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The Caldwell family, of Hampden, with William Stanley Caldwell top left. Photo: Supplied/Waitaki Archive 6342P

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 9000 people in New Zealand. At least 83 of those deaths were in what is now the Waitaki district. Around the country thousands of children lost a parent to the disease. Some regions were hit harder than others. Locally, Hampden was especially badly affected. Across New Zealand Māori had a death rate more than seven times that of Pākehā. Globally more than 50 million people died from this strain of influenza.

Our museum collection does not hold any objects with clear links to the pandemic. The archive collection has photographs of some of the victims, but the best source for understanding how the pandemic impacted locally is Papers Past. (If you haven’t used Papers Past before it is a website where you can view old New Zealand newspapers. You can search for particular words or phrases or browse a particular paper by date. If you have some spare time on your hands during lockdown you can easily spend hours on this site.)

Until this week I had not researched the influenza pandemic’s effect on our region before. Of course with the Covid-19 situation I became curious to understand how the Waitaki had responded to a similar emergency over a century ago. I had thought about researching the pandemic as part of my series of blogs on local World War 1 stories. But having vicariously gone through the First World War I felt I couldn’t face the flu pandemic as well, so I left it. Sadly, it is now topical.

Going through the old papers you get a sense of the pandemic gathering pace throughout October 1918. The frequency of brief articles on influenza outbreaks abroad increases. Reports from Australia, the USA, the UK and elsewhere describe interruptions to business. Then articles start to include the growing overseas death toll. Later cases begin to be reported in this country and by the end of October people were dying in New Zealand. The papers also reported that essential workers like nurses, doctors and tram staff are away from work in large numbers as they caught the virus.

The first case in North Otago was recorded on November 3, 1918. The papers document the public health measures being taken to fight the disease such as regular fumigation of the Oamaru Opera House. Children were encouraged to gargle with disinfectant in the belief this would prevent them getting sick. On November 14 the Oamaru Mail apologised for any “short comings or imperfections” in the newspaper as they were short on staff due to the illness. On that day schools in this region closed and race meetings were prohibited. Churches were asked to cancel Sunday services.

An editorial from the Oamaru Mail on November 15 seems very similar to some of the messages we are hearing today.

“Though some may suffer loss and others inconvenience, no reasonable person will cavil at the drastic action taken by the authorities to arrest in its earlier stages the development of the influenza epidemic in this district. At present the malady has only appeared here in its milder form, but, as elsewhere, it would most certainly have developed in intensity and deadliness if permitted unrestricted sway. To have deferred action until such a condition was reached would have been equally as foolish as locking the stable door after the steed had been stolen. The early action taken may, and we hope will, prevent such a calamity falling upon North Otago as has befallen other places. There are good grounds for entertaining that hope. The natural conditions are favorable, and whether the hope is realised or we are doomed to disappointment rests largely with the people themselves. There is really no occasion for alarm or panic. What is needed is that everyone will face the position boldly and determinedly obey the dictates of commonsense and observe the precautionary measures laid down by those who, from study and acquired knowledge, are in a position to speak with authority. What the whole people are called upon to do in their own personal interests and in the general welfare of the whole community entails no hardship and very little personal sacrifice.”

Familiar too are the notes to only send important mail, the closure of libraries, the cancellation of various meetings and the postponement of exams. The local community turned its attention to planning its response and organising volunteer efforts. Volunteers were especially needed to carry out domestic work in the houses of those sick with the illness. Without the benefit of electric appliances household chores were very labour intensive in 1918.

“In short, the assistance required is of the bucket and broom variety. Bending over the bed with a sweet smile is useless, and will but spread the disease, and beyond a cheerful word or two while rolling up her sleeves, the assistant should waste, no time, in the spectacular role of ministering angel.”

There are no reports of toilet paper hoarding (the toilet paper of the era was quite different to what we are now used to) but citrus fruit was in high demand leading to shortages. Prices rose and fruit sellers were accused of price gouging. Ultimately the government set a fixed price for lemons and oranges, which then upset the fruit retailers!

As with Covid-19 most people who caught the illness recovered, but for some it was fatal. Comparing the number of death notices for November 1917 to November 1918 in the Oamaru Mail it is clear there was an increase in deaths, though from the death notices alone you cannot be certain that those mentioned all died of the virus. Also some of the notices report those with local connections who succumbed to the disease but were living elsewhere.

One local victim was William Stanley Caldwell, pictured in this blog. He was born in 1894 to Margaret and James Caldwell, of Hampden. He died age 24 on November 7, 1918. He was married to Mary Caldwell, nee Stringer. The couple had two young children, who were both under 5 when their father died. Following his untimely death Mary remarried in 1921.

For New Zealand, the worst day for flu fatalities was November 23, 1918. In Oamaru one victim that sad day was 26-year-old Violet Sparks. Violet lived in Eden Street with her husband James, a grocer’s assistant. They had two young boys, one aged 3 and the other almost 5. On the second anniversary of her death a notice in the Oamaru Mail reads “Dearest Violet, how we miss you. But we can’t forget the past; You were always good and kind. And unselfish to the last.”

James Bennett was 41 years old when the influenza claimed his life in December 1918. He left a widow, Margaret, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ella. James had worked at Pukeuri freezing works. At the time of his death he was on leave so he could fully volunteer to help those affected by the epidemic. The local community mourned his death and celebrated him as a hero . People organised a memorial collection that raised the equivalent of around $25,000 today. Most of the funds were given to his widow and some was set aside for the granite headstone on his grave in Oamaru cemetery which reads “In memory of James Bennett died 13 Dec 1918 aged 41 years. Beloved husband of Margaret Bennett who lost his life in the service of others during the epidemic of 1918.”

The last death in our district was recorded on December 14. The news from around New Zealand appearing in local newspapers became more positive. The number of recorded cases was dropping and volunteer efforts were being wrapped up. Life began to return to normal for those who had not lost a loved one during this crisis. Community groups now met to consider how they could support those widowed and orphaned.

It can feel strange researching social history. I know that things like our response to the Covid-19 pandemic will one day become the topic of exhibitions, school visits, books and documentaries. I am hopeful that while this virus has caused such loss of life and suffering overseas that New Zealand may succeed in controlling and perhaps eliminating it. It will make for a less dramatic history lesson, but a much happier future for us all.

For a New Zealand wide account of the 1918 pandemic see here: www.nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/influenza-pandemic-1918 . The oral histories in the media section are particularly interesting.

  • Chloe Searle is the North Otago Museum curator of collections and exhibitions

This blog originally appeared on Culture Waitaki’s website and is republished here with permission.