Sunday, July 12, 2009

Black November

The statement in the new book West that Waikumete Cemetery is "home to a mass grave filled with most of the 1128 Aucklanders who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918” still had me going this past week. Such a statement is contradicted not only by Geoffrey W. Rice in his extremely good reference on the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, Black November, 1988, reprinted 2005 (with a specific chapter on the effect in Auckland) – but even in the conservation plan for Waikumete Cemetery produced for the Waitakere City Council itself (the local body that backed the West book):

“In 1918-1919 following the end of the First World War, there was a catastrophic outbreak of Spanish pneumonic influenza that caused a large number of burials in a short period of time. In the autumn of 1918 the disease spread quickly from country to country, resulting in a heavy death toll … The railway line to Waikumete station played an important role in transporting the dead, particularly when the number of deaths reached its peak in the third and fourth weeks of November 1918. Auckland recorded the nation’s highest death toll of 1,680. From 1-26 November there were 469 interments at Waikumete.”

Even that history isn’t completely correct. The figure of 469 interments was taken from the report by Auckland’s City Engineer to the Mayor of Auckland on 27 November 1918. Rice amends that to 444 burials at Waikumete related to the influenza outbreak (as there were, of course, burials resulting from other causes during that period), and puts the total Auckland influenza toll at 1128, agreeing with Matthew Gray. Still, 444 burials out of 1128 deaths still doesn’t mean that Waikumete Cemetery is where “most” of those who died were buried. Just over a third, yes.

Auckland’s public mortuary was the first stop for the increasing numbers of the dead caused by the virus. When that filled to overflowing, Victoria Park’s grandstand and grounds were used as a temporary measure as an open-air morgue (according to Rice, this move led to other influenza legends of bodies laid out not only there, but also at the Domain and Albert Park; as well as bodies being incinerated at the nearby Council Destructor, or buried at sea).

I located in the Auckland City Council archives a wonderful treasure, a file of newspaper cuttings pasted on brown paper (it seemed hardly looked at, with pages almost sticking together) from the pandemic period in Auckland (ACC 219/18-289). That, along with the City Engineer’s report (ACC 398/18d), provided a brief summary of just what had happened in Auckland City as the death toll mounted and something needed to be done with the bodies.

In 1918, Dr. Joseph P. Frengley (1873-1926) was acting Chief Health Officer in Wellington when a milder epidemic of influenza raged through that city. As things started to look particularly bad in Auckland towards the end of October, the Mayor of Auckland, James Henry Gunson (1877-1963) urged Dr. Frengley to visit Auckland. He arrived 3 November.

Victoria Park had been chosen by the City Engineer after an inspection of a number of sites on 9 November to relieve the overburdened mortuary, and a large room at the pavilion was opened to receive the bodies. The following day arrangements were made to transport extra gravediggers to and from Waikumete Cemetery, and “also for the pegging out of extra grave spaces.” (CE report)

The NZ Herald reported on 12 November that Dr. Frengley had, the previous day, acting under powers contained in Section 50 of the Public Health Act 1908 “ordered all bodies of those who had died of influenza to be buried forthwith.” Relatives and friends of the deceased had to immediately organise burial of the dead, rather than leaving them at Victoria Park. Ministers of religion were actively encouraged to keep in touch with the required burials “so that deceased persons are interred on portions allotted to the respective denominations.” That day, twelve more gravediggers were sent out to Waikumete Cemetery.

Two special trains ran from November 13 to convey coffins out to Waikumete from Auckland. The Herald reported that undertakers and relatives had to make their own arrangements with the railway authorities for receiving the caskets and conveying them to the cemetery. The trains did, however, stop at Mt Eden to pick up more caskets and mourners. (NZH, 13 November) William Wallace of the Auckland Hospital Board, authorised “several large woodworking factories to construct caskets” in order that the burials be carried out as quickly as possible. (NZH, 14 November)

Six more gravediggers were sent to Waikumete on the 14th, followed by another six the following day, and three more ten days later. In all, the City Engineer reported that 1 surveyor and 35 men were employed at Waikumete during the outbreak, while there were an additional four caretakers at Victoria Park.

The Herald reported on 16 November that there had been 289 interments at Waikumete since November 1, compared with the (non-outbreak) average of 50 per month. It was announced on 20 November that the special trains were to be discontinued, but to free up hearses still servicing Purewa Cemetery, the railway authorities undertook to continue carrying caskets to Waikumete by the 9.29 am train each day. Anglican clergy, during the crisis, attended the burials in relays, along with those from Auckland’s other denominations. From the Herald on 22 November:
“In some cases a number of bodies have been interred at a time when the relatives or friends have been incapacitated by illness, but care has been taken to number all the graves, so that they may be easily located. A complete record has been kept, and by applying to the Town Hall, relatives and friends will be advised of the exact location of graves.”
From the City Engineer’s report:

“In connection with the Waikumete Cemetery, 469 interments took place from the 1st to the evening of 26 November and this large number of interments necessitated the pegging out of graves in the area recently cleared and ploughed on the Western Boundary, the number of new graves utilised to date in such ground being 131.”
So, not “mass grave” or “mass graves”, but rather, this was a case of a procedure of mass burials, each burial individually dug and sanctified where possible, over the course of just over two weeks. The City Engineer’s description appears to indicate that there were two distinct areas for the mass burials of the influenza victims at Waikumete, with 131 (at least) graves in the second area “on the Western Boundary”. The conservation plan identifies the main area for the graves as “Gumtree Gully” with “more unmarked graves in Pauper’s Gully” (appendices maps), which is somewhere between (according to the cemetery map) Anglican H, Anglican F, Anglican G and Anglican M&N (Rice had in a caption in his book that Plot MN was the site used. This is possibly not quite correct.) With the cemetery at that time mainly occupying the far eastern corner of the whole site, such a location would have been a relatively short distance from the train station, assisting with the unloading of so many caskets in so short a time.

An update: this from the Friends of Waikumete Cemetery Facebook page, 27 August 2014.

"Waikumete Cemetery Monument to the victims of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Anglican Division E, Row 6. The green area behind the monument holds individual graves up to 1915. Many of these people died in hospitals. There are no victims of the Influenza epidemic in this row. People who died from the flu were buried in individual graves in the area of their religious denominations often in family graves. Louisa Mary McFlinn died on the 15th November 1918 from influenza and is buried in her family grave. You will see many graves through out the cemetery with dates around November 1918 which indicate that they may have been a victim of the influenza epidemic ... Row 6 was opened in November 1907 and has burials up to 1915. These were mainly hospital patients and so didn't have headstones. It does have some headstones down the far end. Row 7 was opened in May 1918, Row 8 was opened in July 1918, Row 9 which is the 2nd row in from the gums was opened in November 1918, and Row 10 in April 1919. These rows do have headstones. There is a myth that the grassed area behind the monument is a mass grave or pit where flu victims were buried together. This is untrue."


  1. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of a story I've heard second hand about a mass children's grave (under the built up flower beds) in Melb's Carlton Gardens dating from the 1880's-1890's (Scarlet Fever) and the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1919.
    The source is reputable but the evidence is scarce!

  2. Are there records of these deaths from Spanish Flu??

  3. Yes, but probably only person-by-person, researchable via death notices and certificates. The statistics were published in special reports.

  4. Is the train station still there and is it haunted

  5. The station has been shifted, and is a restaurant now. Never was haunted.