From the Archives

Royal Roehampton Club connection at the time of the 1918 global flu pandemic

Just over a 100 years ago, the world was affected by an epidemic generally referred to at the time as the Spanish Flu although its origins are still the subject of historical research to this day but have certainly established that Spain was not the primary source of the contagion. The naming of the disease had come about as a direct result of the censorship during the First World War when both sides of the conflict were severely affected by the spread of the virus with neither side wishing to let it be known how badly they were both being affected by an invisible enemy. Spain had taken a neutral stance in the Great War allowing the reporting of the flu epidemic in their own country without restrictions, so it was no surprise to find that the English speaking newspapers picked up on the story of how this crippling epidemic had affected the country of Spain with banner headlines calling it ‘The Spanish Flu’.

One of the biggest headline stories at this time which reinforced the naming of the epidemic was the news that the King of Spain had contracted the virus. King Alfonso XIII of Spain had featured regularly in the British newspapers from the turn of the 20th century with reports of his visits to London in 1905 and 1906 and his regular appearances at the Cowes Sailing Regatta on the Isle of Wight also in 1906 and again in August 1910 when he stayed at Osborne Cottage, home of Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice before walking through the High Street at Cowes to the Royal Yacht Squadron where he watched the racing from the squadron’s balcony. The King was also well known at Roehampton Club having met the Miller Brothers in 1907 when the King expressed his interest in learning the game of polo prompting George Miller to travel to Spain for this purpose. His interest in the game and his gratitude towards Roehampton Club was emphasised in the King’s decision to pay for a special grandstand for the use of his guests and entourage constructed on the roof of the existing pavilion. In 1910, the newspapers reported the King’s involvement in a polo match playing with and against Roehampton Club Members, the Miller brothers and the Nickalls brothers in which the King was ‘hustled and ridden off like any other player would have been’. Another report in the same year, wrote about the popularity of the ‘Boy-King of Europe for he was actually born a King, his father having died before his birth’.

The report went on to talk about the romance of his pursuit of the English Lady, Princess Victoria Eugenia of Battenburg, youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria, known as Princess Ena and the dastardly attempt on both their lives on their wedding day in Madrid when a bomb concealed in a bouquet was thrown in their direction by an assassin. The article concludes with a warm tribute from the journalist about the King calling him kind-hearted, a good sportsman, democratic in his ideas and devoted to England and the English. Another newspaper report talks about the political and dynastic importance of the marriage strengthening the bonds between two ancient Royal Houses.

Looking back at the newspaper restrictions at the time, it was understandable for the media to play on the neutrality of another country to report the pandemic in the way that it did. The King of Spain survived the flu but the misnomer in describing the epidemic lives on to this day. One of the consequences of the tragic loss of life from 100 years ago was the formation of the Ministry of Health learning lessons from the past and developing a better understanding how best to save lives. Best wishes to all Members of the Club for a safe and healthy journey through this difficult time.

Steve Riedlinger | Club Archivist