One family's story - the 1918 influenza pandemic

One man tells of the terrible effect of the influenza pandemic on his family.


My father, the Reverend James McCaw of Lower Hutt – although by this time engrossed in helping people ill or dying with the dreaded plague – breathed a sigh of relief that his son was not on board the Tahiti but safe in camp at Featherston. Safe? Within a week the camp was visited by death a dozen times a day. Bert was one of the victims.

A day later his sister, Nan, a year younger, joined him from the Lower Hutt manse. Here too lay the youngest of the family and their mother, all at death's door. But the parson, he was fit and well and capable. He boiled a daily brew of beef tea in the copper. He fed a score of helpless sick folk in an emergency hospital set up in the church hall, and each day he presided over 10 or a dozen funerals. He and Father Walsh were the only two ministers of religion in the valley able to get about. They buried the dead as they were brought to the grave irrespective of creed or denomination.

In the midst of all this horror came the armistice, November 11, 1918. I recall the nearby church bell ringing and my father telling me the war was over. I was only vaguely interested. He told me that Bert my brother had died. I took as much interest. He took me in his arms and carried me to see my dead sister before she was carried to the grave. He took me for a last visit to my mother for he thought that both of us would die. But we didn't. We gasped for breath, our chests and throats rattled with the passage of the hard-won air. We sweated and we shivered, we fainted and revived. Death waited for us but we survived.

Close to us lived two middle-aged women, retired nurses. They bolted their doors and hid from the plague. My father burst their door open with a charge of his great shoulder and thrust them into the fray, where they and he toiled mightily. So he and his wife and the rest of his family came through it. But a hundred Hutt people did not. My father lost a score of his flock and two of his children, but not his faith.


The narrator's brother, who is mentioned in the first paragraph, was Corporal Robert Duncan McCaw.

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5 comments have been posted about One family's story - the 1918 influenza pandemic

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Posted: 21 Feb 2021

who is telling this story ?


Posted: 09 Jan 2019

this is wonderful. James' uncle, thomas todd, emigrated from scotland to the USA. I'm his greatgreatgrandson. this is my family. thank you


Posted: 17 Oct 2010

Reply Re the Robinson connection. My Grandmother Elizabeth Baldwin, (Nee Robinson ) from Okains Bay (The Lizzie of your Book) Lived later in 88Idris Road Christchurch with her family, My father Harry talked of their mother embargoing the family, on their property, where they were not allowed to leave for months. He spoke of he and his brothers from the vantage point of a macrocarta hedge, watching the horse pulled drays full of bodies,blackened in colour and covered with tarpolines and sheets, their dusky limbs protruding out of the , sheets and hanging over the sides and back of the huge wooden drays.

Lynette Eva Harvey nee Robinson

Posted: 24 Nov 2009

My Grandmother and her unborn 8 and-a-half month old baby died of the influenza she left behind her husband william robinson and three other children 2 girls and a boy, her name was stella francis graham nee Robinson buried at Okains Bay . A book was written called letters to Lizzie.It caused my dad to have a very lonely life without a mum. He later recieved the MBE for bravery.William Robinson MBE died in Auckland June 2007.


Posted: 03 Nov 2008

150 soldiers buried at Featherston, died of Influenza, many of the families of the soldiers erected their own family headstone, many of these stones are now enclosed in a Wall at the Cemetery where I am researching the WW1 Soldiers, headstones and some information is with Auckland Cenotaph site. I shall go down on Armistice Day with flowers for the soldiers. Every Anzac Day I lay a wreath at the Obelisk at the Cemetery.