How the Echo helped diphtheria sufferers during Sunderland outbreak

Have your say

A FORMER shipyard worker today revealed how the Echo played a vital role when a deadly disease swept Sunderland during World War Two.

Thousands of people were struck down by diphtheria across Britain between 1941 and 1942, with one person dying every three hours and a child being hospitalised every 20 minutes.

I still remember my parents coming to see me. We could only talk through some big iron gates and, of course, we were not allowed to touch. It was tough, as I really missed them

Alan Winter, a pupil at Deptford Terrace, was just 11 when he fell ill. He spent several weeks at Havelock Hospital - with his condition monitored by his parents via the Echo.

“People with diphtheria were kept isolated,” he recalls. “My parents weren’t allowed to visit me at all, and the only way they could check up on how I was doing was through the paper.

“The parents of every child were given a number and, each night, the Echo would print a condition next to each number – anything from seriously ill, to very poorly or progressing.

“I don’t know if anyone realises today just what an important role the Echo played during that epidemic. Without the paper, the parents would never have known how their children were.”

Alan, son of shipyard worker, musician and choir master William Winter and his wife Ethel Mary, was born at Rosanna Street, Deptford, in 1929 - the second of three children.

At the age of 11 he left St Andrew’s Church School for Deptford Terrace but, within just a few weeks, he started to feel unwell - with an “awful” headache and lumpy sore throat.

“I remember sitting in class, surrounded by 40-odd kids, and feeling ill,” said Alan, who now lives in Darlington. “Everyone was going down with diphtheria at the time; it was rife.

“When I got back home, my parents pretty much knew what was wrong - but they called for Dr Posner, who had a surgery in Hylton Road. He diagnosed my diphtheria straight away.

“I can swallow now and still feel that ache and lump in the back of my throat - that’s how ill I felt. It was a horrible sickness and, sadly, a disease which left quite a few dead.”

Alan was immediately admitted to Havelock Isolation Hospital in Hylton Road, where he slept in a dormitory ward - and found himself surrounded by other children with diphtheria.

His home, he believes, was fumigated by the council after his departure. Luckily, neither his older brother Ronald, then aged 13, nor his six-year-old sister Edith caught the illness.

“I wasn’t allowed to see anyone while I was in hospital,” said Alan. “We were kept isolated from the outside world, and locked up in our wards for the most part while still infectious.

“I remember there were lots of children there, from places like Ford Estate, Pallion, Hendon and Deptford. Many were very homesick and there were always people crying in corners.

“It was a very spartan place, filled with iron beds all close together. At least once we were feeling better we were allowed to play outside, as fresh air was part of our treatment.” Alan spent several weeks at Havelock, before being transferred to a convalescence home at either Cleadon or Whitburn. Finally, he was allowed to see his parents - but not touch them.

“Before you could be discharged from hospital you had to reach three points of “Being Well”. I kept getting just under, so was sent to the convalescence home for a while,” he said.

“I still remember my parents coming to see me. We could only talk through some big iron gates and, of course, we were not allowed to touch. It was tough, as I really missed them.

“Strangely, when I later met my wife-to-be, Rita, we discovered we had been at Havelock Hospital at the same time with diphtheria - although we never knew each other back then.”

Once Alan was allowed home, he completed his education at Deptford Terrace and worked for Associated Grocers before taking up a tinsmith apprenticeship at Doxford’s shipyard.

He later worked for Coles Cranes and the Gas Board, before taking early retirement, but he has never forgotten his battle against diphtheria - or the Echo’s helpful role in the saga.

“It was a worrying time for the parents of any child with diphtheria but, thanks to the Echo, they could keep up-to-date with the condition and progress of all those in hospital,” he said.

“I know that every night my mam and dad would buy the Echo to check my progress. The paper played a unique role as a go-between for the hospitals and parents.”

l Do you have memories to share? Email