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Letter from 72299 Private Samuel Willis Paddon, NZMC, 1NZEF, to his father, 1918

documentary heritage
  • Description

    Writing on 16 September 1918, just over a week after the arrival in England of HMNZT 'Tahiti' on the 9th, Samuel Paddon, a 20-year-old Private in the New Zealand Medical Corps (NZMC), gives a detailed account to his father in New Zealand of the influenza outbreak onboard the vessel after its fateful stopover in the harbour of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the disease's subsequent catastrophic effect on the troops, support staff and crew who battled to contain it.

    Paddon writes of extremely cramped conditions, making distancing and effective quarantining of the sick impossible, and of makeshift hospital beds ("throw downs") being erected on deck, exposing the sick, many of whom were already delirious with fever and dehydration, to the harsh elements. He mentions the unventilated sleeping quarters below deck as being even worse, allowing both influenza and dysentery to quickly spread amongst the troops and ship's crew - "To make matters worse dysentry [dysentery] spread just about as quick as the so called Influenza and there was hardly a scrap of medicine on the boat."

    Of the food, he writes, "When all the poor fellows were down with fever the tucker was that dammed [damned] rough they couldn't eat it and my opinion like every living man that landed was that the majority of the deaths was purely through starvation."

    Despite being struck down with the virus himself, Paddon recalls being "hunted" out of his bunk to work sometimes up to 17-hour days.

    Several individuals known to Paddon are mentioned by name: 72222 Marcus ('Mark') William Wyber (1898-1937), NZMC; 72197 Private George Tomlinson (1893-1985), NZMC; 78918 Private John ('Jack') Short (1887-1918), 'B' Company, 40th Reinforcements; 78883 Private James ('Jim') Torrance Gilmour (1897-1967), 'A' Company, 40th Reinforcements; and 78891 Private Robert ('Bob') Hastie (1893-1918), 'A' Company, 40th Reinforcements.

    Paddon has also included a handwritten list of casualties titled "Names of the Men That Died at Sea", giving surname and first initials, and the date of death for 73 individuals, with a caveat that six were lost overboard during the night-time and so could not be included on the list. Paddon has named five individuals who died in England after the vessel's arrival, one of whom was a New Zealand nurse, Sister Elizabeth Tubman, NZANS (Apparently misnamed by Paddon. Probably 22/517 Staff-Nurse Esther Maude Tubman, NZANS, who died of cerebrospinal meningitis on 18 September 1918, at an isolation hospital in Salisbury, England, nine days after arrival.)

  • Other Id

    17258 (Presto content ID)

    MS-2022-1 (Reference Number)

    ACQ-2021-39 (Acquisition number)

    2022/1 (Registration number)

  • Department

Images and documents


  • Object Type
  • Name/Title
    Letter from 72299 Private Samuel Willis Paddon, NZMC, 1NZEF, to his father, 1918
  • Date
  • Physical Description

    7 sheets ; 257 mm x 200 mm

  • Level of Current Record
    Single Item
  • Public Access Text

    The total number of persons onboard HMNZT 'Tahiti' at the time of the outbreak was estimated to be 1,117 military personnel plus 100 crew (total 1,217 persons), about twice its normal carrying capacity.

  • Subject Notes
    Samuel Willis Paddon was born 19 October 1897, at Waikawa Valley, Southland, to Alfred and Grace Paddon. At the time of his enlistment on 20 October 1917, he was working as a farm labourer at Ryal Bush, Southland. Paddon was with the New Zealand Medical Corps (NZMC) as part of the 40th Reinforcements aboard the ill-fated voyage of HMNZT 'Tahiti' on its journey from Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 July 1918, to Plymouth, England, two months later on 9 September. During the voyage, according to Paddon, about 80 had died from influenza. It was believed to have made its way onboard whilst the vessel was anchored at Freetown, Sierra Leone. A Court of Enquiry was later held to investigate the circumstances of the outbreak aboard the 'Tahiti', which had by then become known as the "death ship". Paddon saw out the remaining months of the war in England, and after his discharge from the army on 18 October 1919 he returned to New Zealand, where he took up farming in Southland. Samuel Paddon died on 7 November 1984, at Invercargill, aged 87 years.
  • Credit Line
    Donated by Anne-Marie Paddon on 7 April 2022.
  • Last Update
    07 Dec 2023
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