1918: Dad has the Flu

It’s only been a few weeks since I shared a postcard from my collection but I felt that this one was too important not to share as well. The image on the front is unremarkable, so much so I haven’t bothered to scan it, a view of tree ferns in the Auckland Domain, however the message on the back from a young correspondent gives a personal insight into a month that was heartbreaking for many New Zealanders. In November 1918 the war was finally coming to an end but a deadly new menace had arrived on our shores.

Here is the message on the postcard:


Message on postcard, 2 November 1918. Includes reference to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Lemuel Lyes Collection

“Sat. 2/11/18. Dear Clarie, I got your letter last Saturday I think it was. Dad’s at home in bed today, both him and Muriel have the flue. The war news is good; although we can’t have Turkey for Christmas as she’s not our enemy anymore. We’ve got a weeks holiday next week as the teachers are coming to have their annual meeting for drill and that, at our school. I may say that the cat that ate our chicks is no more. Dad and I got it and had our revenge first with scout staves and then Dad with his gun. Well I must close now from your affectionate Brother Reg. P.S. Please excuse scribbling.”

The message seems innocuous at first, other than the incident involving the unfortunate feline, but the control of cats was a practical consideration in those times and such treatment was a common occurrence. If you can, and I know it is hard, try to give young Reg and his father a pass for that. The war news was indeed good, the Ottomans had surrendered just a few days earlier on 30 October. Reg didn’t know it at the time but Germany was about to surrender too, in only nine days, on 11 November. However, the potentially tragic news in the message is the mention of Dad and Muriel coming down with the flu.

Not enough attention is given to the personal experiences of those who were impacted by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’. Everyone has heard of it, everyone knows the statistics are horrific, but that’s about it. Part of the problem is that pandemics can sometimes be challenging to illustrate effectively. There is a wealth of historical photographs and moving images of wars, earthquakes, floods and cyclones, but there isn’t a comparable record of pandemics. There are some – but nowhere near as much. So we don’t see as many books, documentaries, movies or exhibitions. Thousands of tearful farewells took place behind closed doors, in bedrooms and hospitals. Private tragedies with little left to remind us of them other than epitaphs on headstones and dates on family trees. Which is why I felt it was important to share this postcard today – exactly one hundred years since the message was written.

I imagine that young Reg was around thirteen to fifteen. His message is endearing, with his playful joke at Turkey’s expense and the cute drawing in lieu of a one penny stamp (this card wasn’t postally used – I don’t think the ‘stamp’ would’ve convinced even the most gullible of postal clerks). His reference to scout staves suggests that perhaps he was a Boy Scout. Not surprising for the time. The potentially tragic news hidden in his message is the reference to his father and Muriel both suffering from the flu. Reg doesn’t put too much importance on this, but the line is ominous considering the timing. Sadly this flu season was unlike any other in our history – and this month, November 1918, ‘Black November’, was the peak of the outbreak in New Zealand.


1918 Influenza Pandemic: Outside the ‘Hall Hospital’ (Katikati) by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries).  CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ

The arrival of the influenza in New Zealand was initially blamed on the RMS Niagara which docked at Auckland on 12 October, but the consensus now is that she was unlikely the source and the exact arrival of the virulent form of the influenza is debated. What is known for sure though is that the pandemic hit New Zealand the hardest in November. Just ten days after Reg scribbled his message to Clarie, Armistice celebrations in Auckland on 12 November were overshadowed by the pandemic with people advised to stay at home and not to mix in crowds. Soon the whole country came to a halt, with workplaces, schools and public services closing down. In just two months about 9000 New Zealanders lost their lives to the influenza, that’s almost half the number of deaths that New Zealand suffered during the entire four years of the First World War. New Zealand men were more likely to die than women, which is unusual compared to other countries, Maori communities were hit particularly hard and the spread of the influenza from Auckland to Samoa and the negligence that followed resulted in an absolutely catastrophic number of fatalities there. One in five Samoans lost their lives.

A century on and New Zealand is still coming to grips with the full extent of the impact that the influenza had on our communities. Check out this link for ways to participate in the centenary commemorations. Ongoing research is underway to create a list of all New Zealanders known to have lost their lives during the pandemic. You can search it here – and see if your own family was affected. There is still a lot to be learned from the outbreak and in an age where intercontinental air travel is only a credit card swipe away and high density living is the norm we would do well to learn what lessons we can.

I like to hope that Reg’s family avoided the heartbreak that so many New Zealanders experienced during the pandemic, but sadly I don’t know if there was a happy outcome for them or not. Without a surname, address or other additional information it is difficult to identify them. If the names Reg, Muriel and Clarie mean anything to any of my readers then I’d love to hear from you.

The RMS Niagara may have succesfully dodged the blame for the influenza but she didn’t manage to avoid a German mine off the New Zealand coast in 1940. The wreck continues to leak oil and concerns have recently been raised that it could be an ecological disaster waiting to happen. I’ll write more about the Niagara another time. In 1933, New Zealand branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals formed a federation, you might know them better as the SPCA. They continue to campaign for cat population control methods that don’t involve staves or guns. Turkey is back on the menu. Approximately 180 000 of them are slaughtered in New Zealand every year for Christmas. If any budding botanists really want to see the postcard of tree ferns then let me know – I guess I’ll scan it if I have to.

P.S. Your scribbling is excused, Reg.

© Lemuel Lyes



13 replies »

  1. My Wife (in connection with Pandemic Flues reasearch) interviewed a survivior approx 15 years ago who although then very old said he remembered a cart carring Flue Victim bodies going up Tasman Street Wellington towards Newtown.

    • Thanks! It is certainly a shame how few reminders there are. It probably also doesn’t help that unlike many other disasters there isn’t a single day that can be marked as the anniversary, the way we do to remember the likes of earthquakes and shipwrecks. I’m glad to see WW100 encourage commemorations for the centenary though. What an incredible record – thanks for the link. Some amazing interviews there, such a variety of perspectives.

  2. Sometimes our looking back at history is faulty due to us using our 21st Century eyes, as you said about the feline problem. That’s why I always enjoy seeing a new post of yours arrive on the scene keeping us in history as it really was.

    • That’s what I like the most about the messages on the back of postcards, they often aren’t the glossed over version, or the ‘official’ history, but a short personal perspective – the way that someone else saw the world. It can be easy to hold those in the past to the standards of today, but to do so would mean that we might miss the opportunity to develop a better appreciation for what it was like for them. To see the world from their perspective for a brief moment. Thanks for stopping by – its always good to see you!

  3. I wonder if Reg’s cheerful postcard was never sent because his Dad died?

    The flu pandemic is one of the many things I now wish I’d asked my grandmother more about – she commented briefly on it a couple of times, but only to note how quickly people could die after contracting it, and that some bodies were discoloured. I never thought to ask about the impact on her local community. She had the flu, as did my mother, but my mother was too young to remember.

    • That’s a possibility, although the drawing in lieu of a stamp and the fact that no address has been filled in suggests that it wasn’t intended to be sent postally at all. This is pretty common for this era – a lot of postcards were slipped into envelopes along with letters from other family members. Or sometimes a bundle of postcards were sent at the same time.

      What a dreadful experience it must have been for those who lived through it. I’ve heard similar testimony about how quickly people could die after showing the first symptoms. It is really scary tho think about.

  4. Much history – global, social, and personal – encompassed in Reg’s little note.
    A most interesting vignette – thank you.

  5. Reading this in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today only two people in New Zealand have died. We’re just so monumentally lucky to live in these times and in this country.

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