The latest scourge – a term used to describe the flu pandemic of 1918/19 when the country was already reeling from the devastating effects of the First World War. Theatres and music halls were a welcome escape for many of the population and the authorities saw them as a morale booster in difficult times. There was much debate as to whether music halls should remain open and which, if any, preventative measures should be taken. Local authorities took their own decisions. By October 1918 no regulations had been issued in Oxford as to the closing of places of amusement, even though influenza was rife. Audiences declined considerably and the military authorities placed music halls out of bounds for infantry cadets, although Royal Air Force cadets could still attend. In contrast, at the beginning of November 1918 the licensing committee in Birkenhead issued regulations covering the opening of music halls. The first performance was to take place between 6.30 and 8pm with the premises thoroughly ventilated until 8.45pm when the second performance began. Children under fourteen were not to be admitted under any circumstances and overcrowding should be avoided. Scrupulous cleanliness was expected.
In many areas the military of all ranks were forbidden to attend the halls which had a severe effect on their takings and led to calls for restrictions to be eased. Various medical experts shared their opinion that it was useless to close places of amusement while allowing travel on omnibuses and trains. Oswald Stoll, music hall manager, declared that the epidemic was much more likely the result of a diet lacking in fats and sugar than visits to the music hall. The London Palladium installed an ozone ventilating system and sprayed a strong germ killer all over the theatre between each performance. The Illustrated London News suggested there was no better preventative than a good sneezing fit once or twice a day and various manufacturers talked up the efficacy of their products.
Despite some measures to combat the virus it dealt a blow to performers as well as audiences with popular artists unable to perform. The trade papers sought to play down the seriousness of the outbreak but were reporting many stand-ins for advertised artists. Daisy Jerome, irreverent mimic and singer, cancelled her appearance at the Palladium after succumbing to influenza while coster act, Duncan and Godfrey, appeared at the Holborn Empire still suffering from the after effects of the illness. Anthony Burgess, the writer, tells us of his mother’s death from influenza in 1918 when he was two years old. He talks about her life in music halls and her marriage to his father, a pianist in the pit orchestra. I can find no other evidence of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson appearing on the halls and would be grateful for any information.
Music halls were perhaps more fortunate here than in the States, Canada and Australia where the halls closed for weeks at a time inflicting severe hardship on performers and venues. In her autobiography, Take it for a Fact, Ada Reeve talks of being hospitalised with flu in South Africa with theatres closed and the public warned not to go to places of amusement. All in all, many parallels with the current pandemic and then, as now the fervent wish was to get back to normal.
Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, thestage.co.uk, Take it for a Fact – Ada Reeve
Photograph of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson reproduced with kind permission of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation