In October-November 1918, New Zealand’s worst natural disaster, an influenza pandemic, swept through the country leaving 9000 people dead. Timaru Courier reporter Chris Tobin flicks through some old newspapers to find out its effect locally.
Airliners bearing thousands of passengers, many of them tourists, appear to have been the present main spreader of coronavirus around the world.
In 1918, a deadly flu came to New Zealand via ships. By then outbreaks were occurring all around the world, taking by the time it finished, the staggering number of between 50 and 100million lives.
The pandemic came at a tumultuous time as the horrendous “war to end all wars”, World War 1, drew to a close.
In late October 1918, newspapers reported a steamer calling in to Auckland on the way to Sydney with sick passengers. By November 1, they were reporting “The Auckland outbreak” and three deaths. Two days later, 15 deaths were reported in the city.
The authorities realised they had an epidemic on their hands as it soon spread through the country.
In Europe, on November 11, peace was declared after four years of war. Millions of people celebrated causing the virus to spread even further.
With the time lag, New Zealanders followed suit with their celebrations on November 12, filling public streets and squares and again allowing the virus to spread.
Two days later, business in Christchurch was at a standstill. In Timaru, a public meeting was called to address the growing calamity. A tent hospital was set up in the Timaru Botanical Gardens and food was prepared at the technical school.
Temporary hospitals were established also in other parts of South Canterbury.
By November 19, deaths started to be reported. Doctors and nurses were run off their feet; special patrols went from house to house to check on people and in some cases were startled by the dirty conditions in which some people lived. In one case four children were found to be sharing one bed. Businesses were ordered to close from 3pm to 7am except chemists, butchers, bakers, fruiterers, greengrocers and dairies. All hotels were shut.
Waimate brought in a bylaw prosecuting anyone spitting in public.
People queued outside special inhalation chambers in Timaru’s Arcade, on No3 wharf and at the railway yard.
By November 22, reports from Auckland said 1000 had died there since the epidemic began.
It was not as bad in South Canterbury but people were dying.
Local newspapers had 13 death notices on November 29 and a total of 14 on December 2 but some of those people had died in other parts of the country or overseas. By December 5, the number of death notices was down to five or so a day.
In Waimate, locals mourned the death on November 28 of their doctor, Margaret Cruickshank, at the age of 45. Working day and night, she had a driver to take her around the town making house calls until he fell ill.
Then she travelled by bicycle or horse and gig, often having to cook for children of patients or milk cows.
In Temuka, the town’s two male doctors fell ill and the wife of one of them, Dr Violet Hastings, stepped up to undertake similar work to Dr Cruickshank, visiting ill people around the town and district.
By December 10, authorities were saying the epidemic was practically over in Timaru and Temuka, although a few people were still being admitted to hospital in Waimate.
Timaru’s mayor, F.A.Raymond, said there had been 13 deaths in Timaru from a population of 3000. The town had escaped lightly, compared with other centres, he said.
Within days, it was more more or less over. Nearly as quickly as it had come, the pandemic had gone.