1814 and he was succeeded by his grandson, John, the second Marquis.  At this time the greatest concentration of ironworks and investment in the manufactories in the world was in south Wales. In order to move coal and iron to the coast it was necessary to cross the Marquis of Bute’s land.  Bute then capitalised by renegotiating the leases of the Iron Masters and built both the Glamorgan canal and  the Taff Vale Railway.  By also developed the port of Cardiff by building the Bute and Charlotte Docks. Cardiff then became one of the most modern towns of the time. The railways changed the fortunes of the Butes and by 1849 he accrued  an income of £38000 per year from his estates. 

In 1843 the Royal Navy was looking for fuel for its steamships.  They had had a contract with Durham for coal since the 1820s.  Following a race between two ships, it was found that Welsh coal gave a better performance.  The Admiralty issued an exclusive contract to buy coal from Bute and his income increased to £96000 per year.  The second Marquis built terraces of houses and leased out the whole of Cardiff.  His railway company, the Taff Vale Railway Company was the most profitable in the world.  He died in 1848 leaving a six month old son and the huge estate was administered on his behalf by trustees until he reached the age of 21.  Remarkably, the Bute estate now owned 3/5 of the land in both the Rhondda and Cynon valleys.  In 1851 Walter Coffey, a mineral surveyor, discovered the Rhondda main seam of steam coal and initially the coal mined was at Treherbert.  The Butes were not involved in sinking the mines or extracting the coal.  Instead, wisely, they settled on received royalties, set at 5 shillings per ton, plus wayleave charges for transporting the coal across their land, transporting it via their railway system and levying  taxes on its  shipping from Cardiff.  In the first three years this amounted to an average of 186000 tons. Incredibly, on the outbreak of Great War this had reached 2.7 million tons of steam coal which was used in every corner of the British Empire.   

By the time the third Marquis reached the age of 21 in 1869 and came into his inheritance he was said to be the richest man in the world.  In addition to his assets in Cardiff, including shops, pubs and houses, he owned 28000 houses in Rhondda Fawr which were leased out.  A scholarly man, he had very little interest in the modern world and had never had to think about how to increase his wealth.  At a time of significant change in Wales, he retreated into the past.  In the grounds of Cardiff Castle he demolished the Georgian mansion built by his father and commissioned William Burgess to build him a medieval fantasy castle.  Cardiff Castle was the first house to have electricity and inside toilets. He built Castle Mount Stewart House in Ayrshire for £600000.  Castell Coach was built as a present for his bride on their honeymoon, but he never actually stayed there.  He owned 7/8 of the land that Cardiff was built on and became its first Mayor when it was made a city. His unworldliness is exhibited in the fact that when Cardiff City Council wanted to enlarge the docks in the 1890s he turned them down .On his death in 1900,his two daughters were given £150000 each plus dowries of £25000.  The remainder of the estate was divided between his three sons.  The subsequent , 4th Marquis was not interested in commerce and It was his brother, Ninian, who took the reins and it was he who became the first sponsor of Cardiff City and its eponymous ground. He unfortunately died during World War One. 

Even during the depression of the 1930s the income of the Bute family was still £96000 per annum. During this time most of the houses in the Rhondda  had been sold off along with the land to the coal companies.  A short time after this, the land on which that the site of Cardiff was built was sold to the Council for £24.5m which unsurprisingly took until 1969 to pay off the debt .Once the core of the Cardiff estate was sold, interest in the other elements began to ebb.  In 1946, the last vestiges of the Taff Vale railway and Cardiff Docks were also sold.  Following the death of the 4th Marquis in 1947 the remaining parts of the Welsh estate were donated including Cardiff Castle, which was donated to the to the City of Cardiff.  In their usual crafty way, a subsequent codicil in the will meant that the family would be exempt of any death duties.  This symbolically ended the Bute family’s involvement in business which had made them the richest people in Britain. Although they were seen as poor landlords in times of hardship by their tenants ,the Bute family had been an essential element in the economic development of south east Wales and their epitaphs are writ large  in Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch and of course Cardiff Bay. 

Cathy Graham thanked Mr David for an extremely interesting talk. 

Report by Cathy Graham.