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A Silent and Deadly Killer

1918 Influenza Pandemic

by Dr Michelle Ann Smith

As World War I came to an end, a silent and deadly killer swept across the world, leaving in its wake mass devastation. This virulent assassin took a life within a matter of days, even hours. Beginning with sudden flu-like symptoms, and rapidly transforming into pneumonia, individuals literally “drowned” in the fluid which accumulated in their lungs, and their body took on a black/purple hue. Bouts of ‘flu’ hit most winters, some more severe than others, but people survived and the inconvenience passed. Influenza hit New Zealand shores, in October 1918, killing approximately 8000 people in less than two months.1 Official response to the epidemic was slow – it was not until 6th November that the disease was gazetted as highly infectious and potentially dangerous. Only then were emergency measures authorised, including the distribution of free medicine.2 For some, it was too late.

Dances, church services, public meetings and social gatherings were cancelled to prevent the spread of disease. Bars and picture theatres were closed.3 People blamed the troubles on the inherent corruption of individuals. Temperance movements were outraged at the use of alcohol to help with the flu’s effects. However, it ‘delighted the drinking fraternity.’4 Cinema proprietors blamed the closures on public prejudice, as their premises were viewed as hotbeds of immoral behaviour.5

Fumigation points were set up at railway stations in an attempt to stop germs spreading. Families burned sulphur to fumigate their homes. A call for lemons went out – their medicinal properties seen as vitally important in combating the rampaging illness. Patients were advised to keep windows open to keep their homes well ventilated, and to sit in the sunshine, thus avoiding the fetid air of the sick room. Mothers were to ‘abstain from kissing their children,’ and cases of influenza were to be isolated immediately with one person per room where possible. Convalescents were not to return to duty too quickly, and had to watch for ‘cough, phlegm, or a pain in the side.’6

Papakura’s response was rapid. Most of the town shut down with storekeepers, such as saddler Edward Cole, pitching in to help.7 Martha Johnson, assisted by her sister Beulah, turned her Broadway tearooms into a soup kitchen. Rev Wood and Mrs Baker helped organise the admission of patients from Drury, Hunua, Clevedon and Manurewa into the hospitals at Papakura. Mr Campbell conveyed patients to the hospitals, assisted by Wilson, the blacksmith, boys.8 Many locals ‘generously provided food, fruit and ... delicacies for... the sick and financial assistance for the needy.’9

Dr Brookfield was the town’s only doctor and he was pushed to his limits. When he could not personally attend to everyone, he dispensed the medicines required, and left families to administer it to the sick.

Central School, the Parish Hall, and the Methodist Sunday School were turned into make-shift hospitals. Some patients went to Mrs Watson’s boarding house, or Rita Swindale’s home in King Edward Ave. A number of convalescing children were sent up Red Hill to the Shepherd’s large homestead. The Masonic Hall was converted into a nurses’ home, an emergency services office was set up in Broadway, and the band shed became the local morgue.10 Some bodies were taken to the railway station where a special night train took them to Waikumete cemetery.11

The Papakura Town Board praised the many locals who had joined together in ‘combating the scourge’. Dr Brookfield had tirelessly attended the sick, night and day; Rev Wood and Mr Webb helped equip and fit-out the hospital; and Messrs Campbell, ‘Cole, Corrie, Bullen and McVeigh tirelessly worked on behalf of the sufferers. The ‘skillful services of Sister Froude and her assistants, paid and unpaid,’ and their ‘unselfish and self-sacrificing devotion to the duty of caring for the sick’ was particularly appreciated, and also commented upon by the Pukekohe & Waiuku Times (PWT).12

By November 14th Papakura had had seventy-one admissions to its hospitals. Twenty-seven had been discharged, twelve had died, two had been transferred to Auckland Hospital, but a number were still ‘dangerously ill.’ Twenty-seven were from the Town District.13

Newspaper reports claimed the epidemic was abating, yet on 22nd November there were forty-nine patients across the three hospitals, although few were new cases.14 By 5th December thirty-three patients were still at the school hospital. Two cases were very serious. Fourteen were voluntary workers.15 This was in stark contrast to Pukekohe which remained relatively immune to the epidemic.16

Up until 5th November newspaper articles showed life carrying on as normal. Alongside advertisements for flu cures, upcoming meetings, stock sales, and details about recent weddings, the PWT noted that Papakura and Otahuhu schools had been closed for a week due to a severe ‘influenza outbreak’. Approximately 70 pupils at Papakura and 160 at Otahuhu were ‘laid low.’ Students at Pukekohe public school were still attending their lessons, having been unaffected by the disease. However, on 7th November the Auckland Education Board ordered ‘all schools throughout the district’ to close ‘until further notice.’17 Peace celebrations, marking the end of the war, were postponed by the Papakura Town Board. Likewise, the opening of the new Drury railway station not only due to lack of staff, but the fear a congregation of people would spread the disease.18 However, the November meeting of the Manukau County Council went ahead.19 A belief the disease would dissipate relatively quickly meant planning/attending some events continued as usual.

The medical profession and volunteers were those most at most risk. Twenty-five Papakura ladies voluntarily undertook nursing duties with Nurse Glasson (Karaka), in charge.20 Charlotte Johnson, the constable’s wife, offered her services and attended the Craies/Crails family.21 It was not long before she contracted the disease and died at Auckland Hospital. Elizabeth Paton and Dorice Whittingham offered their ‘services at a period when it was extremely hard to obtain skilfull assistance’.22 Elizabeth died on 7th and Dorice on 8th December. Ironically, the temporary hospitals they had worked in closed only a few days later.23

Overall, a significant number of residents in the wider district died, although many who got sick did recover often only to mourn the loss of loved ones. Those who had family members in other parts of the country, or overseas, did not escape the torment of the disease – few families were left untouched by the epidemic.24 There was no set pattern to the disease – some places escaped virtually unscathed while neighbouring towns suffered significant mortality.25

Papakura was one of the worst affected towns in New Zealand, with a death rate of 23.1 per thousand people – the national rate was 5.8. Pukekohe and Waiuku had comparatively mild visitations, but the disease was prevalent at Tuakau and Mercer.26 Maori, in particular, were severely affected, but their deaths are under-reported. The Maori settlements at Tuakau and Waiuku experienced a significant number of deaths.27 The epidemic at Papakura showed men were ‘both more numerously and more seriously affected than women.’ This followed the overall pattern of the disease.

It also appeared that more patients were from the countryside than the town. Nothing had ever been seen like this – the healthy were struck down, not the sick or vulnerable.28 For a small town the loss on top of that sustained during the war was devastating.

The epidemic had other consequences. Shopkeepers and farmers were economically affected. Justice came to a standstill as did the postal service. Every aspect of public and business life was affected by the epidemic. The impact was significant for each organisation/industry, and the public it served.29

By Christmas the temporary hospitals in the district closed as the epidemic abated.30 Slowly life began to return to something akin to normality – meetings were held, court dates set, and businesses re-opened. However, for some, the physical effects of the flu lingered.31 People were relieved the worst was over, but angry with the public health department and the medical profession.32

The 1918 Influenza Epidemic caused much suffering and sorrow on top of the mass loss from war. While a ‘clean up’ of governmental and medical systems resulted, there was also further oppression of women and the lower classes. Working-class women were seen as bad housekeepers and held responsible for the conditions in which disease festered. The importance of a healthy home life, the role of women in society, and changing attitudes towards death resulted from the epidemic experience; a pattern of beliefs that lasted for years to come.[^33] The epidemic and its ferocity, the speed with which is caused so many deaths and its aftermath shaped our people, our district, and shaped our country.

  1. A first wave of influenza did arrive in New Zealand between July and September 1918 but it was mild with few deaths. While many people recovered, millions died worldwide. Historian, Geoffrey Rice believes the figure is 8000 – nearly half the number of NZ Soldiers who died in four years of war. See: Black November: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New Zealand, 2nd edition, Christchurch, 2005, pp. 17-20, 54. 

  2. This was three weeks after the first cases arrived in Auckland, and about a week after ‘a severe wave of the flu pandemic burst upon the city.’ Rice, p. 19. For a comprehensive discussion of the causes, responses and devastation, see: Rice; New Zealand Gazette, 1918, pp. 36933694; ‘The Influenza Outbreak’, Pukekohe and Waiuku Times, (PWT), 8 November 1918. 

  3. Rice, pp. 85-86. Interestingly, the Drury and Patumahoe hotels initially fell outside of the Auckland Health District jurisdiction and were exempt from closing. However, a new order that extended the closure to ALL hotels within the district which meant they now had to close. PWT, 22 November 1918. 

  4. Rice, p. 72. In March 1919 the merits of alcohol in treating influenza were discussed at the Influenza Epidemic Commission in Wellington. The chief health officer was certainly a proponent, stating ‘I am certainly of the opinion from what I saw of the recent epidemic that alcohol should be made available.’ PWT, 14 March 1919. 

  5. Rice, pp. 85-86. 

  6. PWT, 1 November 1918; 5 November 1918; 26 November 1918. 

  7. Cole’s actions were made all the more tragic when his 14year old daughter, Rhoda died of influenza on 4th December. 

  8. PWT, 15 November 1918. The Wilson girls helped with nursing and cleaning basins. 

  9. Papakura Town Board Minutes, 14 November 1918, vol 2 1917-1921, p. 127. 

  10. PWT, 12 November 1918; 19 November 1918; 26 November 1918; New Zealand Herald (NZH), 25 November 1918; 5 December 1918; Auckland Star, 5 December 1918. Rita Swindale’s epidemic experience saw her train as a nurse. 

  11. NZH 5 December 1918. Many victims from Papakura and Franklin were buried locally, although some were taken to Waikumete. During November 1918 there were 496 burials of influenza victims at Waikumete cemetery. 

  12. PTB Minutes, pp. 126-129; PWT, 15 November 1918. 

  13. NZH, 15 November 1918. PTB Minutes, pp. 126-129. Thirty were from Franklin County Council District, one from Manurewa Town District, and thirteen were from the Manukau County Council District. Thirty-seven were male and thirty-four were female. 

  14. PWT, 15 November 1918; 22 November 1918. There were still 40 patients at Papakura at the end of November. 

  15. PWT, 12 November 1918; 19 November 1918; 26 November 1918; NZH, 25 November 1918; 5 December 1918; Auckland Star, 5 December 1918. 

  16. PWT, 19 November 1918; 29 November 1918. Temporary schools had been set up at Pukekohe (School), Waiuku (Town Hall) and Tuakau (Church). The PWT reported on 19th November that there had only been three deaths at Pukekohe and on 29th November reported only twenty-two patients at Pukekohe, half of whom were from Bombay. 

  17. PWT 5 November 1918; 8 November 1918. For some school children, the end of their schooling occurred much sooner than anticipated; for others they left school later than they would have done normally for their age. 

  18. PTB Minutes, pp. 124-125; PWT, 22 November 1918. 

  19. PWT, 22 November 1918. 

  20. PWT, 19 November 1918. 

  21. James Craies died on 7 November at Auckland Hospital leaving a wife and five children behind. He was 37 and originally from Invercargill. He had lived in Pukekohe before his railway job brought him to Papakura. PWT, 12 November 1918; 19 November 1918. 

  22. PTB Minutes, 14 Nov 1918, p. 128. 

  23. Dorice was 22 and had been married to Alexander Whittingham for less than two years. Elizabeth was 57 and left behind a husband and eight children. 

  24. Martha Brooks of Drury lost her second son to the disease. Joseph Brooks was living in Christchurch with his wife when he died on November 27th at the age of 44. NZH, 13 December 1918. 

  25. Rice, p. 19. 

  26. Rice, pp. 284-286; PWT 19 November 1918. Pukekohe’s death rate was 8.4; Tuakau was 17.5; Waikuku was 8.2 and Franklin County was 4.4. 

  27. Rice, pp.17-18. Rice believes Maori statistics can be put at approximately 2160 deaths throughout NZ. PWT, 22 November 1918; 26 November 1918. Of cultural significance, Maori were to bury their dead immediately therefore prohibiting them from having a tangi. Travel by rail, steamer or other vehicles to the tangi was disallowed, and those already assembled at a tangi were ordered to ‘return to their own homes’ immediately. PWT, 19 November 1918. See Rice for a more in-depth discussion of the effects on Maori, pp. 159-183. 

  28. More men than women died and the average age was between 25 and 45 years of age. See: Rice, p.18. 

  29. PWT, 29 November 1918; 20 December 1918. 

  30. PWT 20 December 1918. Interestingly, it appears from newspaper reports that the disease abated quicker in the city than in the country districts. NZH, 4 December 1918. Pukekohe shut on 19th December and Waiuku on 23rd. 

  31. PWT, 31 January 1919. Some people had recurring pneumonic trouble. 

  32. Rice, p. 89. See Rice for a more in-depth discussion of this. 33. L. Bryder, ‘Lessons of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Auckland,’ New Zealand Journal of History, 16, 2, 1982, pp. 98, 110-111. 

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