Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Influenza City

Recently, whiling away a bit of time between appointments, commitments and the usual scheduling stuff, I had a bit of a browse through the oversize collection of reference material at the Central Auckland Research Centre at the Central Library. I’ve always found that collection on the general shelves in the CARC a source of wonderful chance finds. This time, I had a nosey at a folder entitled:

Influenza Epidemic – Mayor’s Memorandum Covering Reports of City Solicitor and Council Officers.

Walter Bush, the City Engineer, provided in his report to the Mayor dated 27 November 1918 a day-by-day run down as to his department’s response to the crisis.

8 or 9 October
The epidemic first attracts notice in Auckland, although Bush noted that 24 deaths had been recorded in the four metropolitan and nine suburban areas in the 6 months preceding 30 September. From 8 October, the daily papers contained references to the influenza’s spread.

12 October
The RMS Niagara arrived in Auckland. The number of passengers under treatment was between 30 and 40, according to Bush, and the Health Authorities put the ship effectively in semi-quarantine for a time. Passengers and crew were “obliged to pass through an inhaling chamber improvised on the ship by the District Health Officer, and the quarters thoroughly fumigated.” 26-28 members of the crew and 2 passengers were admitted to Auckland Hospital for isolation treatment.

15 October
Five more crew members of the Niagara were admitted to hospital, with at least 8 of those already admitted developing slight pneumonia. By now, 9 Auckland residents were receiving treatment as well. The isolation ward was crowded, the nursing staff reported as “fully taxed”.

16 October
A conclusion, startling to our eyes with the benefit of hindsight, made by a Conference that day between the Hospital Board’s Visiting Committee, and the District Health Officer. “ … It was made clear that the influenza was of a very mild type … not “Spanish” Influenza, the more virulent kind.” Dr E Graham Russell, Port Health Officer, “stated that the type was the mildest he had experienced.”

Dr Russell wasn’t alone with that opinion. The district health officer told the Education Board “that the epidemic went through a community like a flash, usually lasting from 6 to 8 weeks, and that at least 50% of the population was ordinarily attacked. He was of the opinion that the epidemic had been in Auckland for three or four weeks, and had not been introduced by the Niagara, and … that the disease was not present in a serious form, and “Spanish Influenza.”

17 October
The District Health Officer advocated “thorough ventilation of schools, etc. especially during week-ends, picture theatres etc., tram cars, and other public conveyances, and also the wiping of straps and seats in tram cars with cloths moistened with antiseptic, while counter railings, etc. in shops and desks in schools should be similarly treated.”

20 October
A fireman from the Niagara died from lung complications from influenza at Auckland Hospital, but other patients from the Niagara were reported as improving. Out of 26 in hospital on the 18th, 10 were discharged on the 19th, and another 8 in the 21st. But …

21 October
A steward from the Niagara dies “from pneumonia supervening on influenza.”

22 October
At the meeting of the Board of Education that day, a report was submitted to the effect that out of 4887 pupils attending seven lading schools in the city, 1032 were away due to the epidemic, with 21 out of 92 teachers affected.

23 October
“The epidemic was assuming a worse form”, the NZ Herald reported.

24 October
During that week, members of the City Fire Brigade came down with the disease, 17 men reported off duty on 24 October. That day, 25 of the Aucland Hospital’s nursing staff were ill.

29 October
The NZ Herald reported a “slight abatement” of the epidemic.

30 October
The Mayor of Auckland ordered that the Minister of Labour be telegraphed, asking that, while the epidemic was in effect that the law requiring chemists to close at certain hours not be enforced, allowing them to remain open at night “to meet the generally increased demand for medicine. The Minister replied that if the majority of chemists indicated that they wanted to stay open an extra hour, the Department wouldn’t interfere while the epidemic lasted. Bush reported that the extra opening hours reduced the workload significantly at the all-night pharmacy.

31 October
The Mayor was waited upon by a deputation of community representatives who asked for a meeting to be convened “to consider the prevalence of he epidemic [and] … what measures should be taken in its abatement.” The meeting took place at 4 pm that day, resulting in the formation of a Citizen’s Committee “to take such steps as were necessary to help sufferers and to cope with the epidemic”. The executive, with powers to co-opt as required, were:

Cr. William John` Holdsworth [Elected to the Grey Lynn Borough Council in 1907, he became its Mayor in 1910, and then Auckland City Councillor in 1914]
Ernest Lilly: City Districts Schools Committee
E Phelan
G Davis
F Potter
P M Mackay
S Milroy, and
H P Kissling

1 November
The NZ Herald reported that three more deaths had occurred, including George Moore, an employee in the City Engineer’s Department, as well as an auxiliary fireman at the City Fire Brigade station. The Tramway Company was obliged to take several morning and evening special cars off the rush hour runs as a result of 66 tramway motormen and conductors reporting in as ill.

The Citizens Committee met again, this time with the Chairman of the District Hospital Board, the Medical Superintendent and the District Health Officer present. The committee decided to telegraph the Minister of Defence suggesting that the Medical Boards be released to provide additional medical assistance to the city. They also resolved to contact the Minister of Public Health asking that, finally, the disease should be subject to quarantine regulations.

W J Holdsworth, the first secretary to the Citizens Committee, came down with the ‘flu himself. In his place, H D Robertson was co-opted onto the committee. He was Secretary of the Joint Committee of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John.

That evening, the Auckland Hospital Board held a special meeting to consider steps to combat the epidemic, “and to provide additional hospital accommodation for patients dangerously ill from the disease.” The outbreak was no longer being considered as a non-serious form.

2 November
Bush’s plan which saw the city and suburbs divided into 22 blocks came into effect, as submitted to the Citizens Committee the day before. Members of the committee were appointed “to supervise the work of rendering assistance in he representative areas.”

The Auckland Education Board met that day, a Saturday, to consider the District Health Officer’s advice that the district’s schools be closed, “in view of the increasing seriousness of the situation”. The Board decided to close the schools for a week, and to reconsider the situation at the end of that period. The three city Manual Training centres, as well as those at Devonport and Otahuhu, were also closed. “Any assembly of children,” during the epidemic period, “was undesirable.”

The streets in the central ward are disinfected. Other streets are similarly treated on 6 November, in conjunction with watering of the streets and flushing of the cesspits.

3 November
Dr Joseph Patrick Frengley, the Acting Chief Health Officer for New Zealand, arrived in Auckland and conferred with the Mayor, the Chairman of the Hospital Board, and the Auckland Hospital medical superintendent. Auckland’s Mayor placed Kilbryde, the former home of Sir John Logan Campbell in the new Parnell Park at the disposal of the Hospital Board. Auckland Hospital at Grafton and the Costley Home at today’s Greenlane Hospital site were closed to visitors, in an attempt to minimize the spread of the virus. The Board also arranged for a supply of medicines, day and night, to Henderson & Barclay’s pharmacy in Queen Street.

C T Haynes, the Chief Sanitary Officer, was appointed “to take charge of the office of the [Citizens] Committee at the Town Hall for the purpose of tabulating the returns from the various blocks.”

His own report to the Mayor (27 November 1918) was concerned primarily with the state of Auckland’s slum housing at the time of the influenza pandemic in late 1918.

“… many of our citizens engaged during the past few weeks in combating the influenza epidemic, an obtaining for the first time an insight into the state of affairs under which numbers of people are living, have been surprised and shocked that such conditions exist, and strongly impressed with the necessity of adopting some measures for their removal.”

Over the course of the 16 years immediately before the ‘flu hit the city, around 600 houses had been either been already condemned and pulled down, or demolished by arrangement with the owners. So by the time the Spanish ‘Flu came, the policy and process of urban renewal by Auckland City Council had been well underway. Influenza spreads from public gatherings and the airborne transmission of the virus rather than from the obvious source of sanitary risk, residential overcrowding. It could be said that the sanitary inspector’s department was using the epidemic as an opportunity to bang that department’s particular drum.

The department did report that half their number was away on Active Service during the war, and the workload had been increased due to the amalgamation of boroughs and road boards with the city, such as Parnell, Epsom, Remuera, and Grey Lynn.

4 November
Doctors provided by the Defence Department, in response to the Citizens Committee request of three days before, started work from a central bureau opened at the Auckland Hospital Board’s Kitchener Street office. Advertisements were inserted in the NZ Herald and the Auckland Star regarding applications for medical assistance. A fumigation room was set up in the District Health Office at Albert Street.

At noon, the Citizens Committee met again, making final arrangements with Dr Frengley and the Hospital Board Chairman.

The block committees were already at work, establishing centres in each area to accept applications for assistance. Appeals were made for assistance from volunteers, trained nurses, and “those able to undertake domestic duties in homes where the epidemic had laid aside the inmates.”

“By this date,” Bush recorded, “the situation was very grave, and the large number of applications received for admission to the Hospital indicated that there was no diminution in the number of serious cases. On the contrary, in numerous instances whole households were simultaneously affected, and in consequence of the lack of assistance the position became very acute.”

5 November
The owners of Auckland’s cinemas met with the mayor and the Acting Chief Health Officer in the mayoral offices, and agreed not to admit any children aged 14 and under to their premises. They also agreed to fumigate the cinemas daily.

The Minister for Public Health, G W Russell, arrived along with Dr. Frengley and three doctors, two others which been released by the Defence Department to assist with the epidemic, and another four from the Medical Boards. The Minister of Defence had been requested to obtain nurses from other parts of the North Island to assist as well.

The Mission Hall at the Sailor’s Home on Quay Street was opened as a temporary hospital. By the next day, this facility was looking after 20 patients. The Women’s National Reserve opened an emergency kitchen at their Rutland Street premises.

6 November
No less than 90 nurses at Auckland Hospital were off work through influenza. Up to 10 pm that day, 600 applications for assistance were received by the Citizens Committee at the Town Hall.

A “Gazette Extraordinary” was issued declaring the influenza as a dangerous infectious disease, authorizing the health authorities to exercise all the powers laid down under the Public Health Act. This meant that instead of limited opening of places like picture theatres, all such places were to be completely closed, from the following day, along with billiard saloons, other public gatherings and entertainment, and schools.

The Vermont Street Girls’ School, capable of accommodating 150 patients and a complete nursing staff, was placed at the disposal of the Auckland Hospital Board by Bishop Cleary and Rev Father Carran. This was opened as a temporary hospital on 8 November.

The Mayor of Auckland came down with the ‘flu, and instructed Bush to confer with Dr. Frengley with regard to the Public Health Act regulations. From that point on, Bush effectively became a CEO, at all hours, day and night. He convinced the Superintendent of Telegraphs late at night to make all telephone lines connected with the epidemic relief works available, despite the planned closure of the telephone exchange between noon and 3pm.

7 November
“Following Dr Frengley’s conference with the Crown Solicitor and myself on the 7th inst., a notice was issued by him requiring the immediate closing of all places of entertainment, Public Halls, Billiard rooms, and shooting galleries for a week. This included the Auckland Racing Club’s course and buildings and in consequence no race meeting was held at Ellerslie on the 9th idem. In addition, the list of places ordered to be closed included the Chamber of Commerce, Society of Arts Hall, Trades Hall, friendly societies’ meeting places and many other public and church halls.” (Bush)

The Acting Chief Health Officer requested that all denominations hold only morning services “of the shortest possible denomination”. [Apparently Bishop Cleary went one better, ordering all Catholic services suspended during the epidemic.]

Bush also conferred with Dr Frengley over the opening of fumigating stations as soon as equipment could be manufactured.

It was decided to insert an advertisement in the newspapers urging all those not engaged in the central city to stay in their homes.

8 November
The Armistice was prematurely reported in the country’s media. This added to the strain of dealing with the epidemic in Auckland.

“Work in connection with the various Block Committees was in full swing when the cable prematurely announcing the signing of the terms of the Armistice was received on the morning of the 8th inst., and for a time this seemed to arrest the valuable work being done in combating the epidemic. My first action on receipt of this news was to proceed to the Council’s depot and arrange for the detention of sufficient men and carters, and the keeping open of the stores and offices there, so that any urgent calls that might be made for special services might be made … In consequence of the universal holiday observed and the resultant closing of shops and warehouses, necessary stores were found a matter of great difficulty.”

Waikumete Cemetery sent out a call for more gravediggers. Eight men, along with the necessary tools, were dispatched out to Glen Eden in motor cars.

An inhaling station was set up on Queen’s Wharf, with two of Bush’s assistants in charge.

The City Library and Art Gallery, along with all branch libraries and the Old Colonists’ Museum, were closed from that date until 2 December on the orders of the Deputy Mayor. (Barr’s report – see below)

9 November
Victoria Park Pavilion was opened as a temporary morgue, fitted up with tables and disinfecting apparatus. Bush’s department also saw to a request from Vermont Street hospital for screens, a dispensary and provision of electric lights.

Kilbryde at Parnell, as well as the Technical College in Wellesley Street, were opened as more temporary hospitals.

10 November
“Arrangements were made for the transport of extra grave diggers to and from Waikumete Cemetery and also for the pegging out of extra grave spaces…” (Bush)

An inhalation chamber opened at the Town Hall.

12 November
The Tabernacle Sunday School was found to be unsuitable as a children’s hospital, so Bush and his team contacted the secretary for the YWCA. Two lower floors of their Queen Street building were placed at the Hospital Board’s disposal “as a home for healthy children whose parents had been incapacitated by the disease.” (Bush) Conferences also began with the Women’s National Reserve with the view to converting the Myers Kindergarten Building in Myers Park as a hospital for sick children.

The Acting Chief Health Officer ordered the immediate burial of all known victims of influenza. Special funeral trains were organized, at 10 am and 1.45 pm each day as required. Bush also approached the General Manager of the Railways for reduced rates of carriage of the bodies. The demand for additional grave diggers at Waikumete was met by sending out 12 more men, reinforced on 14 November by another 6, on the 15th by still another 6, and 3 more on the 25th November.

The real Armistice was signed. This meant that government offices were closed, and so too (temporarily) was the telephone exchange. Bush contacted the Superintendent of Telegraphs again, who assured him and the secretary of the Citizen’s Committee that “all special telephone numbers would be kept open for use through the day.”

“From this date,” Bush reported, “the Health Authorities, Hospital Board, Citizens Committee and other organisations may be said to have had the epidemic in hand, and although numerous calls were still being received for assistance, and many serious case were being admitted to the various hospitals, the organisation provided was adequately coping with the situation.”

13 November
The Mayor had recovered sufficiently to discuss with Bush various Council matters, including his decision to postpone a planned loan poll, and the election of a councilor to fill a vacancy. The Mayor returned to his official duties on the 18th.

Another inhalation station was set up, this time at the Leys Institute in Ponsonby.

14 November
A Citizens Relief Committee was established, presided over by the Deputy Mayor A J Entrican. They held their first meeting on the 18th.

During the epidemic, “collections of refuse were made twice daily and on Sundays from the temporary hospitals… and also from the food kitchen in Rutland Street… Mattresses, clothing etc., from private houses were either collected and conveyed to the destructor or else burned in the back yards. Sprays and disinfectants were provided to the men engaged in the collection of refuse, and the dust bins were disinfected, and the carts washed out and disinfected. Fruit was also collected from premises closed in consequence of the inmates being laid aside with the complaint, and conveyed to the Destructor for burning.” (Bush)

469 interments took place at Waikumete Cemetery from 1 November to 26 November, “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.”

137 out of 380 Council workmen were laid aside with influenza during the epidemic. Bush attributed the relatively lower number than expected to “the healthy nature of their occupation.”

John Barr, Chief Librarian, also prepared a report (28 November) on what his staff did during the enforced closure of the libraries from 8 November to 2 December.

The senior messenger was left behind to care for the library, while those of the staff who were still fit engaged in relief work with the supporting institutions. One member had to give up work after contracting influenza, while another (Mr Collins) had blood poisoning while nursing. Books and magazines were supplied to convalescents at the various temporary hospitals, and in conjunction with the Women’s Patriotic League Mr Barr called for more donations of books and toys through advertisements.

“During the time that the Library and Art Gallery have been closed the Messengers have been engaged thoroughly cleaning the building. The Chief Sanitary Inspector at my request undertook to disinfect the Libraries with formalin, but as the use of a chemical solution might have had injurious effects upon pictures and frames in the Art Gallery it was not treated in this manner. The washing of floors with a solution of Jeye’s Fluid was considered sufficient, especially as the roof lighting of the galleries provided plenty of sunlight, the best of disinfectants. I have also arranged with the Chief Sanitary Inspector to have all books which are at present “out” from the Lending Departments of the various libraries disinfected at the Town Hall before being returned to the shelves. These precautionary steps should reassure the public that the libraries are perfectly free from infection.”

Auckland’s official death toll during the epidemic is established to have been 1,128, or 7.6 per thousand head of population, the largest metropolitan toll in the country.

See also: Black November, Geoffrey W Rice (2005, second edition)


  1. Howdy again :-)

    Here is a photo I took last year of the influenza memorial and mass grave.

    My own GG Granny Fanny EVANS [nee STEVENSON] who died on 19 November 1918 aged 54 was one of 11 who died of influenza in Kaiapoi
    , North Canterbury.

    Again, a terrific post!


  2. Hi Sandy,

    Sorry, but the section in Waikumete Cemtery is not a mass grave. Each of the burial plots in that section were individually surveyed and laid out, along with a plan prepared which was available at the Auckland Town Hall for relatives of the deceased to see exactly where their loved ones were buried. See my earlier post on the graves.

  3. ohhh thanks for that :-) makes much more sense! I've amended my photograph captions to reflect that.


  4. You're a treasure, Sandy. Thanks for the link to this post!

  5. No problems ... so much work goes in to them they are worth sharing. Payback for you adding links to my work!


  6. Hi, Mrs Clement Ah Chee died in late 1918,,( David Wong Hop, greatgrandson)