from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Memories of Contagion

1919. My grandmother, Catherine Smithyman, and 4 of her 7 children. My father, Mervyn Smithyman is on the left.

1961. I was a thirteen-year-old travelling by bus from Florence to Venice as my father shared his story of the Spanish Influenza of 1919. I can still see in my mind’s eye the flat Italian landscape with little stone villages passing by as he told me how his mother had ministered to her seven small children while she herself was sick and unable to walk. His father had not yet returned home from the war in German East Africa where the British South African forces were mopping up after the guerrilla battles against the famous General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutztruppe . My father wept as he told the story. I had never before seen my father weep.

Over thirty years later, I taped an interview with my father and my uncle about their memories of the Spanish flu.

In 1919 the family were living in Bloemfontein, South Africa.  My father was the third child and 8 years old.

Uncle Harold: ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we were sent to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These do-gooders had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and this went on till Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent out to Tempe Park School to get away from the infection.’

My father: ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go to the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. She told me from her sick bed to go to the kitchen to get soup.

That was all fine for a little while and then I said, ‘Mum I have a headache!’

Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people. There were more people killed with the Spanish Influenza than in the Great War.’

I think we need to look back on such personal memories: to remember what our mothers and grandmothers did to care for us. That we are here, that we have survived so long, is a daily blessing for us.

2 thoughts on “from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Memories of Contagion

  1. Women in those days were wonderfully stoic. Mothers like your grandmother just coped, sick or not. My maternal grandmother lived near Bloemfontein on a farm. I wish I had asked her more questions about her life. There were so many untreatable sicknesses in those days. She had a little sister who died of scarlet fever at the age of 5.

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  2. Harold and Mervyn both related this story to us. As we learned about this at medical school I was fascinating to hear from real people who lived through it.
    Black soldiers were taken from South Africa to Europe in WW1 & when repatriated at end the ship stopped at Dakar where they contracted Spanish flu. By the time the ship to to RSA many sick on board but doctors decided against quarantine & sent them home. 600,000 south african mainly in rural area died over a period of 6 weeks.
    How easily we forget what must have been a catastrophe

    Thank you Anne

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