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Nottingham's Rock Cemetery is Filled with Mass Graves From the Spanish Flu

27 August 20 words: Jagoda Brown-Polanowska
photos: Nigel King

If you didn’t catch her article in our June issue, (Little Miss Lockdown, #126) Jagoda Brown-Polanowska explained what lockdown life was like through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl in Nottingham. Having recently turned twelve, Jagoda has continued to explore her local surroundings, making some interesting and timely discoveries at Rock Cemetery in the process…

Just around the corner from where I live there’s a Victorian cemetery that I’ve enjoyed visiting during lockdown. People call it Rock Cemetery, and during one of my walks I noticed that, in a far corner, there’s a large clearing. Looking a little bit closer, I noticed that there were lots of flat stones with engravings on them.

They were mass gravestones, each with twenty or more names and dates on them. Each stone had a specific year on it – 1918 or 1919, for example – noting the year that all of those buried in the mass grave died. With some help from my mum, I started doing some research as soon as I got home. I discovered that those graves were filled with the poor and working class people who died during the influenza pandemic – also known as the Spanish Flu – and that the engraved dates weren’t when the people died, but when they were all buried together.

I learned that, during the Spanish Flu, schools in Nottingham closed because there were not enough students attending. And, once the schools closed, the children were left without any form of education as, without computers or mobile phones, teachers had no way to keep in regular contact with their students. 

It wasn’t just the schools that closed either, as many of the factories in Nottingham shut down because their workers were too sick. Whereas there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the Spanish Flu pandemic and the current COVID crisis a century later, there was one major difference that I found interesting. It wasn’t the elderly that suffered the most from influenza, but rather the young and healthy 18-40 year olds, and it was almost always fatal. The young population found themselves far more susceptible owing to their immune systems overreacting to the virus – a young, fit body would naturally try to protect itself more than that of an older, less healthy person. 

The Spanish Flu pandemic attacked in three waves, starting in the Spring of 1918, as World War One was still being fought, and ending in April 1919. Sadly, there are no exact figures to say how people died, as the system of record keeping wasn’t as advanced as it is now.

The Spanish Flu pandemic attacked in three waves, starting in the Spring of 1918, as World War One was still being fought, and ending in April 1919

There are many theories about how the Spanish Flu came into existence, but the most commonly accepted is that during World War One, animals and humans were forced to live in close, extremely unhygienic conditions, causing the virus to pass from animal to human.

The symptoms were particularly unpleasant: once someone caught the Spanish Flu, they would turn a blue/purple colour, and their lungs would gradually fill with water, causing them to internally drown.

When the virus first appeared in April 1918, it was affecting members of the military. With World War I coming to an end in November that same year, many soldiers and sailors started to return to Britain, bringing the disease with them and unknowingly infecting the civilian population.

Despite its name, the Spanish Flu didn’t originate in Spain, but was called such because it was the Spanish press that first spread news of its existence. Unlike with COVID, there was no official lockdown of schools, factories and coal mines in Nottingham, but many were forced to make the decision to close themselves as so many people became ill. The mortality rate in Nottingham was amongst the highest in the country.

Walking around the cemetery I counted over one hundred graves, but there were many more that had been lost to time, overgrown with grass and foliage. While some graves had twenty or more names, there were some that had only five. There’s no birth date, personal information (other than a name), death date or further inscription for any of the people there, just the year that they were buried.

What was most striking about this pauper’s section within the prestigious Victorian Rock Cemetery was the fact that, just a few metres away, I found the grave of Watson Fothergill, one of Nottingham’s most famous and prestigious architects who designed many of the city’s most recognisable local landmarks, the neo-gothic styles of which you can still see dominating the city-scape.

Walking around Rock Cemetery made me realise that history has a way of repeating itself, and even though it’s a place that you might associate with sadness, you can still learn a lot by walking around. I’d highly recommend taking a visit during the current pandemic.

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