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Black November: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic…

Black November: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New Zealand

by Geoffrey Rice

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Geoffrey Rice's 'Black November' was first published in 1988. This 2005 edition has been extensively revised and expanded with three new chapters, fifty first-hand eyewitness accounts, and over 200 photographs and cartoons, many of which have not been previously seen. Rice was inspired to write about the 1918 influenza pandemic by his father's traumatic experiences during that time.

New Zealand was rejoicing in the news of the end of World War I when a terrifying sickness struck, and, in over a period of just six weeks, 8,500 mostly young, healthy adults, died from influenza and pneumonia in an epidemic that raged uncontrolled throughout the country, peaking on 23 November 1918.

A few weeks earlier a milder flu epidemic had swept through New Zealand and the rest of the world. According to Geoffrey Rice ‘the severe second wave of the pandemic started in July, in eastern France, the zone occupied by the Western Front’ (p. 56). There is the ‘possibility that the severity of the second wave of the Great Flu of 1918 may have had something to do with the widespread use of mustard gas on the Western Front at a time when troops on both sides were suffering from the ‘mild’ influenza of the first wave’ (Rice, 2005, p. 56) and ‘perhaps the flu virus found it easier to breed rapidly in the damaged lungs and respiratory tracts of men affected by gas, thus creating a ‘super-flu’ variant’ (Rice, 2005, p. 56).

Due to World War I ‘nearly a third of New Zealand doctors were overseas when the second wave of the 1918 pandemic struck’ and ‘more than 500 registered nurses’ (p. 60 & 231) leaving New Zealand short of medical staff. This was in some way compensated for by the volunteer organisations that had been formed to raise funds and provide parcels for the war effort and which swung into action.

I initially intended to skim through this book as I am researching two deaths in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic for a family history book I am currently working on; 'The Kelly Crawford family of the Waikato district'. Instead of merely skimming through, however, I read the book from cover to cover as I found the story so compelling. I am surprised at how many people don't know about the events in 1918, but I guess that I grew up being aware of it from my grandmother who told me about my grandfather's brother who had died.

The deaths in my family were George Allen (1890-1918) of Hamilton who died on 18 November 1918 at age 28, and Arthur Edward Kelly (1886-1919) who died on 16 November 1918 at age 32, leaving a wife and four year old child.

Arthur Kelly was working as a guard for the New Zealand Railways when he was struck down by double pneumonia. Rice (2005) explains that ‘the Railways Department was easily the biggest single employer for the government, with a total of 12,391 permanent and temporary staff in 1918. At least 140 of these died’ (p. 231). It seems railway workers were especially vulnerable due to their contact with the public as ‘in all the main centres, drivers, carriers, tram conductors, and railway and postal workers figure repeatedly in the death certificates’ (Rice, 2005, p. 228).

Arthur apparently recovered from one bout of influenza, but went to work driving trains too soon, suffered a relapse and died. ‘Breadwinners felt obliged to get up and go to work however wretched they felt, shrugging off the flu as if it were an ordinary cold. For those who gave in and took to their beds, there was a strong incentive to get up too soon and risk a relapse. No wages coming in meant no money to buy food or pay bills. This was the harsh reality of life for most working people in 1918. Many families used up their meagre savings in the epidemic when the breadwinner was laid low by the flu. Some firms paid wages during sickness; others did not. The great majority of breadwinners in 1918 were males, and this simple fact in itself is sufficient to explain a higher male mortality rate. These were people whose work brought them into contact with the general public.’ (Rice, 2005, p. 225).

Arthur’s death left his wife, Hilda, widowed and their child, Owen, without a father. This was a situation repeated throughout the country as ‘from November 1918 to March 1919 there were 1,046 claims for widows’ pensions lodged, and 963 granted... The net increase in widows’ pensions for the 1918-19 fiscal year was 1,019. Most of these were epidemic widows’ (Rice, 2005, p. 256).

This book makes an important contribution to New Zealand history as well as being a fascinating read. ( )
  DebbieMcCauley | Jun 12, 2012 |
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ix, 327 p. : ill., maps, ports. ; 22 cm
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