In 1918, Hastings mayor H Ian Simson was quietly optimistic the influenza pandemic (Spanish flu) that had reached Auckland would not enter his town.
His confidence, however, was short-lived. A boy visiting from Auckland in early November 1918 brought the virus with him to Hastings, and within days had infected all seven members of his family.
Mayor Simson arranged a public meeting on November 6 at the Hastings Assembly Hall in Heretaunga St to discuss ways of preventing the virus spreading.
The borough's water cart would be used to disinfectant the town's streets twice daily, and all schools would be fumigated. And anticipating the worst, Mayor Simson would decide with the Hawke's Bay Hospital Board to equip a Hastings building as an isolation hospital as Hastings did not have a public hospital at that time, only Napier.
Within a week of the November 6 meeting, the virus had spread to around 250 Hastings citizens. It mostly affected those aged between 20 and 45. In response to the worsening crisis, the Hawke's Bay Hospital Board announced two isolation hospitals, one for Māori in the Drill Hall, opened on November 26, and another for Europeans in the Hastings Racecourse's kiosk, opened on November 16 (now the Cheval Room).
The Drill Hall was in Southampton St, and in nearby Lyndon Rd a large marquee tent was put up on a vacant section. Here Māori would convalescence after discharge from the Drill Hall. This caused some controversy, with some neighbours protesting.
The first known flu fatality in Hastings was 22-year-old Gerald Vidal, son of original Vidal winery owners Mr and Mrs A J Vidal, of St Aubyn St, who died in a Hastings private nursing hospital on November 15. Two weeks later his sister Thelma also succumbed to the virus.
The only preventive measure approved by the Public Health Department was inhalation chambers, and one opened on November 18 in the Hastings Borough Assembly Hall in the Municipal Buildings.
Hastings District High School science master Mr W Morris, and Hastings Borough councillors Pratt and Beamish were placed in charge.
The chamber, from which a mist of zinc sulphate was inhaled, was said to be about as effective in preventing the virus as the miracle potions some local chemists were frantically advertising in the newspaper. In fact, the chamber likely helped spread the airborne germs.
Local GP Dr Ernest Boxer warned against drinking frequent tipples of whisky, which, according to him, would do more harm than good.
By November 20, 1200 people had used the inhalation chamber and 105 people were patients at the racecourse hospital (most people, however, chose to fight the disease at home).
At this time, influenza-related death notices began to fill the Hawke's Bay Tribune. Local undertakers S T Tong would eventually be so overwhelmed with work they did not have time to apply for the required burial permits from the council.
The council arranged for several vehicles to drive around Hastings displaying a red flag – these could be waved down by those suddenly struck with the disease and they would be taken to the racecourse hospital.
Residents were asked to put white flags outside their houses when a family member became ill with influenza so the Red Cross could visit them without anyone leaving the house.
Doctors were asked to give up their practice consultations in order to visit the sick at their houses and were to be contacted before 10am each day so they could plan their rounds.
Many businesses closed, as there were too few healthy staff to run them. Gatherings of more than 20 people were forbidden by council, and people were warned against loitering on the railway station platform as well as kissing and embracing visiting relatives.
Nurses and volunteer women played probably the most important role in care of the sick, as there was no known cure.
An urgent call was made by Mayor Simson for 20 women to replace those who had worked tirelessly in the Racecourse Hospital. Due to the shortage of nurses, volunteers were used, and the Red Cross also played a vital role.
When the mayor called his second public meeting on November 21 to discuss the influenza pandemic, it was attended by 40 women, and only a few men. Those women who answered the mayor's call at that meeting for help in nursing the sick did so with great courage and risk to themselves.
Four of them would die in this task at the racecourse hospital: three volunteers and Nurse Leech.
By the end of December 1918, when the main influenza pandemic threat had passed, 222 patients had been treated at the racecourse hospital, with 48 deaths.
At the Drill Hall, 87 Māori were admitted, with 11 deaths. Overall at least 73 European deaths were attributable to the pandemic in Hastings. Total registered Māori deaths were 24, but the true number is likely to be higher.
The Drill Hall hospital and convalescent marquee closed on December 18, 1918.
In 1917 there were 14 registered European deaths in Hastings, and in 1918 there were 91.
The 1918 influenza pandemic would kill an estimated 50 million worldwide. While 18,000 New Zealand men died in World War I over four years, the Spanish flu claimed 8600 here in just two months.
Next week, Napier's brush with the flu.
- I am taking pre-orders for my Historic Hawke's Bay book, now due in the first week of December, which is a collection of my best HB Today articles from 2016-2018, with additional photos and story material. The book has 160 pages with 26 in colour. Cheque to Michael Fowler Publishing of $59.90 to PO Box 8947, Havelock North or email below for bank details. Includes free delivery in Hawke's Bay. Please state if you want it signed. Ideal as a Christmas present.
- Michael Fowler FCA (email@example.com) is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.