Before 1918, New Zealand experienced intermittent outbreaks of influenza. When the disease was at its worst, during the 1890s, deaths numbered in the low hundreds, and it was regarded on par with the common cold. Since a serious outbreak in 1907 the rate of death had steadily declined.
The spread of the influenza infection in 1918 was made worse by the movement of large numbers of people during the First World War. Many people believed the virus was brought to New Zealand by the passenger ship Niagara, which arrived in Auckland on 12 October 1918 (although this was later ruled out as the source of the infection).
The disease reached epidemic proportions in New Zealand from late October 1918, peaked in late November, and was over by early December. It was later declared a pandemic, killing more than 50 million people worldwide.
Armistice - November 1918
On Friday 8 November celebrations broke out across the country after newspapers published reports of a German surrender. Auckland's acting Chief Medical Officer (Joseph Frengley) discouraged such large gatherings due to the influenza epidemic.
When official news of the armistice was received on 12 November 1918, the Mayor of Auckland said: "On behalf of our citizens I congratulate the National Government upon the cessation of hostilities, bringing as it does inestimable personal relief from anxiety to thousands of New Zealand homes, and security generally to our people. My deep regret is that our community at this time should be prevented by widespread influenza from immediately suitably observing the occasion, which will be done in Auckland as soon as circumstances become favourable."
Impact of influenza
The 1918 influenza pandemic remains New Zealand's worst disease disaster to date. Auckland City had the largest death toll at 1,128.
Makeshift hospitals were set up around Auckland during the influenza crisis, including at homes, public halls, and schools like the newly built Northcote Side School. Temporary tent hospitals were also set up in places like Takapuna and Avondale.
At one stage in October 1918, there were 226 cases of influenza at Narrow Neck Military Camp. Twenty-one people died of influenza there, and twenty were buried at the nearby O'Neill's Point Cemetery.
The Public Health Department used Motuihe Island as a human quarantine station, and enemy aliens who were interned on Motuihe Island were transferred to Narrow Neck Camp.
At the height of the pandemic in November 1918, Victoria Park in central Auckland was used as an open-air morgue. The presence of the nearby 38-metre high chimney led to false rumours that bodies of influenza victims were incinerated.
More than a third of influenza victims in Auckland were buried at Waikumete Cemetery. In the third week of November, a team of about 35 men were digging graves almost non-stop on the western boundary of Waikumete Cemetery. The Railways Department provided two special trains daily from 13-20 November to transport bodies to Waikumete. Despite popular belief that epidemic victims were buried in unmarked mass graves, most bodies were buried separately. Only 38 graves were unmarked - these were mostly men with no home address, known relatives or occupation.
When the economic impact of the influenza pandemic was discussed in parliament in early December 1918, it was believed that approximately 4,000 New Zealanders died as a result of the epidemic within three weeks. MP Henry Thacker estimated after the war that the economic worth of each citizen was about £5,000: "That is to say, within the last three weeks New Zealand has lost £20,000,000 worth of humanity - a huge amount which cannot be replaced." (That would be equivalent to more than $2 billion today.)
It was later calculated that the total death toll of the influenza pandemic across New Zealand was approximately 8,600. About 6,415 children lost one parent, and 135 children across New Zealand were bereaved of both parents. In Auckland, arrangements were made to admit children who lost their parents to influenza to various orphan homes, including the Papatoetoe Orphan Home in Wyllie Road.
The 1918 influenza epidemic sparked much debate about public health, housing and sanitary conditions, which reflected wider societal debates about race, gender and class.
Legislative reforms included the 1918 Public Health Amendment Act and the 1920 Health Act, which extended the powers of sanitary inspectors (they could now inspect the interiors of private dwellings as well as the exterior at all reasonable times) and created a position for a female sanitary inspector (although the rate of pay was lower than for male sanitary inspectors).
A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Epidemic in 1919 recommended better public education about hygiene, first aid and home nursing, particularly for girls.
Debate about funeral reforms also resulted in the construction of Auckland's first crematorium - officially opened at Waikumete Cemetery in 1923.
Memorial at Waikumete
The influenza memorial at Waikumete Cemetery was put up in 1988.
- Back November (book about influenza pandemic)
- NZ Herald article 1 November 1918
- Influneza pandemic - Te Ara
- Waikumete Cemetery
- Northcote Side School
- Sanders Avenue
- Narrow Neck Camp
- O'Neill's Point Cemetery
- Internment camp, Motuihe Island
- Wilson Cement Works
- Avondale Memorial Reserve
- Helensville Railway Station
- The 1918 influenza pandemic
- Timespanner Blog
- Flu fight the Kiwis lost
Photo credits, text sources
Waikumete Cemetery Influenza Memorial to the hundreds of Aucklanders who died in the 1918 epidemic.
Precautions against influenza infection: the public waiting their turn at the inhalation chamber, Health Departments buildings, Auckland, November 1918. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19181114-36-3.
The New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star newspapers
'The pandemic hits New Zealand', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/1918-influenza-pandemic/earlier-outbreaks, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-May-2014
Geoff Rice. 'Epidemics - The influenza era, 1890s to 1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/epidemics/page-4
Linda Bryder, ''Lessons' of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Auckland', in New Zealand Journal of History, 16, 2, 1982, pp.97-121.
Geoffrey Rice, Black November: the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, 2nd edition (Christchurch: 2005).