Contrary to popular belief, the ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918 (which is thought to have caused as many as 50 million deaths globally) did not originate in Spain. Historians and epidemiologists are uncertain about the origins of the disease, which killed more people than had perished in the First World War, which was in its final phase when the pandemic struck. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins and spread of the 1918 flu. For example, it has been posited that the disease originated in military camps in France, the United Kingdom or the United States of America, or among labourers brought from China to the USA via Canada.
The misconception that the disease originated in Spain arose from the relative absence of press restrictions in Spain, which was a neutral power in the War, with the result that information about the spread of the disease in Spain was generally available. By contrast, the belligerent nations suppressed press reporting on the impact of the disease in their own countries, so as to maintain civilian morale in the final traumatic months of the War. Whatever the origins of the ‘Spanish’ flu, it struck in three waves (March 1918, September-November 1918, and early in 1919) and eventually caused acute illness in about 30% of the world’s population.
South Africa was one of the countries affected most severely by the ‘Spanish’ flu. The disease was brought here by South African soldiers who were being repatriated from France and Belgium towards the end of the War. It seems some of these soldiers were infected while en route back to South Africa, when the naval vessels on which they were travelling docked in the harbour at Freetown, Sierra Leone. When their ships arrived in Table Bay, the sick men were placed in isolation at Woodstock military hospital as a precautionary measure. The remaining soldiers who had travelled on the ships concerned were put under quarantine in a military camp at Rosebank in Cape Town, where they were examined for signs of the flu before they could be demobilised. But three days later (too soon as it transpired) all were allowed to board trains for their homes and so they dispersed across the country, taking the infection with them. In the event, approximately 300,000 South Africans (roughly 6% of the country’s entire population at the time) died as a result of the 1918 flu. [See Howard Phillips ‘South Africa bungled the Spanish flu in 1918. History mustn’t repeat itself for COVID-19’, Mail & Guardian, 11 March 2020]
In 1918, St John’s College was a mere twenty years old. The Johannian had not yet made its appearance as the College’s annual magazine. Instead, the custom was for the Headmaster to publish a newsletter at the end of each term. These were known as ‘terminal letters’. During the First World War, the College Headmasters had struggled to maintain this regular practice in-between also publishing detailed newsletters about the experiences of Old Johannians and College masters in the War. Thus, instead of terminal letters Fr James Okey Nash CR had published a single Letter of 1916. After Fr Nash had become Coadjutor Bishop of Cape Town in 1917, he was succeeded as Headmaster by Fr Clement Thomson CR, who likewise published a single Letter of 1917. In October 1918, Fr Thomson published a 39-page booklet on St John’s College and the War (the fifth in a series of such booklets), but the Letter of 1918 was eventually only published early in 1919.
In the introductory paragraph of the Letter of 1918, Fr Thomson explained that he had spent the better part of the July 1918 holidays compiling the booklet on the war that had appeared in October 1918. He continued: ‘I had meant to tackle the Terminal Letter soon afterwards. But then came the Spanish Influenza with all the correspondence and worry it involved. When at last we were permitted to start school, the whole work of the term had to be packed into a little more than five weeks. I made up my mind that no one of the events we look forward to in the last term of the year should be omitted. … In addition to all this there were the Armistice Celebrations with all the organising they entailed.’ From this we learn that the ‘Spanish’ flu caused the closure of St John’s College for a substantial part of the last term of 1918. (In those days the last term was known as Advent Term, rather than Michaelmas Term, as it has since become known.)
Elsewhere in the Letter of 1918 we come across other snippets of information about the impact of the flu pandemic on the school. For example, in the cricket report we read that ‘we were able to carry on the 1st XI cricket in spite of the influenza epidemic, which closed the school in other respects for more than half the term.’ The St John’s 1st XI recorded victories over Wanderers Cricket Club and King Edward VII School but ‘failed altogether’ in the match against Jeppe High School for boys. Then we read the following: ‘But Pretoria [Boys’] High School and Marists [Marist Brothers’ College, today Sacred Heart College, Observatory] were unable to raise teams against us owing to the epidemic.’ Furthermore, the flu pandemic meant that the school was unable to arrange much junior cricket during that term, but Nash’s House won the inter-house shield, with Alston’s House ending second.
The report on the year’s football adds a further poignant note to the record of a year already severely disrupted by war and the flu pandemic. (In those days, association football rather than rugby football was the College’s main winter sport.) Here we read the following: ‘The Scarlet Fever epidemic, from which we in common with most other Schools suffered during the Easter Term, sadly interfered with Football. Quite half of the matches arranged had to be abandoned. We also had an unusually large number of accidents, in fact there was almost an epidemic of broken arms.’ During the scarlet fever epidemic, a quarantine camp for St John’s boys and masters was improvised to the north of St Patrick’s Road, on the lower reaches of The Wilds (see main photograph).
The outbreak of scarlet fever also meant that the College was unable to stage its ‘annual Play as usual in June, but had to postpone it until the Trinity Term. The rehearsals had been going bravely and it seemed a thousand pities to put off the performance. But it could not be avoided.’ (History seemed to repeat itself in 2020, when the performance of the College’s annual drama production had to be postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.) But despite that unavoidable delay, Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was eventually performed in September 1918, when ‘instead of having the usual cold winter June nights, we experienced comparative warmth.’
On the final page of the Letter of 1918 the sad news is recorded that Leslie Pascoe OJ had fallen ‘a victim to the Spanish Influenza, which developed into pneumonia and caused his death.’ We also read that, in addition to nearly sixty Old Johannians who had perished in the war, three St John’s boys had died during the course of the year. The causes of their deaths are not specified but seem to have been unrelated to the flu pandemic.
Accordingly, the present suspension of school activities, imposed by the Covid-19 crisis, is not unprecedented in the history of St John’s College. We see that, 102 years ago, the College went through times probably more challenging than these confronting the school now. Then, too, a pandemic necessitated the school’s closure for a prolonged period. Then, they did not have the blessing (or the curse?) of electronic communications and so were unable to continue teaching activities during the hiatus, and the entire term’s work had to be crammed into five weeks, when schools were eventually allowed to reopen. At the end of 1918, eleven St John’s boys sat the matriculation examination of the Joint Matriculation Board of the Universities of South Africa, Stellenbosch and Cape Town. Two boys achieved first-class certificates. (One of them, Walter Pollak, was only 15 years old and later became a famous QC.) But five of the eleven boys failed the matriculation exam. On the other hand, though, eleven of the twelve Lower V boys who wrote the Transvaal School Certificate examination passed, despite the year’s disruptions.
Main image: The scarlet fever quarantine camp, with St John’s College in the background
About the author: Dr Daniel Pretorius is the chairman of St John’s College’s heritage committee.
This is a revised version of a note that was originally published on the website of St John’s College.