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Black November - Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918


Flu epidemic, (c. 1920s), photograph Courtesy of Dublin Heritage Park and Museums


IN NOVEMBER Kiwis everywhere will mark one hundred years since the end of the 1914-18 war, the Great War, the War to End all Wars, and the war that gave birth to the ANZAC legend. But few of us know that while November 1918 saw the end of the monstrous slaughter in Europe, it also marked the beginning of a nightmare right here on our own shores, one that in just two short weeks would claim more than three times the number of Kiwis who died in the entire nine months of the Gallipoli campaign.

From Kaitaia to Invercargill, 9,000 people – young and old, but mostly fit and healthy – died from what would become popularly known as the Spanish Influenza, or to give it its correct (though admittedly less snappy) title the 1918 H1N1 Virus Pandemic. It struck with alarming speed, and it literally decimated some towns, but it also saw communities pull together like never before in lamp-lit sick rooms and isolated homesteads across the country. And the Bay of Plenty was not immune.

MOST HISTORIANS now agree that the origins of the disease that would kill 50 million people – more than double the number of those killed in the 1914- 18 conflict – can be traced not to Spain, but the United States. In early 1918, Haskell County in Kansas witnessed a flurry of unusually severe influenza cases that seemed to strike the fit and healthy rather than the old and infirm. It is now believed that the virus ‘jumped’ from animals to humans – much like the bird flu scare of more recent history – and that part of Kansas had plenty of pigs and poultry wandering around to facilitate a jump. Whatever the source, by March the influenza had claimed 48 lives at the nearby military barracks of Camp Funston, and as troops from there went on leave or were transferred outbreaks were reported across the Midwest. Soon a thousand workers were off sick at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, with Chicago and California reporting cases in late March. By April, as American reinforcements arrived in Europe, cases were reported near the huge transit camps at Brest and Bordeaux. And suddenly Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

I had a little bird, Its name was Enza, I opened the window, And in-flew-enza.
Interior of the old Kansas Building at Camp Funston during the height of the epidemic.

Once the virus made it to Europe, it ran wild in the closing, claustrophobic stages of the war. Dirty, cramped conditions, with weakened and poorly fed men moving across the continent offered the perfect breeding ground for H1N1. By May, the British army had 36,000 hospital cases, by early June the French army had over 100,000, and by July it had spread to the civilian populations not just in Europe but in the United Kingdom. At the same time, outbreaks were reported in Japan following the return of naval units from San Diego, in India following shipping arriving from the Suez Canal, and also at the Chinese port of Shanghai. South Africa, Sydney and New Zealand saw their first cases in September.

What no one knew was that this global outbreak was a relatively benign first wave of the virus; deaths from this wave were few and far between, most sufferers recovered, and the authorities, who believed they had contained the virus, went back to the important task of rebuilding the post-war world and returning millions of young soldiers to their homes. Unfortunately, those soldiers carried with them more than wounds and war stories. Within a few short weeks, a different, deadlier strain of the virus suddenly appeared in both the northern and southern hemispheres and spread like wildfire. This time, many victims would not recover.

ON NOVEMBER 4, the new and virulent wave of influenza claimed its first lives in New Zealand, in locations as widespread as Whangarei, Gisborne, Napier, Dunedin and Hokitika. A week later it arrived in the Bay. On 13 November fatalities occurred in Tauranga, Whakatāne and Rotorua, and Ōpōtiki would see its first death just two days later; by that time the whole country was aware that something extraordinary was happening.

On 11 November the Mayor of Tauranga, heeding a governmental warning, had ordered the closure of all ‘picture entertainments and billiard saloons,’ and on the same day ten staff of the Tauranga post office reported sick. Three days later, hotel bars in Rotorua and within five miles of the town centre were ordered to close to avoid people congregating and spreading the disease, and as the scope of the calamity rose some areas began to enforce quarantines. The Coromandel cut itself off entirely, and in Te Urewera a Constable Andy Grant of Te Whaiti imposed a strict ban on travel into the valley; his actions probably saved dozens as no cases were to be reported in. Travellers were not really welcome at any rate, and certainly not strangers seeking lodgings. Schools and businesses closed and streets emptied as people stayed home to care for – or avoid – the sick.

In an attempt to arrest the spread of infection during the influenza epidemic, people attended public inhalation chambers to have their throats sprayed, 1918.
Outside ‘Hospital Hall’ situated in Macmillan St, Katikati. It was the old Katikati Settlers’ Hall and was turned into a hospital in order to cope with the influx of patients during the pandemic, 1918. 
Ref: Bay of Plenty Deaths 1875-1920: P-S

Regional ‘bureaus’ were established by order of central government to organize a response, but with so much manpower still serving overseas many of these turned to volunteers to tend the sick. One such bureau was established at Tauranga Hospital and tents were erected in the grounds to accommodate the extra nurses and volunteers who answered the call. The ‘nightsoil contractor’, a Mr A Stewart, made his own – no doubt greatly appreciated – contribution by arranging to make two collections per night instead of one, ‘without extra charge.’

But while the likes of Tauranga and Rotorua marshaled their resources, smaller outlying settlements hunkered down. Reports arrived of 21 deaths in little Matatā, over one hundred in Ōpōtiki, and even more in Whakatāne. These were huge numbers for the populations at that time, and slowly, but surely, these rural societies were shutting down.

One of the main reasons for this was that this new strain struck the fit and healthy, not the ill and elderly, and it struck fast. In Te Puke the average age of victims was 27, with some reporting their first feelings of unease in the morning and being dead by nightfall; others battled on for days, requiring constant care from friends, family and often strangers who risked their own lives to save others.

In many cases they gave their lives to save others. In Whakatāne, Rongo Nuku, prominent rugby player and local County Councillor, tirelessly nursed the sick throughout November, only to succumb himself, one of the last influenza deaths in the district in early December. In the tiny settlement of Waimana, 30km south of Whakatāne, there were no trained doctors or nurses so local women set up an improvised hospital in the private home of a Mr Wardlaw and made do as best they could. When a medical student from the Western Bay finally made it through to Waimana he was astounded that this ‘band of willing though untrained women’ had been treating up to 30 patients a day and had lost only one.

Katikati also had a makeshift hospital, at the Orange Hall in Macmillan Street, but it had a trained nurse in the form of one Mrs Baines. She had a sheet hung across the Hall to create ‘two wards’ and organized donations of beds and furniture to make the sick more comfortable. She saved many lives, but greatly perturbed one elderly gentleman who arrived very sick, barely conscious and without ‘nightwear’. He was put into a woman’s frilly nightgown as there were no men’s nightshirts, and when he recovered and gained consciousness his first exclamation was not one of thanks but, “What the hell is this bloody thing doing on me?”

Many people helped in other ways, pitching in to do milking or housework for families laid low by the influenza, or cooking communally and delivering meals. Contemporary accounts are remarkable for two reasons: the fact that most of this help came as a matter of course, without the afflicted needing to ask; and the almost foolhardy disregard for personal safety exhibited by those working within their communities. There were no antibiotics, no cures and the disease was known to be highly contagious, and yet neighbours nursed one another and sent their children to deliver baking to sickrooms. It was a very Kiwi reaction to a foreign interloper.

The national response, however, was slow and questionable, though it must be remembered that the health service was in its infancy and nothing of this scale had been seen before. An early directive warned against kissing and dancing during the outbreak, and inhalation machines dispensing a zinc sulphate mist were widely distributed; The Bay of Plenty Times urged people to visit the inhalation room at the Tauranga Town Hall at least once a day for three days. On November 15 the same paper reported that, “A car containing Captain Macdonal and four returned soldiers reached here in search of lemons for the Soldiers Institute. Captain Macdonal informed us there were over 100 returned soldiers down with influenza. Their search was successful, several cases were collected (and) handed over . . . from local gardens.” Alas, zinc sulphate would prove to be as completely useless in combating influenza as lemons were: some of the highest death rates in all the country would occur in military camps just like the Soldiers Institute.

Worse hit though were Māori. Records of Pākehā deaths are quite complete, much less so for Māori, but nevertheless it is estimated that their fatality rates were at least a shocking seven times higher than Pākehā. Recent research has pointed to a variety of factors, including the susceptibility of Pacific peoples to respiratory viruses, but in 1918 the authorities thought they had the culprit. On November 18 the Acting Chief Health Officer sent orders that, “All Māori tangis or gatherings in connection with deaths or burials to be prohibited, also to prohibit Māoris travelling to attend tangis by railways, steamers or other vehicles. All currently assembled at tangis are to be ordered forthwith to return to their homes.” It was a bizarre decree, fully reflecting the culture of the time and the hysteria the influenza created, and it caused bitter acrimony.

Obey the laws. And wear the gauze. Protect your jaws. From septic paws.

THE PANDEMIC ENDED as swiftly as it began, and just as mysteriously. Two weeks after the first deaths, the virus began to burn itself out and by early December papers were proclaiming that the pandemic was over. A nation, quite literally, breathed a sigh of relief, as the losses could never have been sustained for an extended period. It is now thought that one in three people were infected by the disease and that in the Bay of Plenty 460 people, Māori and Pākehā, died from it. These were astounding figures for the times with several communities losing more to the influenza than to the war. The anomaly of this is that while hundreds of WWI monuments exist throughout the country, there are only a handful dedicated to the pandemic. None of them are to be found in the Bay of Plenty.

To this day researchers are baffled as to why the influenza mutated so swiftly from the relatively benign first wave to the deadly second wave, and also as to why it dissipated so suddenly. These unresolved questions are genuinely worrying; H1N1 has revisited us several times since 1918 (often referred to as ‘bird flu’) and we still have no way of predicting if its next visit could turn into a pandemic like that of a century ago. Only time will tell.


THE 1918 INFLUENZA was known by a variety of names. In Japan it was called the ‘Wrestlers Disease’, in Spain the ‘Naples Soldier’, and in the Englishspeakingworld the Spanish Flu. This latter name came from the fact that in most countries wartime censorship meant the pandemic was not made public, but in Spain - a neutral country - it was front page news, so most early reports were therefore derived from Spanish papers and the association stuck. Another of its names had a more gruesome origin; often the influenza led to pneumonia and chronic pneumonia victims turn blue and then a dark purple prior to death; the name The Black Flu was born.


IN OCTOBER 1918 the RMS Niagara docked in Auckland and within weeks New Zealanders were dying. The ship had been in North America and Suva and was carrying Prime Minister Bill Massey and Sir Joseph Ward when it returned to Auckland on October 12. It was initially quarantined as it had flu cases aboard, but despite this the Niagara was cleared to unload as the authorities felt these were cases of ‘simple’ influenza; they were almost certainly right as the Niagara had had no contact with the second wave, but the timing of the more deadly outbreak and the ship’s arrival in Auckland led to a widespread belief that the Prime Minister had been given special treatment and allowed to disembark despite carrying the dreaded flu. Conspiracy theories thrived just as well in 1918 as they do in 2018; Massey and the Niagara would be scapegoats for years to come, but they were almost certainly not to blame.

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