It was a miserable fall for residents of Ladysmith in 1918. The Great War in Europe dragged on, the country was deeply in debt and unemployment remained a problem. The city was still reeling from the divisive impact of the 1913 miner’s strike, and regional economic development was on hold until war’s end. The struggling young city did not need another disaster, but one had already begun.
According to Wikipedia, in a sixteen week period from mid-September to mid-December of 1918, roughly 500 million or one third of the world’s population were infected, and somewhere between 50 and 100 million died from Spanish influenza – more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. Recent studies have now conclusively identified the 1918 and 2009 pandemics as being caused by the same virus – the infamous H1N1.
This particular virus causes the body’s immune system to overreact, which perhaps explains why so many otherwise healthy individuals were victims. The strong immune system reactions of young adults ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths.
According to medical historian John Barry, the 1918 flu outbreak began in the United States and was carried overseas to France from troops trained at Fort Riley, Kansas. From there it quickly spread around the world, including Canada.
The first mention of the virus in Ladysmith is found in the September 24, 1918 issue of the Chronicle, which describes an flu outbreak in Victoriaville, Quebec. On October 5, the same paper reported that there were now more than one hundred cases of the flu in Victoria, B.C, and all public events in that city had been cancelled. By October 12, the virus had reached Duncan, and the front page of the October 19 Chronicle contains a public notice signed by Mayor E.G. Pannell prohibiting the holding of any public meeting in any venue in Ladysmith.
By October 26, City Medical Health Officer Dr. A.C. Frost had requested authorities to close all churches, schools and social clubs in Ladysmith and citizens were urged to shop early so that “store clerks could return home to their families before 6 P.M.“ By the following week a total of 19 deaths from influenza were reported in Vancouver and Victoria. The flu pandemic in B.C. and around the world was rapidly gaining momentum.
This was not welcome news for the citizens of Ladysmith. There had been a breath of cautious optimism as the war in Europe wound down, but nearly fifty men from the town had lost their lives during the conflict, while many others had been severely wounded and would require years to recover. News from the battlefields of Europe still filled the pages of the Chronicle, accompanied by pleas for citizens to purchase Victory Bonds to meet Canada’s war debt of more than one billion dollars.
Ironically, many local businesses saw the influenza outbreak as a commercial opportunity. A Ladysmith Drug Company ad urged people to buy “compound essence of cinnamon to ward off the first attack of the Spanish flu. 25 cents a bottle” – and an advertisement placed by Thomas & Harris on High Street proclaimed that the Spanish flu could be avoided by buying “solid leather boots and shoes – we have them in all sizes.” The Colliery, however, remained open throughout the epidemic, although all workers were encouraged to wear masks.
The early November issues of the Chronicle were filled with news of the flu. Requests from the Board of Health asked school teachers and other volunteers to work in the emergency hospital established in the Temperance Hotel, and letters to the editor contained prayers for the sick and bereaved. Ladysmith reported 14 cases on November 2, but these numbers did not include those from the nearby native Indian community, where the flu mortality rate now threatened to surpass the earlier ravages of smallpox.
On Sunday, November 3, the first death from Spanish influenza occurred in Ladysmith. Alfred Spineto, 19, had been brought to the emergency hospital with an advanced case and the medical staff could not save him.
To the families of the soldiers involved in World War I, the Spanish Flu was particularly tragic. As the war dragged to an end in 1918, many families were filled with relief to learn that their sons (and in some cases, their daughters) had emerged from that terrible conflict wounded or exhausted but alive. Imagine the grief they must then have felt in learning that these young soldiers or nurses had succumbed to an attack of the flu.
On November 11, 1918 at 2:00 A.M. a telephone message relayed from Nanaimo announced the signing of the armistice. The depleted staff of the Chronicle managed to put out an extra and distribute it to Ladysmith businesses and miners going to work at six o’clock that morning. The mayor visited local businesses and asked them to close for the day so that a celebration could be held that afternoon. At 1:30 PM, a parade left the Post Office traveling down Esplanade to Buller, up First Avenue to Methuen and then to on the public school. The mayor and council lead the parade on the fire truck and were followed by “a number of returned veterans, members of the Junior Red Cross, citizens in autos and on foot and the crew from the United States Revenue Cutter Bear”, which happened to be in port at the time. The ‘Great War’ was finally over, and everyone not ill with the flu joined in the celebration.
The Spanish Flu had also run its course in British Columbia. Although it is difficult to calculate the exact number of deaths in Ladysmith caused by the virus, archival records indicate an unusually high number of fatalities aged 18-25 in the fall of 1918. As a sad footnote to this moment in our town’s history, the front page of the December 7th paper contained a glowing tribute to one of the last local flu casualties: Sam Carley, co-owner and publisher of the Ladysmith Chronicle.
By Ed Nicholson, Ladysmith and District Historical Society.