Topic: Childhood Memories of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic by Antonia Jones

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A family tale of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic was the basis of Antonia Jones entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived verson here.

The Pickering family – Rose, Arthur and their four children, aged between six months and nine years – were living on a dairy farm at Ararimu throughout World War I. Ararimu was a settlement about ten miles east of Drury and thirty miles south of Auckland.

The Pickering farm was fairly isolated, and movement through the district then was by horse and buggy, or by train from Drury if they wished to go further afield. News of the influenza pandemic probably trickled slowly through the district and many anxious people must have wondered how to cope once the sickness arrived in their area.

The spread of the influenza pandemic in New Zealand is thought to have started in Auckland when the troopship Niagara arrived in the harbour on 12 October 1918 with sick people on board. A message was radioed to New Zealand as the ship neared Auckland stating that over a hundred of her crew were stricken with influenza and asking for urgent hospital accommodation.

Although the ship’s passengers and crew should have been quarantined, they were cleared to enter Auckland and the sickness quickly spread throughout the country. However, there had been earlier outbreaks of influenza in New Zealand in July and August, and as troop ships continued to arrive with sick passengers, perhaps it was inevitable that the disease (also called Spanish Influenza) could not be contained.

Adeline, the eldest daughter in the Pickering family, was nine when the pandemic spread through the country. She wrote about her memories of the time some years later.

‘1918 was the outbreak of the pneumonic plague; they say the returning soldiers must have brought the germ back from the battlefields of Flanders. They died in hundreds around Auckland. People would get up well in the morning and be dead by lunchtime, many were buried in mass graves. Neighbours were too frightened to contact each other in case they in turn contracted the disease. This meant we in the back blocks were cut off: no cream lorries going through, no papers, mail or foodstuffs. No-one would take the cream lorry, so my father volunteered to run it. 

‘He took it all through those long weeks of plague, would pick up the cream cans (the cows still had to be milked), and leave all the goods at the neighbours’ gates. No-one would approach him or speak to him in case he might be carrying the germ. We kids were bundled into the bathroom once a day and nearly suffocated with burning sulphur candles. Every nook and cranny was closed up to that we would get the full benefit of the fumes. We had to stay in there for about fifteen minutes. The same treatment was given to Father the moment he stepped inside.

‘Whether or not it was a cure is doubtful but certainly none of us contracted the disease. We thought that he was a hero for risking his life, but I don’t think he ever got a medal for it.’

In those days, there were no antibiotics or 'flu vaccinations, and, although various preventatives were tried, the only one that really worked was keeping away from other people, as the virus was spread by contact with infected persons.  The Ministry of Health issued various advisories on disinfecting buildings; streets were sprayed with disinfectant and even with sheep dip when that ran out. Personal remedies such as tobacco, gargling with a salt and soda mixture, eating boiled onions with a little butter, and cough mixtures containing linseed and liquorice were all tried with little success.

At the height of the pandemic in November 1918, ordinary life was impossible. For two to three weeks, shops, offices and factories were forced to close down as there were not enough healthy staff to keep them going.

Public gatherings were quickly prohibited by order of the government. This caused a lot of dismay as preparations for the Armistice celebrations were in full swing with the troops returning after the war. Schools, hotels, race-meetings and theatres were closed. Hospitals became full very quickly, and emergency hospitals were set up in schools and church halls, and even in tents in some places. Soup kitchens were organised to feed those people unable to help themselves. Because coastal shipping around New Zealand came to a halt, many towns suffered from a shortage of basic supplies such as flour and coal.  

Auckland was the worst affected as the pneumonic plague arrived there before people realised what was happening and could take suitable precautions. The pandemic raged there from mid-October to mid-December, and peaked on 12 November, four weeks after it started. In the inner city, there were 595 deaths out of a local population of 72,243.

By December the worst of the pandemic was over. Between one third and one half of New Zealand’s population of approximately 1,150,000 had been infected with the sickness and more than 8,500 people died.  It was remarked that the fit and healthy were more likely to succumb than the very young or the very old. The Maori population was especially vulnerable.

The Pickering family were fortunate to avoid the influenza, as they lived in an isolated community and could support themselves.

‘We were self-sufficient with milk and butter from our twelve cows, and for fruit and vegetables from a large garden. Mother had preserved a lot of apples the previous autumn in Agee jars and stored the remainder in hay over the winter. Father snared rabbits for our dinner and got the skins ready to sell.

‘We had a fine orchard at the front of our house – the cooking apples there were as large as saucers and another orchard at the back of the house in a sort of hollow so it would be sheltered from the winds.  There were all sorts of plums, including a lovely satsuma; apples, nectarine and a solitary pear tree. They were the nicest pears we had ever tasted.’

Within months, life returned to normal. In 1919, the start of school was delayed until the authorities decided it was safe to return. Grace, by now five and a half, started school in mid-February, riding with Adeline and Cecil on their old horse. Six months later, the parents sold their farm to a returned soldier and moved south to the Waikato.



Pickering, Adeline.   Letters.  Various dates

Rice, Geoffrey W.   Black November: the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New Zealand.

Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005. 2nd rev ed.


Further Reading:


A note from the author:

 My aunt Adeline Pickering (1909-2004) wrote, in her 70s, an account of her first twenty-five years before marriage with an inspiring recall of detail. I have extracted here the months of the influenza pandemic as they impacted on her family, with the addition of some background material to give more weight to her story. It is part of my larger family history about the Pickerings and related families (Kerr, Tosen and Wooding) who were early settlers in Canterbury.

Antonia Jones. Hamilton, 2012.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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