News | 13 November 2018

Capital commemorates centenary of city’s worst natural disaster

The influenza pandemic that started in 1918 killed 50 million people internationally, around 9000 nationwide, and 757 in Wellington – the majority of the latter were buried in Karori Cemetery.

Image of ambulances in front of the Wellington Town Hall
Ambulances in front of Town Hall REF: natlibgovtnz:emu:PAColl-748969

The main breakout occurred between October and December, with New Zealand losing half as many people to the flu in two months, as it did during the whole of WWI.

The flu, thought to have originated on the Western Front, hit Auckland in mid-October, followed quickly by Wellington and Christchurch. In the Pacific, Samoa was one of the worst hit with 8,500 deaths due to the epidemic (approximately 22% of the population).

The Armistice on November 11 contributed to the contagion spreading, as everyone gathered together to celebrate the end of a long war.

The Wellington City Council, led by Mayor John Luke, was integral to the relief efforts, especially as top medical personnel became incapacitated with the flu themselves.

The Town Hall became the headquarters for the voluntary relief effort – and was the distribution point for food and medicine, including prescribed quantities of spirits which were considered to be a remedy by many local doctors.

Seats were also removed from the Town Hall to make room for beds as it got turned into a temporary hospital.

Deaths happened so rapidly that local mail trucks, and even the Mayoral car, were used to transport the bodies to Karori Cemetery, where staff needed help digging graves to keep up with the constant flow of corpses arriving.

Trams, ferries, and ships stopped operating, as did hotels, shops, bars, and clubs, and most communal areas were closed – with the city being divided into blocks managed by appointed captains.

To acknowledge the centenary of this momentous event in Wellington’s history, Mayor Justin Lester and Hon Grant Robertson will do an opening presentation and launch of the commemoration on Sunday 18 November at Karori Cemetery.

This will be followed by a public presentation by Professor Geoffrey Rice, author of two major publications about the epidemic in New Zealand.

Project volunteers will be running tours at Karori Cemetery tailor-made for the commemoration. There will be an information kiosk located in the Mortuary Chapel.