The tragic tale of Aotearoa's orphans

Tragically, the Spanish Flu killed many parents who left small children behind them. It's a loss still felt today in the shadow of Covid-19.

The tragic tale of Aotearoa's orphans
Boys gathered in the washroom in 1909 at The Catholic St Mary's Orphanage, Nelson Provincial Museum, 81849

At least 6,400 Māori and Pākehā children lost a parent to Spanish Flu in 1918. Some children lost both parents and most orphans were very young – 85 per cent were under the age of 14. A third were under the age of five.

While 135 pākehā children are known to have lost both parents, it is thought that many more Māori children suffered the loss of their mother and father.

The impact on families was enormous. Many children were taken in by whānau. Older sisters and grandparents became caregivers, especially where a mother had died. The result was fractured families with many siblings separated from one another to help spread the burden of care. When there was no family, government stepped in. In November of 1918, The Truth's Dunedin reporter declared influenza was devastating the city.

“It is a fact that the mortality has been alarmingly high… There are extremely sad cases in connection with the trouble. In more than one instance father and mother have died, leaving a young orphan family.”
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Tom and Annie Holt. Both died from influenza on 26 November 1918 leaving five girls behind them.

Government recommended that orphans be adopted within families where possible, or by people who could provide better lives in the country. Adoptive parents would be paid a maintenance fee equivalent to the cost of housing children in an orphanage. This encouraged family members to take children in, and there were fewer wards of state because of this. Widows were more common than widowers as men were more likely to die than women. They received a widow’s pension, which helped mothers without a husband’s income and mirrored the government’s financial support of war widows. Many spouses who lost partners and had children, never remarried.

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Myers Kindergarten nurses with influenza orphans, Auckland 1918. Photographer: Auckland Weekly News Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries AWNS-19181212-42-3.

In 2021, general manager at Beca Engineering, Andrea Rickard, wrote to her staff of her own family's experience of the Spanish Flu, the world's last pandemic.

“My great-grandparents were two of the 9,000 kiwis who died over the course of just a few months in 1918. Two lost little children, who had just seen their beloved parents die, left their home near Trentham to live with grandparents in Auckland who they didn’t know. Losing his parents at the age of two was a trauma that dramatically changed my Poppa’s life."

You can read more about the Rickards' story here.

“Imagine if there had been a vaccine in 1918 to protect people like my great-grandparents from this devastating disease?"

Andrea Rickard, 2021