Grace Methodist and Balaclava Public School, Malakoff and Balaclava Streets, c. 1915 (above). Quarantine card, c. 1920 (below). Graphics courtesy Elgin County Archives
By Mike Baker
The war may have been over, but the flu epidemic wasn’t. It returned to Elgin County in the week following the November 11, 1918 Armistice, this time infecting larger numbers in the small towns and villages, but not as many in St. Thomas.
The first real indication that the flu had returned was a virulent outbreak in the area around Rodney that would result in several deaths, the first of which was a 27-year-old cheesemaker named Gordon Palmer on November 18, 1918. On the 19th, Dutton reported a total of 51 cases, many more than during the first outbreak. This was followed by reports of outbreaks in Frome and Orwell, where the school was closed again.
Elsewhere, things were getting back to normal. Iona counted itself lucky to have escaped with only seven light cases. Schools and churches reopened in various places and after a seven-week closure, the library in Aylmer reopened on the 23rd. “Perhaps,” wrote one citizen to the newspaper, “no other town in the province, of the size of Aylmer, has a better equipped or better conducted library.”
In St. Thomas, life was also returning to normal. The traditional warden’s banquet was held on the 21st, consisting of a meal of venison shot by Reeve James Todd in New Ontario, followed by four hours of toasts. The most significant, was a call for a city county memorial to the men who would not be returning from the war made by St. Thomas Mayor E. A. Horton, who had just lost a son to the fighting a month before. The reply came from the event’s chair, long-time County Clerk K. W. McKay, who suggested that a new hospital would be the most fitting monument to the memory of the fallen heroes. A Memorial Hospital would open in 1924 and the Book of Remembrance that once graced its lobby can still be seen at the St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital.
Tuesday, November 26th, brought news of another death in Rodney, a 38-year-old teamster whose daughter had passed away just a few days before. The newspaper also reported that “many cases” had appeared in St. Thomas, proving that the “malignant contagion has by no means left the city.” A 30-year-old farmer died near New Sarum the following day. He had been a member of the Yarmouth Centre Methodist Church and on Friday, the Medical Officer of Health for Yarmouth (now Central Elgin), Dr. Shannon, closed the churches and schools in New Sarum and Yarmouth Centre.
The regular monthly meeting of the St. Thomas Board of Health on December 2nd resulted in a decision not to close any public places. Though 50 new cases were reported, they were of a “mild type” that Medical Officer of Health Dr. McKillop did not feel required the ban used against the previous outbreak. Twelve cases had been admitted to the Hopewell Isolation Hospital, two severe, along with two nurses also with severe cases.
Hopewell slowly filled over the next two weeks and case numbers in the city would rise as high as 200, though the majority continued to be described as ‘mild.’ In the midst of the new outbreak, Dr. McKillop and Inspector Shaw left for the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Chicago, held December 9 to 12, 1918 after being postponed for two months because of the flu. They had been invited by that year’s president, the Medical Officer of Health for Toronto, Dr. Charles Hastings. The main theme of the conference would be the Spanish Flu and while no wide agreement resulted as to the best way of fighting the disease – by masking, or by closing public places or by quarantine – it may well have brought about a change of tactics in St. Thomas.
As soon as Shaw and McKillop returned on Monday, December 16, 1918 a special meeting of the Board of Health was held, just as the situation was “assuming a condition almost as alarming” as that of the past October’s. It was now that the board decided to declare homes where the flu existed to be under quarantine. This was not done during the previous outbreak because the Province had not put the flu on its list of communicable diseases and therefore the board couldn’t legally quarantine homes. Now, it was the city who decided if a disease was communicable and quarantine signs started going up.
In general, there was wide acceptance of the quarantine, possibly because it was made known that not reporting an outbreak at one’s home could result in a “severe fine.” At its height in the days before Christmas, there were an estimated 200 cases in the city, most of which were of the mild type. Four deaths had occurred over the weekend (December 21 to 22, 1918) and Hopewell was still full with about 25 cases.
The surrounding communities continued to record much larger outbreaks than previously. In addition to Dutton and Rodney, the worse hit were Wallacetown, Shedden, Lambeth, which alone had as many as 40 cases, and Port Stanley, where a closing order was instituted again.
While higher case counts were recorded, fewer lives were lost during the second outbreak.
One indication that the flu was losing steam in the week after Christmas was the shrinking size of the reports in the newspaper and where they appeared. Only occasionally on the front page, even in October, the short flu items usually appeared around page seven, but by the end of December, they became one of the many newsy items in a column entitled Town Topics. On December 31, 1918 only three new cases were reported in St. Thomas and Inspector Shaw was busy removing quarantine cards from homes where everyone had recovered.
A memorial at Grace Methodist Church on December 30th brought a solemn end to the worst of the second outbreak. The church, later Grace United, once stood next to the public school on Balaclava Street, in an area sandwiched between two rail yards, the Wabash and the Michigan Central, and the iron foundry. All three of these large employers operated throughout the epidemic, becoming centres of infection. When the epidemic was at its worst, in late October, Grace offered its basement as an additional treatment facility. But it was felt unnecessary as the two hospitals managed to cope successfully with the numbers. But at the cost of one dollar a day, staying in one of them was beyond the reach of many citizens. Of the 50 estimated flu deaths in St. Thomas, 24 were members of Grace’s congregation. One wonders if some of the victims lost from the neighbourhood around the church would have survived if the basement had been used.
While further school closings occurred in January, by the end of December, St. Thomas-Elgin had seen the worst of the Spanish Flu. A small number had died, most in the prime of their lives, leaving young families and, in some cases, orphans, the mother dying of influenza, the father killed overseas. As the war had been, the flu epidemic was another hardship the residents of Elgin County had to endure. And although both eventually came to an end, for many, they must have left behind a deep grief even after things returned to ‘normal’.
Michael Baker, of Sparta, is Elgin County Museum Curator. Baker was Museum London’s regional history curator for 17 years before coming to Elgin in 2007. He is a historian, author, speaker, heritage advocate and former president of both Architectural Conservancy Ontario – London Region (ACO London) and Heritage London Foundation (HLF). Baker accepted a London Heritage Award in 2019, acknowledging his outstanding leadership and excellence in heritage conservation across the London region.