In 1918 a new threat emerged. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed 20-40 million people worldwide; three times the number killed in fighting the war. In Europe, Spain was one of the first countries to be hit severely. Neutral Spain’s press was not censored, so its newspapers reported the epidemic freely. In consequence, the illness earned the name ‘Spanish flu’.
The first British city to be affected was Glasgow, in May 1918. Within weeks, infection had spread south, reaching London and Dublin by June. This first wave of the illness was not particularly threatening. The symptoms were debilitating, but – compared to what came later – relatively mild: lack of energy, aches, high temperature, sore throat, headache and loss of appetite. Most sufferers recovered within a few days.
The banks were not too worried. In the past four years, they’d got used to coping with staff shortages and finding ways to keep business running despite difficult circumstances. A few offices were temporarily short-handed – Ulster Bank’s main Dublin branch had 11 staff off sick on a single day in July 1918 – but they managed.
Frantic SOS calls to head office...Good news! Reserves are coming; reserves have arrived; reserves are infected. Collapse of reserves. No more reserves available.
Ulster Bank's staff magazine, October 1918
A second wave, much more severe than the first, arrived in October 1918. Many patients who became ill at this time developed severe complications, including lung infections and blood poisoning. Some turned purple or black, and many died within 24 hours. Healthy young adults were particularly vulnerable.
With so many people of working age struck down, businesses and other workplaces found it hard to keep going. In October and November 1918 our largest constituent, London County Westminster & Parr’s Bank, recorded over 370 cases among its staff of around 3,000. It even gave up recording the names of temporary clerks who fell sick, because the numbers were simply too high. At least four members of staff died: the managers of Walton and London Mincing Lane branches; a female clerk at Islington; and a boy clerk at Deptford.
Once again, Dublin suffered heavily. To help Ulster Bank cope with its staff shortages, former staff came back to lend a hand. One, Sammy McKee, had left the bank a decade earlier. He came back to work at Dublin branch on a Wednesday. He felt unwell on Friday; missed work on Saturday; and was dead by the following Thursday.
Bank workers were relatively lucky. People whose work involved moving around from place to place were more likely to be exposed, and those whose health was already compromised by difficult living conditions could suffer more severely. Both risk factors affected soldiers. At least six men from our banks died of influenza while on military service in October-November 1918. Another 16 died of pneumonia, a common flu complication, in the same period. More again died in the third wave of the pandemic, which struck in 1919.