1918 Influenza Epidemic – How Christchurch coped

In November 1918 Christchurch, like most New Zealand towns and cities, was affected by the influenza pandemic sweeping the world. Normal life was disrupted and by the time the epidemic had passed 458 people had died (out of a population of 92,773).

How did the city cope with such a wave of illness and death?

Inhalation chamber
People using the inhalation chamber in the Government Buildings in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. [1918] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0052

The arrival and spread of the influenza

The deadly influenza strain’s arrival is sometimes attributed to the Union Steam Ship Company’s Niagara, which arrived in Auckland in October 1918. However there were dozens of ships arriving from Europe and North America at this time.

Authorities in Christchurch were aware of the development of flu in the North Island. The district health officer, Dr Herbert Chesson, had one small steam inhalation apparatus which was sent to Lyttelton to be used to spray passengers from the inter-island ferries with zinc sulphate. He ordered the closure of schools, theatres and other places of entertainment, asked chemists to extend their opening hours into the evenings and the police to enforce by-laws against spitting in public.

Tramway inhalation car
Tramway inhalation car [1918], CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0094
However Carnival Week (Show Week) still went ahead, and large numbers of visitors from out of town poured in for the races and the agricultural show including many from the North Island.

On Friday, November 8, People’s Day at the show went ahead. It was also known as the day of the false armistice and impromptu celebrations went ahead to mark the end of the First World War. When the official Armistice news arrived on November 12, celebrations and parades went ahead in the city, attracting large crowds. Show Week and the crowded celebrations helped the flu to spread through the city and on to other towns in the regions.

Inhalation centres established

Christchurch began to establish inhalation centres, spraying zinc sulphate, believed to help prevent infection. The first was upstairs in the Electricity Department building in Manchester Street. This was an unsatisfactory venue because of congestion on the stairs so a centre was established in the large brick shed across the street. A chamber was opened to the public in the Government Building in Worcester Street.

Throat spray to prevent influenza
In an attempt to arrest the spread of infection during the influenza epidemic, people attended public inhalation chambers to have their throats sprayed. [1918] CCL PhotoCD 18, IMG0052
The most innovative development however was the adaptation of Christchurch trams as mobile inhalation centres using the compressed air braking systems to operate a sprayer.

Six trams were adapted and began operation on November 12. People walked through the clouds of vapour inside the tram. Eventually 14 trams were in operation serving outlying suburbs.

Advice from the New Brighton Borough Council

The public are advised that the use of the inhalation chamber should not be availed by those who have developed symptoms. The inhalation chamber is situated at the terminus opposite the café and is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A nurse on bicycle
A nurse leaving a sub-depot on her daily round of visits [1918], CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0047

Epidemic spreads quickly

By November 14, Christchurch Hospital had 145 flu admissions, doubling admission numbers in just three days. Many nurses were infected and the hospital was organised to run with a large number of volunteers. All the serious flu cases in the city were directed to the hospital and over half of all the city’s flu victims died there. 722 patients were admitted during the epidemic of whom 232 died.

The Press reported on November 19 that there were 2550 cases of flu of which 192 were acute or serious.

Dr Chesson also established a central convalescent hospital at the Addington Trotting Ground using the tea rooms which were spacious and well lit with a large kitchen and ample toilet facilities. They housed up to a peak of 97 patients on December 1. Nurses lived in the members grandstand and the male orderlies slept under the main grandstand. Gas stoves were installed for extra water heating and temporary showers erected.

Nurse Maude leads relief efforts

Christchurch launched a relief organisation on November 14. Nurse Sybilla Maude was put in charge of a central depot in Cathedral Square. Nurse Maude was famous for her district nursing organisation in the city.

Influenza depot
The medicine depot in Cathedral Square where the Government standard influenza medicine was supplied [1918] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0050
A former tram shelter in front of the Cathedral that had been used as a Patriotic Bazaar to raise funds for the war effort now became a central medicine depot. Boy Scouts were used as messengers and the Canterbury Automobile Association organised official relief cars.

The city was organised into blocks, a system already familiar through Red Cross war-time fundraising appeals. Volunteers systematically canvassed houses to find people who were ill. A food distribution system was instigated using depots around the city. Doctors were rostered to visit the depots daily to collect the names of cases to visit.

Private cars and commercial vans ferried food from the kitchens to the depots for distribution to homes using cars, motorcycle sidecars, bicycles and Boy Scouts with baskets.

Cheerful boy scouts
Boy Scouts help deliver food [1918], CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0048
As an example of the impact and improvisation that the epidemic forced on people and organisations, St Barnabas Anglican Church held outdoor church services using the church porch as a chancel to house the altar.

Provision needed to be made for the care of children whose parents were stricken with the flu. The Karitane Hospital in Cashmere was made available for small babies, Bishopscourt in Park Terrace and a large house in Bealey Avenue belonging to Mrs F. H. Pyne catered for older children. Sydenham Park was used as a supervised playground catering for 300 children a day.

Soup Kitchen
Several large kitchens were established to provide soups and invalid foods for flu ridden households. Pictured is the soup kitchen at the Sydenham Manual Training Centre [1918], CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0053

Epidemic wanes by early December

In Christchurch the epidemic declined sharply after several weeks and by December 7 the central medicine depot closed. The Cathedral choir resumed normal practices on December 3 and the depots and kitchens closed down over the next two weeks.

In the aftermath of the epidemic leading relief organisations, Nurse Maude, the Automobile Association, the Boy Scouts and the St John Ambulance Brigade were acknowledged. These groups had provided and organised many of the volunteers including 200 St John trained nurses at hospitals and convalescent hospitals.

Volunteer nurses
Workers who cared for children whose parents were ill with influenza, Christchurch [1918] CCL Photo Collection 22, Img00798
A picnic outing to the Selwyn River Huts was organised for volunteers on December 16. Cars were provided to cater for 500 (the number the block organisers suggested) but the numbers were swelled by 1000 free loaders.

Influenza’s terrible toll

In all the official total of deaths from the 1918 influenza epidemic (including New Zealand troops overseas) was 8,573 from a population of 1,150,509. With some advance warning, preparation and organisation, Christchurch came off better than Auckland and Wellington. (4.9 deaths per 1000 versus 7.6 for Auckland and 7.9 for Wellington). Doctors and nurses were among those who lost their lives (At least 14 doctors died from the flu).

In Canterbury, grateful citizens built memorials to commemorate Dr Margaret Cruickshank (in Waimate) and Dr Charles Little and his wife Hephzibah (in Waikari). The Nurses’ Memorial Chapel, Christchurch Hospital, commemorates epidemic victims Grace Beswick and Hilda Hooker, as well as nurses who died in the sinking of the World War I troopship the Marquette.

Nurses' Memorial Chapel interior
Nurses’ Memorial Chapel, Christchurch Hospital, Riccarton Avenue, Christchurch [ca. 1930], CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0036

More information

In our catalogue

On our website

Local newspapers

Some historic Canterbury newspapers are available online via Papers Past

These titles and and issues of The Weekly Press and The Lyttelton Times for this period can be viewed on microfilm at Aotearoa New Zealand Centre.

Online resources

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