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Access: Lest we forget: the influenza pandemic November 1918

13 Responses

  • Hilary Stace,

    Volunteer Wellington has just published a booklet about the Wellington volunteer response. Link to pdf on this page (scroll down)

    There has also been a project to find the stories of flu victims buried in Karori Cemetery

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • Bevan Shortridge,

    A few years ago my sister transcribed my great aunt’s diary for 1918. Aunty Rosa was 21 and staying with her parents in rural Northland while her husband was away at the war (they married in 1917 and he went overseas shortly after). As part of the diary she records some of the impact of the epidemic in the local area.

    Her father was a carpenter and builder and had the task of making more and more coffins during November. The names of several people who died are recorded in the diary as a new coffin was needed. She and others helped look after babies when the parents were taken ill and taken to the ‘Hall’ which acted as a hospital. Among the different details noted are, on 7 November, ‘No Akd mail as crew of Manaia bad with influenza’.

    Her diary is very sporadic in December 1918 after she too contracted the ‘flu. Her sister went to get a nurse ’who said I had the “flu” & had to stay in bed for 10 days & my temperature was up to 100’.

    The next day the nurse ‘came about 10.30; wouldn’t say what temperature I
    was & said I wasn’t to get out of bed on any account. Said I was getting on

    She did survive and was reunited with her husband. There must be a few diaries around the country that have such stories in them. I wonder if copies should be taken and deposited somewhere?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 122 posts Report

  • Ewan Morris,

    Thanks for this piece, Hilary. But did I miss what your connection was to the Samoan flu story?

    Since Nov 2006 • 48 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to Bevan Shortridge,

    Thanks for this. Yes I'm sure there are letters and diaries all over the place. But the flu hasn't had a fraction of the recent attention that the war has had so people might not realise the significance. 9000 deaths in a couple of months is pretty dramatic. InWellington they wrapped them in a sheet and put a name tag on the toe and the bodies would be transported to the cemetery for burial. Most families and communities would have known of people who died or survived. It would be great if they donated them to an archive or library.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to Ewan Morris,

    The baby on the Talune was at one time my mother-in-law, who died in 2000. She was a wonderful story teller. After they arrived in Wellington they lived in the Nairn Street Cottage museum with her father's family. Two adults and babies lived in that small front room.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • Andre,

    Volunteers like firefighters and Community Support members form much of the civil defence strategy around dealing with pandemics in NZ, but you wonder how this would work over a period of months instead of days or weeks when they would still have to pay the rent while looking after events like fires and MVAs as well.
    There should be no way to make it up with Samoa. Doing so, to an extent, must be one of Helen Clark's biggest legacies..

    New Zealand • Since May 2009 • 371 posts Report

  • Bob Williams,

    I've been very frustrated by the poor coverage of the flu epidemic of 1918. It was such a seminal event in many ways that it deserves much better coverage - as well as a timely reminder of what overuse of antibiotics could result in. There has been one play put on by the students at Vic but that's all I've seen. Hopefully someone will correct me since I've also been out of the country.

    Incidentally I don't buy the 'miasma' argument. The germ theory of epidemics replaced the miasma theory in the 1880's - getting on for half a century or so before the 1918 epidemic. I doubt by then it was even part of the popular imagination, but it would need a good delving into Papers Past to confirm that.

    Wellington • Since Apr 2007 • 13 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to Bob Williams,

    Yes, that's right, hardly any coverage.

    That play was good but was only on for a few days. Volunteer Wellington has put out a booklet and a team of volunteers has had two days of tours of the flu deaths in Karori Cemetery. There was a public talk to launch it at which Geoffrey Rice and Grant Robertson (as local MP) spoke. I think there is more information about the cemetery research on the website of the Karori Historical Society. The University of Otago in Wellington had a very interesting lecture on public health interventions in both the war and the epidemic. Geoffrey Rice has about three book versions of his flu research out and has just published a booklet of oral history accounts. Dr Ryan McLane gave a lecture at the National Library about the Talune and had a brief radio interview. There have also been a few media articles. But that is about it.

    I agree with you about the miasma theory. I thought that had long gone by then. But that is how I heard it described by other people who know about these things. But probably more accurate to describe the understanding as being caused by germs but not from other people. It wasn't considered a contagious illness (person to person) and that was why it took a while to be notifiable. In many communities isolation wasn't an initial response which added to its virulence.

    The first polio epidemic only happened in 1914 and it was an era when people were learning a lot about epidemiology. Many doctors went overseas to the war and became skilled in injuries and wounds but didn't have time to give attention to viruses.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • TracyMac,

    Interesting piece of history, thanks.

    Regarding the "miasma" stuff, I know if people in my grandparents' generation who muttered about "bad air" and so on. They certainly knew and believed in germ theory - scrubbing everything with boiling hot water and strong disinfectants was a feature of any illness.

    But folk theories can persist in parallel with scientific knowledge for a very long time. I wouldn't be surprised at all if people at the beginning of last century hedged their bets by considering both. And quite possibly, marginally-educated people would not be that aware of germ theory either.

    Canberra, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 701 posts Report

  • Craig Young,

    So where was the commemoration on our national media? Nothing on TVNZ, not even on Radio New Zealand, where one would expect it to be a focus of public broadcasting archival references.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 573 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to Craig Young,

    This is a mystery to me. A failed overseas war versus a massive tragedy at home? Perhaps we needed Peter Jackson to dramatise the epidemic before we recognise it as valid history. I would be interested whether any museum around the country has featured it. History is gendered and this largely involved women's work.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • mark taslov, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    On that note thank you for sharing all this Hilary – so much forgotten/erased history. I found this documentary pertaining to how Samoa was directly impacted by this contamination incredibly moving and educational, as you mentioned:

    Grief and anger towards New Zealand and its neglectful governance fostered the growth of the Mau independence movement and led to the 1929 Black Saturday deaths.

    Such avoidable loss of life:

    In November 1918, the Spanish flu strongly hit the territory. 90% of the 38,302 native inhabitants were infected and 20% died. The American Samoa population was largely spared this devastation, due to vigorous efforts of its Governor. This led to some Samoan citizens petitioning in January 1919 for transfer to U.S administration, or at least general British administration. The petition was recalled a few days later.

    Te Ika-a-Māui • Since Mar 2008 • 2281 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to mark taslov,

    Thanks Mark. Great documentary.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

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