In 1918, during the First World War, the worldwide influenza pandemic reached New Zealand. In just two months, the disease killed thousands of New Zealanders, despite the remarkable efforts of countless women volunteers.
A most unwelcome visitor
More than 8,500 New Zealanders were killed in the worldwide influenza pandemic that arrived here in October 1918. All ages contracted the 'flu', however if you were between 20 and 55 you were more at risk. In the military you were at an even higher risk due to the crowded conditions in army camps here in New Zealand and on troopships travelling to and from the war in Europe.
Many doctors and nurses were overseas
Nearly a third of our doctors were in the armed forces and over 500 registered nurses had volunteered overseas by 1918. This meant that locally the health profession was severely under resourced to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Women's groups provide support
People were already well organised to volunteer and fundraise for the war. Many groups of women worked, often using neighbourhood networks, to gather relief in the form of food and monetary aid to help families too ill to care for themselves. The Voluntary Aid Detachment and Women’s National Reserve are examples of more formalised groups of women who supported the home front and filled roles in the workforce vacated by men in the armed forces.
Temporary hospitals, limited contact and countless volunteers
In Auckland, temporary hospitals were set up all over the city. 'Kilbryde', home of Sir John Logan Campbell in Parnell, the Seddon Memorial Technical College in Wellesley Street, and Newmarket Infant School are just three examples.
By 11 November schools had closed, church services were cancelled and an appeal for 'lady volunteers' had attracted women teachers, nurses, shop assistants, typists and librarians as well as mothers, grandmothers and single young women to aid and nurse the sick. Women from all over the country contributed a wide range of support to sufferers in the pandemic.
Ambulance services stretched
The St John Ambulance Association was vital in the transport of flu patients to the temporary hospitals and also to the mortuaries. As with other groups, their resources were stretched to the limit and their nurses were called on to support the hospital nursing teams.
Volunteers also died
Many of those nursing also caught the flu and then died. Along with others who succumbed, they would have been collected at the temporary mortuary at Victoria Park, carried by train to West Auckland and then buried at Waikumete Cemetery.
Life slowly returns to normal
By late November it became clear that the pandemic was waning and by mid-December churches, shops and other organisations had re-opened.
Cite this article
Influenza Pandemic 1918. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 June 2015. Updated: 11 June 2015.