May 8, 2020 12.19 pm This story is over

Andrew Jackson: Hospitalisation, isolation and superstition across decades of pandemics

Rainbows have come to represent something special

Many rainbows have cast their magic spells over the last couple of months. They are to be found all across the city still, in windows, on bricks and across pavements. Most are fading now, as the late Spring sun gets hotter and brighter, and stands longer in the sky. But they continue to hold themselves up, as a bold reminder to us to stay at home, and as a colourful appeal to us to protect our NHS.

Tragedy and suffering have been brought into most homes, through listening to the news at least, or for some in person. However, local and national hospitals have not been overwhelmed and far fewer have been hospitalised, as once so feared.

Our Lincolnshire hospitals have a long history, and have found themselves facing flu pandemics, outbreaks of acute diseases, and other public health crises in the past. For some of us, this will be in living memory still. Very few now will recall directly the ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic that struck down so many people in 1918, locally, nationally and around the world. More, though, will recall a time when serious respiratory and contagious diseases were a greater cause for scare and worry than they are today, and being placed into isolation was a more common and essential course of action.

My fellow local historian, Maureen Sutton, remembers the Polio epidemic in Lincoln in the early 1950s, and her brother being sent to St George’s Hospital on Lower Long Leys Road for a number of weeks. Maureen, meanwhile, was put under ‘lockdown’ orders at home, as she finds herself again today. For that long summer of her childhood, some seven decades ago, she was not allowed to mix with other children throughout the school holidays, and so spent long frustrating periods in the back garden.

St George’s in those days was always referred to as ‘Over the common’, rather than by its formal title, for the building served as an isolation hospital. It was a place from which many patients did not come home, and being sent there became something of a taboo. People dreaded it during the Polio epidemic, because of the fear of being put onto a form of ventilator machine to help you to breathe. It was called ‘the iron lung’ then, and looked rather like an incubation unit. Parents could only look at their children through a closed window. ‘It is strange how history repeats itself’, Maureen remarks.

In more recent decades, Maureen became a local historian, capturing other people’s memories in her book ‘We Didn’t Know Owt’. One of these was of a young girl who contracted diptheria in the early years of the twentieth century. Like Maureen’s brother, she was sent ‘over the common’. The girl recalls ‘the window’ as well, which was as far as parents were allowed to come, and through which they could only stare. The girl’s recollection also includes her mother wearing a green coat on one occasion. However, a nurse told her that her daughter would not get better if she wore that colour.  For some, it remained a superstition that the wearing of green brought bad luck. ‘Me mam got rid on it’, the girl remembered, and she recovered and went onto enjoy a long life.

As for the colours of the rainbow, including green, it will be a little sad to see them taken down and scrubbed out. They have come to represent something special in terms of community unity and effort. When they do disappear finally, that event should be a reassuring sign of safer, more familiar and cheerier days ahead. Some of the rainbows will remain treasured by those who made them, and find their way into memory boxes and family albums. We can only hope that the slow easing of the lockdown, when the time comes, will be managed in such a way that those rainbows will not have to be brought out again.

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Dr Andrew Jackson is the Head of the School of Humanities. Andrew is a historian with current research interests that include twentieth-century urban and rural change, and local and regional history. He also engages in consultancy and project work relating to community history and heritage, digitisation and e-learning. Andrew joined the staff of Bishop Grosseteste University in 2007, following ten years at the University of Exeter.