1918 Influenza pandemic in Nelson


The 1918 influenza pandemic has been called "the world's biggest disaster of the twentieth century"1, and its lessons continue to be significant. The outbreak killed more people than World War I - an estimated 50 million worldwide, mainly young adults, which was especially devastating at this time. In two months New Zealand lost about half as many people to influenza as it had in the whole of the First World War: "No other event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time."2 The Nelson region was affected by the flu, but suffered far fewer severe cases and deaths than most regions. 

Pease celebrations

Peace Celebrations Nelson. Nov.13.18. F N Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum 312133

The pandemic was known as the "Spanish flu" because the first widely reported case was that of King Alfonso XII of Spain in May 1918, in the mild first wave of the disease. There were two, or possibly three more waves, the most virulent and severe being the second wave of 1918. Those affected by the less severe first wave apparently developed some immunity and were less affected by the severe second wave.

How the Spanish Flu came to New Zealand

In October 1918 mild flu appeared in New Zealand when the passenger liner Niagara berthed in Auckland on 12 October 1918, bringing Prime Minister Massey back from a war conference. There were several cases of mild flu on board, but nothing unusual, so no precautions were taken. That same week two large troop ships also arrived in Auckland, carrying sick and wounded soldiers from camps in Southern England heavily affected by flu. The returning soldiers scattered home across New Zealand and this was the most likely cause of the spread of the disease.


Nelson Hospital (c.1906) Retrieved from NZETC

The flu reaches Nelson

Nelson had already been affected by mild flu when the severe second wave hit the city in November 1918, arriving by sea. The collier Kakapo arrived from Onehunga on 8 November carrying the disease. The afflicted sailors, who were referred to Nelson Hospital, passed it to the nurses.  Other ships also arrived carrying the flu - the Karu from Lyttelton on 12 November, and the regular ferry Mapourika was still sailing daily from Wellington where the illness was rampant. On 7 November there was a performance of the Gondoliers by the Blenheim Operatic Society - the tenor Gordon Litchfield came down with flu, took it back to Blenheim and died on 18 November. His sister also died.

Nelson's inhalation atomiser was returned from Wellington and set up at Port Nelson on 11 November.3 This sprayer was intended to kill the "germ" with patients breathing in zinc sulphate fumes - little was then known about how viruses spread. The treatment probably did more harm than good.

In spite of the increasing spread on the disease people came out en masse across the country to celebrate the end of the war. Nelson's celebrations took place on 12 November. The flu then "exploded" according to Dr. Sidney Gibbs.4

The Health Department at last took action and sent out instruction to Council's across the country to deal with the flu. The Nelson Mayor, William Snodgrass, called a public meeting 12 November and a Citizen's Vigilance Committee was elected, which insisted on strict isolation of households with flu. Face masks were issued to volunteers, but were not compulsory. The A&P show was postponed and a medicine depot was established in an empty shop in Trafalgar Street. Patrols were set up, and a soup kitchen was established in the Nelson Technical School. The town was very quiet, with shops, pubs, schools and churches closed, coastal shipping stopped and Newman's bus services and the trains operating limited timetables. Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls isolated themselves. Nelson College packed up and went into summer camp up the Maitai.5

hospital ward

Inside a ward. Nelson Hospital. Nelson Provincial Museum, Historical Society Collection: 326769

The Nelson region did not suffer badly from the flu. Many people seemed to have developed immunity from the less severe first wave. Nelson Hospital had 86 flu admissions in November 1918, 78 developed pneumonia and 14 died. Motueka had only 4 deaths, there were 3 in Takaka/Collingwood, 11 from the rest of Waimea County. Richmond had 31 cases admitted to hospital. The outbreak peaked towards the end of November - with a total of 29 deaths, one of the lowest urban death rates in New Zealand (3.3 per 1000; the NZ average was 6 per 1000).6 War had a far greater impact on Nelson than the flu.

Apart from apparent immunity in the Nelson community, good nursing and hospital care minimised the number of deaths.  Dr. James Jamieson, Medical superintendant of Nelson Hospital 1915-1920, effectively managed hospital care. Jamieson subsequently published   "Notes on the recent epidemic of influenza in Nelson" in the New Zealand Medical Journal,7 which remained valuable for clinicians on symptoms and treatment. He also pestered politicians for a new hospital at this time, and got it. He later became Chairman and President of the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association (BMA), was the first BMA gold medal holder (awarded 1950) and was awarded a CBE 1956.8

Nelson's soldiers and influenza

Approximately 20 Nelson soldiers died of flu in hospitals and camps in England, at the front or in military training camps in New Zealand.9  A list of these and other Nelson related deaths, compiled by Geoffrey Rice and Karen Stade, can be found in the Nelson Historical Society Journal (2019), 8(5), pp.20-23.

 July 2020 (updated Dec 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Rice, G.W. (2019) 2018 James Jenkin Lecture: Nelson in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 8(5), pp. 7-19.
  2. 'The 1918 flu pandemic' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 22-Apr-2020
  3. Influenza (1918, November 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4
  4. Rice
  5. Influenza: epidemic in Nelson (1918, November 16) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4
  6. Rice
  7.  Jamieson (1919) Notes on the recent epidemic of influenza in Nelson. New Zealand Medical Journal, 18, pp 46-51
  8. Oliver, J. (2013) 'Jamieson, James Peter Speid', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 23-Oct-2013.
  9. Stade, K. (2019) Influenza in service. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 8(5), pp.25-29

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