Gisborne's forgotten disaster

Remembering 'Black November', 1918.

Remembering 'Black November', 1918.

BREATHE IN: People inside an inhalation chamber in Christchurch during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Similar chambers existed all over New Zealand, including Gisborne, and were set up by the Public Health Department for disinfecting throats and lungs. The inhalation chambers were later found to have had no effect in preventing influenza. Picture courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/1-008545-G.
COOK HOSPITAL: A Mr Bickford, speaking at a public meeting in Gisborne in November 1918, said working people did not want to go to the hospital “because so many deaths have been reported there.” Among the approximately 9000 New Zealanders who died during the influenza epidemic were 39 nurses, but none from Gisborne. Picture supplied

100 years ago this month, Gisborne, New Zealand and much of the world was being devastated by the Influenza Epidemic. Wynsley Wrigley looks back at this deadly disaster, seemingly unknown to many people today, and how it impacted on Tairawhiti . . .

November 1918 has been referred to as Black November. More than 160 people died in Gisborne, on the East Coast and in Wairoa during the Influenza Epidemic, which peaked in November of 1918.

Across the nation, the fatal events of a century ago killed more than 30 times as many New Zealanders as the 1979 Mt Erebus DC10 crash (257 fatalities) and the 1931 Napier Earthquake (256 fatalities).

Total deaths are estimated at up to 9000 Kiwis (in less than two months) out of a total population of around 1.15 million — or about half of the New Zealanders killed on the battlefields of World War 1, which ended on November 11, 1918.

The deaths included a vastly disproportionate number of Maori at about 2500 including in the Wairoa district where Maori were devastated with a death rate more than 10 times that of the European rate.

Deaths across Tairawhiti totalled 167.

But the epidemic was a global disaster killing between 20 million and 50 million people with the movement of World War 1 armies, including soldiers returning home, contributing to its spread.

In November 1918, The Poverty Bay Herald and the Gisborne Times were reporting on an impending Armistice in Europe.
War casualties were published daily while other regular topics included articles about Allied advances, Bolshevik Russia, revolution in Germany, the fate of the despised Kaiser and glowing tributes to the troops.

But the latest influenza deaths and the huge impact the epidemic had on daily life in Gisborne were also regularly reported.
There were numerous advertisements for Fluenzol, Bonningtons Irish Moss, Heenzo, Coldenza and other medications.

Other advertisements sought emergency drivers or vehicles “not for conveying patients, but for general emergencies” or volunteers, experience not required, to replace ill nurses.

Gisborne, like the rest of the country, was heavily impacted. The workforce was depleted and many work places and schools closed.

Shipping services were disrupted making coal, sugar, flour and chemists’ supplies hard to find.
Telegraph and banking services were interrupted.

Buildings were disinfected and the town was divided into 10 blocks with supervisors appointed to check houses and businesses.People were discouraged from travelling.

The authorities frowned upon crowds gathering although this fear was universally disregarded as the country celebrated and partied when news of the armistice broke on November 12.

Epidemic wrought havoc in Wairoa

On November 5, The Poverty Herald reported the first two local influenza deaths while another 52 people were in Cook Hospital.

A hospital patient wrote in a letter to the Herald:
“One after another of the nurses became a victim, until more than half of the staff were patients in the infection ward.
“Doctor, matron, sisters and nurses . . . have more to do than they can possibly manage. Even the lady clerk from the office has put on a cap and apron and is doing her bit.”

The Herald on November 7 reported 68 influenza patients in Cook Hospital and “no less than five cases, however, ended fatally yesterday.”

Large but ‘‘unknown numbers of patients’’ were being treated privately.

Unaffected Cook Hospital nurses worked “exceedingly long hours’’.
There were volunteers but ‘‘the assistance was totally inadequate”.

Influenza patients become ill quickly starting with sore throats, headaches, high fevers, which could develop into breathing problems.

Some corpses turned black, but that was pneumonia leading to a condition known as cyanosis, where the amount of oxygen exchanged into the bloodstream is drastically reduced, and the skin loses its normal health pink hue, turning a dusky purple.

By November 12 there were 112 cases in Cook Hospital.

The Herald reported “there have been several fatal cases recently” and 21 out of 34 nurses had been “attacked”.
A public meeting in mid November, considered the issue of whether churches should be closed as a place where the public congregated.

That led to the question: Shouldn’t bars also be closed?

Gisborne borough councillor De Costa replied, “whisky keeps the germs away”.

The Herald reported the councillor’s comment led to laughter.
Doctor Sharp was later quoted by the Herald as recommending a teaspoon dose “of the proper spirit” each 24 hours.
The Times reported on November 21 that total Gisborne deaths numbered 40 so far during November.

Taking into account the average number of Gisborne deaths per month, “three deaths have occurred every two days as a direct result of the prevailing epidemic”.

There had been “almost as many deaths in the past 20 days as in any three months of the year’’.
On November 26, the Herald reported inhalation chambers — where people breathe in zinc sulphate vapour — were kept busy yesterday (a Sunday) despite unfavourable weather with 150 people using the chamber in Gladstone Road, 88 at the mission hall and 43 in Mangapapa.

Dr Wilson had said at an earlier public meeting that the inhalation chambers — used all over New Zealand — were “the only means of reaching germs that went down into the lungs”.

Today it is known the inhalation chambers were useless. Various sources say they probably did more harm than good.That includes NZ Geographic, which stated that was because the chambers gathered crowds and heightened the risk of contagion, “but also because a strong mixture would inflame the nasal tissue — if it hadn’t already been burnt by the steam — and render the person even more susceptible to influenza’’.

A Press Association (PA) report in the Poverty Bay Herald on November 29 said there had been 30-odd deaths in Wairoa with most of them being Maori.

There had been few European deaths and they were people who had not gone to the hospital.
“The natives give the greatest trouble owing to tohungaism,” said the PA article.

The Times said havoc had been wrought in the Wairoa district with 29 deaths at Te Reinga where housing was dilapidated, over-crowded and poorly ventilated.

On November 30 the Herald reported that the registrar of births, deaths, and marriages had ordered instructions not to disclose deaths “on account of the tendency towards a panic”.

The epidemic ended as quickly as it had begun.

By late November the epidemic had peaked or decreased in most parts of the country, and by early December it was effectively over.

Maori suffered heavily — their overall rate of death was about 50 per thousand people, compared to the European rate of 5.8 per thousand people.

The high death rate for Maori has been attributed to poor housing.

Mortality amongst Maori on the East Coast of the North Island was, according to Mr Rice, ‘‘much less than expected in comparison with other North Island districts’’.

This may have been because they had received partial immunity from the first wave which was reportedly widespread in the district during August and September, he said.

100 years ago this month, Gisborne, New Zealand and much of the world was being devastated by the Influenza Epidemic. Wynsley Wrigley looks back at this deadly disaster, seemingly unknown to many people today, and how it impacted on Tairawhiti . . .

November 1918 has been referred to as Black November. More than 160 people died in Gisborne, on the East Coast and in Wairoa during the Influenza Epidemic, which peaked in November of 1918.

Across the nation, the fatal events of a century ago killed more than 30 times as many New Zealanders as the 1979 Mt Erebus DC10 crash (257 fatalities) and the 1931 Napier Earthquake (256 fatalities).

Total deaths are estimated at up to 9000 Kiwis (in less than two months) out of a total population of around 1.15 million — or about half of the New Zealanders killed on the battlefields of World War 1, which ended on November 11, 1918.

The deaths included a vastly disproportionate number of Maori at about 2500 including in the Wairoa district where Maori were devastated with a death rate more than 10 times that of the European rate.

Deaths across Tairawhiti totalled 167.

But the epidemic was a global disaster killing between 20 million and 50 million people with the movement of World War 1 armies, including soldiers returning home, contributing to its spread.

In November 1918, The Poverty Bay Herald and the Gisborne Times were reporting on an impending Armistice in Europe.
War casualties were published daily while other regular topics included articles about Allied advances, Bolshevik Russia, revolution in Germany, the fate of the despised Kaiser and glowing tributes to the troops.

But the latest influenza deaths and the huge impact the epidemic had on daily life in Gisborne were also regularly reported.
There were numerous advertisements for Fluenzol, Bonningtons Irish Moss, Heenzo, Coldenza and other medications.

Other advertisements sought emergency drivers or vehicles “not for conveying patients, but for general emergencies” or volunteers, experience not required, to replace ill nurses.

Gisborne, like the rest of the country, was heavily impacted. The workforce was depleted and many work places and schools closed.

Shipping services were disrupted making coal, sugar, flour and chemists’ supplies hard to find.
Telegraph and banking services were interrupted.

Buildings were disinfected and the town was divided into 10 blocks with supervisors appointed to check houses and businesses.People were discouraged from travelling.

The authorities frowned upon crowds gathering although this fear was universally disregarded as the country celebrated and partied when news of the armistice broke on November 12.

Epidemic wrought havoc in Wairoa

On November 5, The Poverty Herald reported the first two local influenza deaths while another 52 people were in Cook Hospital.

A hospital patient wrote in a letter to the Herald:
“One after another of the nurses became a victim, until more than half of the staff were patients in the infection ward.
“Doctor, matron, sisters and nurses . . . have more to do than they can possibly manage. Even the lady clerk from the office has put on a cap and apron and is doing her bit.”

The Herald on November 7 reported 68 influenza patients in Cook Hospital and “no less than five cases, however, ended fatally yesterday.”

Large but ‘‘unknown numbers of patients’’ were being treated privately.

Unaffected Cook Hospital nurses worked “exceedingly long hours’’.
There were volunteers but ‘‘the assistance was totally inadequate”.

Influenza patients become ill quickly starting with sore throats, headaches, high fevers, which could develop into breathing problems.

Some corpses turned black, but that was pneumonia leading to a condition known as cyanosis, where the amount of oxygen exchanged into the bloodstream is drastically reduced, and the skin loses its normal health pink hue, turning a dusky purple.

By November 12 there were 112 cases in Cook Hospital.

The Herald reported “there have been several fatal cases recently” and 21 out of 34 nurses had been “attacked”.
A public meeting in mid November, considered the issue of whether churches should be closed as a place where the public congregated.

That led to the question: Shouldn’t bars also be closed?

Gisborne borough councillor De Costa replied, “whisky keeps the germs away”.

The Herald reported the councillor’s comment led to laughter.
Doctor Sharp was later quoted by the Herald as recommending a teaspoon dose “of the proper spirit” each 24 hours.
The Times reported on November 21 that total Gisborne deaths numbered 40 so far during November.

Taking into account the average number of Gisborne deaths per month, “three deaths have occurred every two days as a direct result of the prevailing epidemic”.

There had been “almost as many deaths in the past 20 days as in any three months of the year’’.
On November 26, the Herald reported inhalation chambers — where people breathe in zinc sulphate vapour — were kept busy yesterday (a Sunday) despite unfavourable weather with 150 people using the chamber in Gladstone Road, 88 at the mission hall and 43 in Mangapapa.

Dr Wilson had said at an earlier public meeting that the inhalation chambers — used all over New Zealand — were “the only means of reaching germs that went down into the lungs”.

Today it is known the inhalation chambers were useless. Various sources say they probably did more harm than good.That includes NZ Geographic, which stated that was because the chambers gathered crowds and heightened the risk of contagion, “but also because a strong mixture would inflame the nasal tissue — if it hadn’t already been burnt by the steam — and render the person even more susceptible to influenza’’.

A Press Association (PA) report in the Poverty Bay Herald on November 29 said there had been 30-odd deaths in Wairoa with most of them being Maori.

There had been few European deaths and they were people who had not gone to the hospital.
“The natives give the greatest trouble owing to tohungaism,” said the PA article.

The Times said havoc had been wrought in the Wairoa district with 29 deaths at Te Reinga where housing was dilapidated, over-crowded and poorly ventilated.

On November 30 the Herald reported that the registrar of births, deaths, and marriages had ordered instructions not to disclose deaths “on account of the tendency towards a panic”.

The epidemic ended as quickly as it had begun.

By late November the epidemic had peaked or decreased in most parts of the country, and by early December it was effectively over.

Maori suffered heavily — their overall rate of death was about 50 per thousand people, compared to the European rate of 5.8 per thousand people.

The high death rate for Maori has been attributed to poor housing.

Mortality amongst Maori on the East Coast of the North Island was, according to Mr Rice, ‘‘much less than expected in comparison with other North Island districts’’.

This may have been because they had received partial immunity from the first wave which was reportedly widespread in the district during August and September, he said.

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