The latest figure is that there were 18,277 military deaths of New Zealanders in the First World War. What is less known is that from mid-October to mid-December 1918 there were nearly 9,000 deaths in New Zealand from influenza, and more than 8,000 of those were civilians. At the Narrow Neck military camp there were 226 cases of influenza and 21 deaths.
This epidemic has a personal resonance with me in that my late father (born in 1911 in Birkenhead) caught the virus, but as with many others aged between five and 15 years old he survived. Mostly, it was men and women aged between 20 and 45 years of age who died. Also, Māori were also seven times more likely to die from the epidemic, with around 2,500 deaths, over 20% of the total.
Geoffrey Rice in his excellent book ‘Black November; the 1918 influenza epidemic in New Zealand’ presents figures of 20 influenza-related civilian deaths in Takapuna Borough (a death rate of 7.3 per 1,000 from a total Borough population of 2,756), 15 in Birkenhead Borough (7.1 from a population of 2,116), 10 in Northcote Borough (6.1 from 1,651) and 36 in populous Devonport Borough (4.7 from 7,613). However, at that time the Birkenhead Borough Council contended they had only 13 deaths from influenza. The average across the greater Auckland region was 7.6 per 1,000 population.
It should also be noted that deaths in the Glenfield, Albany and East Coast Bays areas were included in the figures for the first three Boroughs. Waitematā County, which included the more rural areas to the north of those Boroughs, provided aid by allowing its County Engineer and the County car to spend two weeks with the St John’s Ambulance Transport Service.
Each Borough took responsibility for people in their local area, although the main effort was driven by the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board and particularly Mayor James Henry Gunson of the Auckland City Council. Each Borough had inhalation chambers (see photograph) to alleviate some of the suffering. Birkenhead Borough had its chambers available on a daily basis from 9am to noon, 1pm to 5pm and 6pm to 9.30pm.
Takapuna Borough had a hospital at Lake House, at that time on Takapuna Beach, and another at Milford at Dodson Avenue. The Borough also had convalescent homes for patients at Ocean View Road, Milford, and in a former tea kiosk in the Strand in Takapuna. At the time, Milford was reported as being harder hit than other parts of Takapuna, although this is difficult to confirm. The Takapuna Borough Council also asked that a white handkerchief be placed on the gate or on the front of a house where there was a sufferer from influenza. Because of concerns about the virus, the November meeting of the Takapuna Borough Council was held at Mayor William Blomfield’s residence, rather than in the Council Chambers.
Northcote and Devonport Boroughs used their local school buildings as emergency hospitals for patients. The Auckland Education Board closed all schools from 4 November 1918 and didn’t reopen until the new school year in 1919. Birkenhead Borough, on the other hand, used the Foresters Hall in what is now Hinemoa Street for its inhalation chambers. The school building in Birkenhead didn’t open until 1 February 1919. Birkenhead Borough also initiated a local relief fund, while the Devonport Borough Council was concerned to ensure that the proper ‘Standard Influenza Mixture’ and disinfectants were being dispensed by the two local chemists. Four ‘outside’ Devonport Council employees were affected by the influenza, as were four elected Councillors, but none died of it.
By David Verran