Archive video reveals how city was hit by a flu epidemic in 1957 - 14 died, Sheffield Wednesday called off matches and workplaces and schools were affected

A BBC news archive film has highlighted a flu epidemic that hit Sheffield badly in the summer and autumn of 1957.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 7:00 am

The report on an Asian flu epidemic was broadcast on September 17, 1957.

Included in the footage is a statement from the unnamed director of the Public Health Laboratory in Sheffield as well as an interview with the Blackburn Medical Officer of Health, talking about the effect on schools, and one conducted with Colonel Wilson of the US Air Force, who spoke about mass vaccinations of troops.

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A US Air Force serviceman getting a flu jab during the 1957 film

The Sheffield official said the laboratory investigated infectious diseases and tests showed the flu was a type first reported in Asia: “Many of these cases have been quite mild, although there have been some that are quite severe.”

The flu epidemic had a big effect in Sheffield. James and Valerie Forde remembered when celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary in September 2017 that their marriage at St James’ Church, Norton almost didn’t go ahead as the bride and her mother Marjorie were ill, as well as the vicar, bell-ringers and members of the choir.

Tragically, James’ father Frederick was killed by the flu a few days before the ceremony.

Sheffield Wed­nesday had to cancel their opening two matches of the season again Manchester City and Newcastle United as 16 players had fallen ill.

The Sheffield NHS official speaking about the 1957 epidemic in the BBC film

The ground had to be closed and all staff were sent home.

Sheffield United’s youth squad was also affected.

By mid-September, press reports said that the flu had claimed 14 lives in Sheffield, including police officer Derek Wilkinson, aged 27.

Another victim was Sheffield Infirmary doctor Dorothy Williamson, who died in the hospital after being taken ill om her rounds. Like many others, she was killed by pneumonia complications to the flu.

Schools reported more than 11,700 absences in September. Postal deliveries were delayed and bus services cut by staff absences and 38 cases of pneumonia had been reported in the city, compared to the usual figure of 11.

On September 21, the South Yorkshire Times reported that Wortley Divisional Medical Officer of Health Dr J Main Russell told the rural council public health committee that there was "quite a lot of pneumonia about". One young woman in the district had died from this.

“It is all very well for people to say glibly that this 'flu is not serious, but only a mild form,” he said. “It may be mild, but there is a very real danger of it becoming pneumonia.

“This epidemic is something to worry about; we should take every precaution to keep ourselves fit and well and not go into crowded places unnecessarily.

“If people feel the slightest bit ill they should go to bed and let the doctor know. Don’t take risks.”

Dr Russell said National Health Insurance claims for sickness made in Chapeltown had risen to about 268 per cent above the average and in Stocksbridge by about 180 per cent.

“This is quite a toll on healthy people and a majority of the claims are due to 'flu,” he said.

More than 1,300 children were away from school in Ecclesfleld, High Green, Colley, Chapeltown and Hoyland, said Dr Russell.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor