Our Century

Flu brings chaos to the region

Bank Holiday
It's August Bank Holiday, 1961, and the crowds gather for the traditional fair on the common at Milford, near Stafford. Among the line up of cars a Ford Popular, a Ford Anglia and Austin Cambridge.

The Russians won the first stage of the space race when they got Yuri Gargarin into orbit but at ground level no advances in modern science could stem the spread of a massive flu bug.

It hit the West Midlands in the early months of 1961 bringing widespread misery and chaos.

In Wolverhampton some hospital operations had to be cancelled with staff themselves being hit by the virus.

Volunteer health visitors had to be enlisted and an appeal went out to health authorities in Birmingham to hold a nursing reserve in readiness to combat the epidemic.

New Cross Hospital suspended tonsillectomy operations and there were plans to outlaw daily visiting times and substitute twice weekly visiting instead.

Only emergency cases were being admitted to the town's other hospital, the Royal, while at Walsall both the Manor and General hospitals were hard hit.

Dr T Ross, Walsall's medical officer of health, said: "There is about four times the usual incidence of sickness in the town, which we suspect is due to flu, and about 1,000 people are affected."

District nurses, midwives and ambulance drivers had gone down with the virus, he added.

And he appealed to the public not to make unnecessary calls to these services.

TrampThis award winning study of the Black Country's violin-playing tramp Harold Thompson is a classic image of the region. It was taken in 1961 by the late Express & Star photographer Peter Garland. The picture was back in the news more than 30 years later as the cover image for a best-selling book on old photographs. Thompson was a former member of the Brierley Hill Orchestra. He tramped around the Brierley Hill area for nearly 40 years.

Deadly cargo: Three tubes of deadly cyanide were found on a tip at Wombourne after a woman mislaid them on a corporation bus.

An intensive search was mounted throughout August 4 for the tubes which were lost that morning somewhere between Bantock Park, Wolverhampton, and Pendeford Nurseries.It ended some hours later when the tubes - wrapped in newspaper - were found on the refuse tip.

It appeared the tubes had fallen from the back of a scooter driven by a parks department employee.

The white powdered poison - so deadly that even its fumes could kill - was to gave been used to kill insects and weeds

It was thought the tubes were picked up by a woman who was never named who was seen with them boarding a bus at the Claregate garage in Tettenhall.

They were then found discarded at a bus stop and flung on to a dustcart by a refuse collector from which point they made their way to the tip.

Noele GordonNot yet - Noele: It was to be some three years before Crossroads was to catapult her to national fame in the role of Meg Richardson but Noele Gordon was already well-known to Midland viewers through ATY's popular Lunch Box.

Questions about her marital status were always a feature of any interview she gave and a 1961 profile in the Express & Star proved no exception.

"I suppose you could say I'm just not the marrying kind," she replied in answer to the inevitable question.

"The last time I was proposed to was at midnight in Times Square. He was a Hollywood producer.

"I think I may marry late in life but I believe that in marriage the man should be the important partner and that's not easy when the woman is in entertainment. Besides I enjoy my freedom."

At the time of the interview Noele shared a home with her mother in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, and also had a weekend flat in London.

Not getting to know you: A booklet based on a popular number from the musical The King and I caused a mass factory walkout in what was a grim era for industrial relations.

Wolverhampton shop steward Sid Lampitt tore up his firm's "Getting To Know You" booklet, the firm supended him - and 700 workers at Fafnir Bearings in Upper Villiers Street came out on strike in protest.

Sid, of Thornton Road, Wolverhampton, said: "I did it because I already had a copy and I didn't want to clutter up the house with it."

"Anyway I don't think much of it," he added.

But in a statement the firm declared: "The action was entirely irresponsible and not calculated to foster good relations between management and workers."

Jane Reynolds
...It all started in Smethwick... about as far from the sea as you can get...