On October 1, 1918, Victoria Medical Health Officer (M.H.O.) Dr. Arthur G. Price reassured Daily Colonist readers that the rumours of an outbreak were untrue: “So far there were no cases here.” But if there were, public health and “duty to the Empire” would justify “the closing of all schools, moving picture houses and public meeting places.”
“Prepare to Keep Epidemic Away,” Colonist, October 2, 1918, p. 2.
Meanwhile Victorians were breaking attendance records at the Home Products Fair.
“Crowds Smash Record Again,” Colonist, October 3, 1918, p. 1
The news from the Eastern United States just got worse. On September 13, cases in army camps since the epidemic began totaled 113,737, deaths a staggering 2,479. In Boston, the hardest hit of Atlantic ports, 191 people died on October 2.
“Influenza finds Host of Victims,” Colonist, October 4, 1918, p. 11
There was fresh cause for local concern as soldiers with the 259th and 260th Battalions began arriving at the Willows Camp on October 2. These “recruits” (draftees) were fresh-faced youths mobilized to oppose the Bolshevik seizure of power in the highly controversial, uninvited Allied intervention in Siberia, Russian sovereign territory, in the midst of the extreme disorder between two revolutions. The Siberian expedition mobilized just as the deadly Second Wave of pandemic influenza was getting underway.
Benjamin Isitt, From Victoria to Vladivostok, UBC Press 2010, pp. 83-4, 214 fn 69.
The same day, October 2, the first case of Spanish Flu on Canada’s West Coast was reported in Coquitlam. Assistant Director of Medical Services for Military District 11: “First case of Spanish influenza appeared in district in advance company of Siberian Expeditionary Force. Hospital opened this date at Coquitlum for this type of case.”
War Diary, Assistant Director of Medical Services Military District 11 (Victoria), 3 October 1918, quoted in “The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the ‘Great’ Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” by Mark O. Humphries, in Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 16:1,” p 254, fn 86.
By October 4 the Victoria medical health officer was reporting “a number of cases in Victoria.” None had appeared in Vancouver.
“Guard Against Epidemic,” Colonist, October 5, 1918, p 6.
On Saturday, October 5 Victoria mayor Albert E. Todd published an appeal on page 1 in the Colonist urging the public to turn out to the “Made-in-Victoria” Fair in record numbers and predicting that “Victoria, ‘The Fighting Port,’ will rise to the occasion.”
“Mayor to Public,” Colonist, October 5, 1918, p. 1.
The same tension as between the M.H.O.’s warning and the mayor’s invitation will be evident throughout the eighteen months the Spanish flu was present or threatening.
That Saturday, crowds of visitors mingled at the Saanichton Fair.
“Fair at Saanichton Draws Many Visitors,” Colonist, October 6, 1918, p. 4.
First known death triggers ban on schools and public gatherings
On the morning of Sunday, October 6, Frank Steinfield, the 27-year-old manager of the Pantages Theatre on Government Street, died in St. Joseph’s Hospital. “On the previous Sunday [September 29] he was taken with a severe cold,” the Colonist reported. “His physician advised him to remain in bed, but so anxious was he to attend to the many duties devolving upon him as manager, especially in view of the fact that the opening day of the week’s performance is a very busy one, he came out and attended to his business as usual. On Tuesday he was worse and on Wednesday pneumonia developed, necessitating his immediate removal to the hospital.”*
“Theatre Manager Dies after Short Illness. Mr. Frank Stanfield Succumbs to Pneumonia at St. Joseph’s Hospital Sunday Morning,” Colonist, October 8, 1918, p. 7.
How do we know Mr. Steinfield was Victoria’s first death from the Spanish flu? It can be inferred from, first, a reference in another article in the October 8 Colonist: “A death reported Sunday [October 6] is believed to have had its origin in influenza.”* “Reported Sunday” means, I believe, reported by the medical authorities; the death was reported in the newspaper on October 8. It was the first such report since Dr. Price announced the presence of Spanish flu in the city on October 4. The unfortunate Mr. Steinfield got sick on September 29 — before the Siberian battalions arrived. He contracted influenza from some other carrier that evidently did not get reported to M.H.O. Price. A native of Seattle, Steinfield came up in the theatre business under Alexander Pantages and of late lived with his wife Eleanor in the Hollywood Apartments on Superior Street in Victoria. He is buried in Seattle beside the grave of his brother Charles, who had died “in the Argonne Dist[rict], France” three days before. Mrs. Steinfield relocated to Seattle.
* “City Will Act to Check Epidemic,” Colonist, October 8, 1918, p. 4.
A second inference that Steinfield was Victoria’s Patient 1 can be drawn from events later on Sunday, October 6. Amid reports of “fifty to one hundred cases” of Spanish flu, Steinfield’s death seems to have triggered a huge response — for the times — from local health authorities. The Victoria and Saanich M.H.O.s huddled with their political masters, and on Tuesday, October 8, all schools in Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay closed, as well as “churches, theatres, pool-rooms, dance halls, and public meeting places until such time as danger is considered past in the city.” The Provincial Health Officer obtained an order-in-council from the B.C. cabinet to buttress the local authorities’ powers.
“City Will Act to Check Epidemic. All Churches, Theatres, Schools and Meeting Places to Be Affected by Closing Order—Saanich Already in Line.” Colonist, October 8, 1918, p. 4.
The city-wide ban on meetings would remain in force until November 20.* The commercial activity of the city was but little affected by the ban.
* Victoria M.H.O. Annual Report 1918, p. 89.
To the ban was added the M.H.O.’s advice to forego open-air church services and the like.
“Open Air Meetings,” editorial, Colonist, October 13, 1918, p. 4
In November, the Anglican bishop led a revolt against the ban on open-air church services. For more on gatherings see Armistice crowds ignore ban.
The M.H.O.s’ ban on meetings was re-invoked in January 1919 and again, with vastly diminished compliance, in February 1920, when the school board flatly refused to follow M.H.O. Dr. Price’s ban and the M.H.O. resigned, only to let himself be re-hired a week later.
Adding beds was easier than finding caregivers to tend them
Despite the timely ban, Victoria’s health services were soon swamped with new cases, and there were deaths almost every day.
The city’s Isolation Hospital proved inadequate to contain the spread of severe influenza and pneumonia.
The City took over an empty residence east of the downtown core and, on October 29, opened an emergency hospital.
In the temporary hospital, beds were soon going empty — not for lack of patients: for want of nurses and nurses’ assistants. M.H.O. Dr. Price issued frequent and increasingly urgent appeals for more volunteers to step forward and train in basic care-giving. It was represented as a duty. During several critical periods of multiplying cases, the response was never enough. In the end, “many lives were saved through home nursing by volunteer ladies.”* But the toll was terrible; see the Memorial section (under construction).
* Victoria M.H.O. Annual Report 1918.
Other responses were outlined in the M.H.O.’s Annual Report:
- Directions as to how to avoid infection and how to act if infected were published in the daily papers, warning notices were distributed and addresses given to working men
- Houses where influenza occurred were placarded and the patients quarantined until free from infection.
Flu in Willows army camp was quickly contained, with eight deaths
At Willows, the Siberian battalions were just settling in when a serious outbreak of influenza swept through the camp. A quarantine barracks was set aside and soon filled to overflowing with flu cases. Stadacona Park, with an empty house owned by the city, less than a mile from Willows Camp, was converted to an isolation hospital for soldiers.
Stadacona Park Military Hospital’s isolated situation can be gleaned from the 1913 fire insurance plan:
The Stadacona hospital was established on October 10. The first military death occurred there on October 14: Private Norman Dixon, 260th Rifles; his mother was in Edmonton, Alberta. On the 16th, Private Amos Parks, 260th Rifles, from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Three soldiers died on October 20.
The army medical officer’s end-of-month report provides a measure of the relative success of enforced quarantine and isolation. Lt.-Col. C. E. Doherty was Assistant Director of Medical Services (A.D.M.S.) for Military District 11, which took in Vancouver, the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. His report to Ottawa at the end of October 1918 showed the number of cases of influenza and lethal pneumonia and the number of deaths at all military hospitals for the month:
As published in The Daily Colonist, November 17, 1918, p. 4.
In other words, one in ten influenza patients at the military hospitals caught pneumonia, and of those, one in three died — eight of fourteen at Stadacona. Military personnel died of influenza at the rate of almost four in one hundred cases (51 is 3.94 per cent. of 1,303) in October 1918.
A stringent plan was put in place — “temperature parades” twice a day, instant segregation of the infected, regular sanitary inspections of hospitals. The result was a “marked decline in number of new cases, until now it is possible to say the disease is all but non-existent among soldiers in this Military District.”
“A Notable Feat,” editorial, Colonist, November 17, 1918, p. 4.
Rural public health nursing in Saanich
In Saanich, still largely rural, with dirt roads winding through old-growth forest, the home-visiting Victorian Order of Nurses (V.O.N.) were front-line caregivers in the battle with the flu. Saanich Police Chief James Dryden was part of the emergency team. He made a report to Saanich council on November 5, 1918. Chief Dryden’s hand-written text and the Colonist’s extensive coverage distilled the challenges the Spanish Flu posed in the district:
… Chief of Police Dryden … presented a report of the present outlook for control of the plague and the number of known cases … in Saanich. He reported … at present 196 known cases in the municipality, of these seven are serious. … at least two deaths, Mrs. Swallow, of Falmouth Road, and Mr. Persetti, of Wilkinson Road, having succumbed within the past week. …
The two V.O.N. Saanich nurses each were making an average twenty-five to thirty house calls a day:
The average number of cases seen each day for several days past has been between fifty and sixty … the work done by the Victorian Order Nurses Forshaw and Headington was one of the main reasons why the epidemic had been kept within controllable limits.
Nurse Forshaw herself contracted the flu, along with the district medical health officer:
The work had been too much for those in charge of the campaign, and at the time Chief Dryden made his report to the Council Nurse Forshaw had been stricken with the disease and Medical Health Officer Dr. J. P. Vye was also a victim.
Chief Dryden speculated that many cases of Spanish Flu went unreported:
… The majority of cases were in Wards 2 and 7 … many other unreported cases … new cases averaging from seven to ten each day, and if it were possible to get all the patients to report to the medical officer the number of known cases would take sudden jump.
While commending the work of the Victorian Order of Nurses, the police chief pointed up a vital safeguard of public health that was missing in Saanich, an isolation hospital:
Chief Dryden expressed the conviction that the best procedure would have been for Saanich to have established an isolation hospital in the earlier days of the epidemic in order that the spread of the disease through families might have been stayed. Experience showed, he said, that the illness in nearly every case went completely through a household when the first person to get it was not isolated. … In the past week the police automobile had travelled 1,100 miles in connection with influenza cases, and the car operated by the Victorian Order of Nurses had done even more. …
As if to underscore the gravity of the threat, Chief Dryden himself caught the flu:
Since his report to the Council on Tuesday, Chief Dryden has been taken ill with what is believed to be the influenza, and the Victorian Order reports an addition of ten cases to the list of known cases yesterday, with an unconfirmed report of an additional death. …
Colonist, November 7, 1918, p. 8.
The president of the Saanich branch of the V.O.N., Maude Hall, in her second (1918) annual report, captured the stress the nurses worked with:
But it was in November that the Victorian Order Society proved its worth, 591 visits being paid by the nurses  in that one month. Whole families were stricken down by the plague and our nurses were working almost day and night. Before long, Nurse Forshaw, who had become our first nurse, collapsed through strain and overwork and contracted the Influenza. Miss Headington, who had left us in September to take up War Work, showed her splendid humanity by at once offering to return and take up the work Miss Forshaw was prevented from doing. The Board accepted the work of Miss Headington with great thankfulness. Miss Norcross of Victoria also helped during this trying time, and our gratitude goes out to her and to our sister Society. Several other helpers were engaged and their services were paid for by the Council. The girl Guides showed that they were indeed “Daughters of the Empire” for they helped with the fight against disease by making Pneumonia jackets.
Saanich Clerk’s Office Correspondence 1906-1946. Box 13, files 2-3 (1919). Saanich Archives.
Nurse Jessie Forshaw submitted reports of each month’s activities of the V.O.N. in Saanich. On the same form she compiled a report of the year’s activities for 1918. In the annual report she noted she had been off duty from November 3-20 with influenza, and again from November 25 to December 3.
During the second absence, Forshaw returned to her family home in Vancouver, where on November 26 her 18-year-old brother Jabez died of influenza.
In Saanich, public education to combat the epidemic included this leaflet, which repeated the wisdom of the day that influenza was caused by bacteria. (Science was more than a decade away from isolating the influenza virus.)
Other municipalities’ responses
A longer view of the epidemic in the Town of Esquimalt can be surmised from the 1919 annual report to Council of the Medical Health Officer, Dr. Edward Boak. (He did not submit a report for 1918.)
During the winter of 1919, with the pandemic of influenza raging, Esquimalt suffered severely, but not out of proportion to other Municipalities. The schools were closed during the height of the epidemic, and all public meetings banned. When the diseases subsided and the schools reopened, all children with colds or in whose houses illness prevailed , were kept away from school as a precaution. Notices were posted in conspicuous places warning the public of the danger of crowds, and all possible efforts were made to prevent the disease spreading.
E. W. Boak, M.D. letter to the Reeve and Council, January 1, 1920, in The Corporation of the Township of Esquimalt, Financial Statements and Reports as at December 31, 1919. Township of Esquimalt, Annual Statements 1912-1945. At Esquimalt Archives.
As for Oak Bay, most of the municipal records were destroyed in a flood in the late 1940s. A review of the surviving Minutes Books could yield information on its response to the epidemic.
Published March 25, 2018; last updated December 30.