Emile Benest

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Emile Benest
Victim of Spanish Flu in 1918


This article was first published in the Trinity Tattler, the parish magazine, in 2018. It was written by Fred Benest, following his research into the death of his grandfather during the pandemic

Emile’s wife, Hilda Grace Benest, née Dallain, with her 3 sons; Lyndon, Lawrie and Fred’s father, Herbert.

In July 1918 the first cases of Spanish flu were reported in the Island. On Monday 30 July the Evening Post informed its readers that the Constable of Trinity, Francis Jeune, “was unable to accompany the party attending the visit de branchage, being laid up in bed by that universal enemy of mankind the Spanish flu.”

11 Trinity deaths

The pandemic, which is estimated to have killed over 50 million people in the year between March 1918 and April 1919, the greatest plague in world history, did not leave the Island unscathed. St Helier was the worst affected with 169 deaths, and Trinity lost perhaps 11 of its parishioners.

At first death certificates referred sometimes to pneumonia and/or bronchitis, which were symptomatic of the virus, but as the flu took hold doctors often simply certified death as caused by la grippe - influenza.

The virus was especially deadly to young adults. Perhaps the first death recorded in Trinity was on 6 August 1918 of Emile Benest (39).

The deaths followed in October of Irene Gallichan (13), Marcel Gaubert (17), Mabel Le Marquand, née Le Maistre (39), Jean Rault (18), Josephine Rault (18 months), Lizzie Nakeham, née Laisney (29), and Madeleine Renouf (20); and a further six deaths in November of Lizzie Pallot, née Querée (26), Una Le Breton (1), Edgar Gibaut (17), Herbert Piquet (28), James Roche (43) and Antoine Davy (32).

In October, as the Island’s epidemic reached its height, schools, the Opera House and Wests Cinema were closed and people were advised against attending any public meetings.

On 25 October, the Island’s church services were suspended, and the General Hospital advertised for nursing volunteers.

Medicine collection points

Arrangements were made for medicines to be delivered to collection points outside St Helier — to Mr Cabot at Crown Stores in Trinity — but before the days of antibiotics these would have been of little help.

In November the States Sanitary Committee issued an order requiring all deaths to be reported immediately to the Constable of the parish, that all burials must take place within 48 hours, and the residence of the deceased be disinfected. By the end of November, the crisis appeared to have passed and no further deaths are recorded in Trinity.

A record of Emile Benest’s illness made by his widow affords a glimpse of the tragedy experienced by so many families at that time. A fit and healthy young farmer and father of three young boys, seemingly in the prime of life, he was making hay in vieillottes (haycocks), carting 100 boxes of Parisiennes (a variety of potato) and harrowing in the days before he complained of feeling unwell.

Medicine was fetched from Le Rossignol’s, the chemist in town, and the doctor who was called diagnosed pneumonia. Although Emile was unable to get up from his bed, the tragic outcome was not anticipated and a neighbour, Mrs Gibaut, gave some reassurance, finding him much better than her husband.

Two days after her visit Emile died in his wife Hilda’s arms with the words: “I hope the children will be obedient to you, and I love you” and wishing her goodbye three times.

Unknown to her family Hilda recorded in a little notebook in her neat handwriting an account of her husband’s fatal illness, which she kept in her dressing table until she died. Following the custom of those days she dressed in black throughout the 38 years of her widowhood.

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