This November, as the world has commemorated the centenary of Armistice Day and the end of World War 1, another 100-year milestone has also been unfolding. It's the anniversary of a crisis which caused even more deaths than the Great War itself: The influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide. In New Zealand, November was the peak of its grim rampage. Stephen Stewart looks at the history of the Great Flu and three of its victims who had Whanganui links.

Wellington's worst day was November 18, 1918, when there were 63 deaths.

So many were dying that Post Office trucks were taking 16 bodies at once to the cemetery.

According to the Health Department at the time, about half the New Zealand population was infected with the influenza that was gripping the globe. In some small New Zealand towns – such as Inglewood, Taumarunui and Taihape - 90 per cent of adults were laid low.

Deaths in Whanganui and the surrounding county numbered 111.

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The same picture was repeated across the world as one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history swept through communities, infecting 500 million people – or one-third of the world's population – 50 million of them would die.

The pandemic was mainly spread in New Zealand by soldiers returning from the war in Europe. In close-contact military camps like Trentham and Featherston, hundreds died. It was rife in ports, and soldiers going to their homes throughout the country spread it further.

Victims often died within 24 hours. Many turned black. Thousands more got sick before slowly recovering. Streets, even whole towns, were deserted. People struggled just to feed themselves.

Health workers and police were overwhelmed, many dying themselves, and temporary hospitals struggled to cope.

New Zealand's pre-eminent expert on the epidemic, Professor Geoffrey Rice, author of the book Black Flu 1918, says 8831 New Zealanders died in the 1918 flu, at home and overseas.

Geoffrey Rice, author of Black Flu 1918 (pictured with his earlier book Black November) says the 1918 influenza epidemic is likely to have killed around 9000 in New Zealand.
Geoffrey Rice, author of Black Flu 1918 (pictured with his earlier book Black November) says the 1918 influenza epidemic is likely to have killed around 9000 in New Zealand.

He adds, "if, as we suspect, several hundred Maori deaths were not reported at the time, the true total of mortality would be just over 9000.

That would be about half the total of New Zealand military personnel who died in the four years of the First World War: 18,000."

People were buried hurriedly, their identities and backgrounds largely remaining a mystery - until this year when the Wellington genealogists began digging up their past.

For decades, most of the influenza victims' graves in Wellington's Karori Cemetery lay neglected and overgrown. Many people lay in unmarked graves, while some had been disinterred and their remains put elsewhere as no one had paid for their grave or marker.

Now genealogists have created a new website www.1918influenzakarori.weebly.com which documents the 660 flu victims who are buried there.

The genealogists have researched and documented 160 of the victims' lives in intimate detail.

Here are the stories of three of those victims, each of whom had links to Whanganui:

Bert Hart
Bert Hart was from a wealthy Auckland family and was operating a successful business in Whanganui with national prospects and married with a young child when influenza struck.

His Whanganui business followed in the trade of his father who was a "spring mattress manufacturer" in Auckland.

Bert's manufacturing business, set up in 1909, expanded to premises in Wellington and Christchurch. The firm continued into the 1950s.

However, Bert did not live to see the ultimate success of his business.

His life was cut short at the height of the influenza epidemic in November 1918 when he died in Wellington, aged 32.

He was born on January 16 1886 in Hobson St, Auckland, the son of Woolf and Rachel Hart. He was their third child, with his sisters Miriam (known as Minnie) born in 1881 and Ivy born in 1882.

In March 1909, Bert set up in business at 5 Wicksteed Place, Whanganui as a wire mattress and bedding manufacturer.

The year was 1918 and precautions against influenza infection were being taken. The public wait their turn at the inhalation chamber, Health Department Buildings, Auckland. The dreaded
The year was 1918 and precautions against influenza infection were being taken. The public wait their turn at the inhalation chamber, Health Department Buildings, Auckland. The dreaded " Spanish Influenza " was sweeping the world and 8573 New Zealand civilians were killed by a silent plague in a few short weeks. Photo / File

The Wanganui Chronicle reported that he had some 15 years' practical experience in making wire-woven mattresses, door mats and all kinds of kapok and flax bedding, and had the country's most up-to-date machinery.

When he was 23, Bert married Eva Cogan on June 22, 1909. Presumably they had met in Auckland. The same age as Bert, Eva had been brought up in Devonport where her father had operated as a blacksmith for many years.

Two years after their marriage, Eva and Bert had a daughter, Zena, on May 2, 1911, born in Whanganui.

In the same month, the Chronicle reported that Bert had installed a telephone in the family residence in Durietown, some two years after one went into the business premises at Wicksteed Place.

By December 1912 the business had become the wholesale mattress manufacturer B L Hart and Co. Two years later, Bert's father Woolf, 72, died in Auckland.

By 1915, Bert had opened a branch of the business in Tory St, Wellington. For a time, the family lived at the Albert Hotel, at the corner of Boulcott and Willis streets, but in mid-1918 they moved to 18 Roxburgh St, Mt Victoria, Wellington.

Later that year, after nine days of illness, Bert died on November 21 of septic pneumonia at the St John's temporary hospital.

He was interred in the Jewish section of Karori Cemetery on November 22,1918.

His wife Eva also contracted influenza but recovered and went on raise their daughter Zena while continuing to run the business, which consolidated in Wellington.

Aggie Tong
In Whanganui, Agnes Mary Beckett's marriage to a Chinese man was a rarity in 1915 – especially as she already had two young children.

After the New Zealand-born Aggie, as she was known, married Ngan Tong (also known as Ngan Ah Tong) they moved to Wellington.

She died there in the 1918 epidemic, two years after the birth of her third child and 10 weeks after the birth of her fourth.

Her death and burial details were recorded under different names – officials were inconsistent in distinguishing surnames from first names, as happened to many migrants from China and elsewhere.

Aggie was born about 1890 in Maerewhenua, near Oamaru, and the family later moved to Pahiatua.

Aggie appeared on the electoral roll in Hope St, Masterton in 1911 and then moved to live and work in Whanganui where she gave birth in 1913 to a son, Eric Stanley.  The following year she had a daughter, Rubina Beryl, in Wellington.  Neither had a father recorded on their birth registration.

The Eketahuna medical team that battled to save townsfolk during the 1918 influenza epidemic, outside the Eketahuna Technical School which was used as the emergency hospital. Photo / file
The Eketahuna medical team that battled to save townsfolk during the 1918 influenza epidemic, outside the Eketahuna Technical School which was used as the emergency hospital. Photo / file

Perhaps Aggie got to know Ngan (Ah) Tong in Whanganui. The Aliens Register of 1917 showed he came to New Zealand in 1907 and would have had to pay £100 poll tax to enter the country to work.

Naturalisation ceased for Chinese in New Zealand in 1908 and a new immigration reading test in English that year cut migration from China dramatically.

Ngan (Ah) Tong, 44, lived in Whanganui when the Aliens Register was prepared and was one of 90 men and three women from China then based in the wider Whanganui area. 
Most were market gardeners in the rich, black, river soil.

Some also had shops in town or supplied the 14 Chinese fruiterers or greengrocers and eight Chinese storekeepers who retailed produce locally as well as tobacco, confectionery, and sometimes grocery items.

Many of the city's Chinese community came from two clans who had migrated from Poon Yue County in Canton.

Aggie married Ngan (Ah) Tong on February 10, 1915, in the Wanganui registry office. Ngan, a fruiterer, then recorded his age as 40.  Aggie was 24 and was working as a waitress.

New Zealand had few unmarried Chinese women at this time.  In earlier years European women got in trouble with the law for consorting with Chinese men but some marriages did occur, although the total number was small from the 1870s to the 1910s.

Aggie and Ngan (Ah) Tong's son Edgar James Francis was born in early 1916 when the family was probably living in Upper Hutt, where the birth was registered.

They had a second son, Ivan Joseph on September 4, 1918, when they were living above a greengrocer's shop in Newtown.

In 1918, when Aggie got sick with influenza, she was taken across town to the Normal School temporary hospital in Thorndon. It had 91 beds for the extremely sick.

She died there aged 28 on November 29, 1918.

No death notices were inserted in local newspapers at the time and she was buried on December 1, 1918 in Karori Cemetery.

After her death it is unclear who raised her young children though both Eric and Edgar supported their father in his business in Owen St, perhaps while Aggie's first daughter Rubina kept house from a young age.

Aggie's baby son Ivan was just 10 weeks old.

Ngan (Ah) Tong did not return to China to live like many of his compatriots in earlier years, nor did he remarry.  He stayed in Wellington, as did his son, Edgar for many years.

Ngan (Ah) Tong died in 1945, aged 82 and was cremated at Karori Cemetery.

Mary Keegan

Lower Hutt-born Mary Keegan married Patrick Keegan in Whanganui in 1894 aged 21. She had her first child in that year and then 11 more – seven boys and five girls, the last only three years before her death.

Mary and Patrick lived at Castlecliff in the early days of their marriage. He worked as a fireman, possibly in the workforce supporting the port.

Her parents also lived near Whanganui from the 1880s onwards, with Benjamin a platelayer with the railways. Mary's mother Jane died in 1900, aged 54, but her father continued living there until his death in 1909, aged 67.

By 1905 Mary, Patrick and family had moved to Wellington, and Patrick was an engine driver on one of the former sailing ships now serving as coal hulks in the harbour.

Mary, Patrick and their children all lived on board the storage hulks that Patrick was looking after, probably cramped and undoubtedly dirty, but perhaps with a strong sense of community among the hulk-keeping families.

On November 22, 1918, the New Zealand Times reported that Vincent Keegan, 16-year-old son of the keeper of the "Occident", was in hospital with influenza. Three days later, it said Mrs Keegan, two daughters and a son were all in the temporary hospital at Wellington College with influenza.

The children recovered but Mary did not. She was buried in the Roman Catholic section at Karori cemetery the next day. She was 35.

Patrick kept working as a hulk keeper on the "Occident" until 1938, when it was still his occupation and address in the electoral roll.

However, by the Second World War the hulks' role was largely over.

About this time Patrick moved to Auckland and died there in 1949, aged 93. He was buried in Karori Cemetery alongside his wife Mary.

* Thanks to Geoffrey Rice for information from his book Black Flu 1918: The story of New Zealand's worst public health disaster. (Canterbury University Press)

Georgia Delany, 6, from Owairoa Primary School demonstrates safe sneezing with a tissue. Photo / file
Georgia Delany, 6, from Owairoa Primary School demonstrates safe sneezing with a tissue. Photo / file