When the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March 2020 and Canada shut down, David Hooper of Port Alberni thought it would be a good time to catch up on his reading. One of his literary projects led him to a personal connection with the country’s last deadly flu epidemic, in 1918.
Hooper’s great-grandfather Francis Grant lived in Victoria in the early 1900s. He arrived in Victoria in 1888 at the age of 21 from the Maritimes and found work within a week at David Spencer’s store. Grant kept diaries with daily entries of the weather, what he did at work that day, how his family members were, and some of the current events of the day.
Hooper has read some of the diaries, but decided to do a deep dive into the collection. “With the current epidemic the big thing was you’re supposed to stay home. It fits. This is a really neat thing to occupy time,” he said.
“In 1918, there was no radio yet. News came by telegraph and the two Victoria newspapers—the Victoria Colonist and the Victoria Times,” Hooper said. “If people were anticipating some ‘big news’ they would go to downtown Victoria, to check in the newspaper office windows, where the latest news bulletins would be posted in the window.”
He turned to Grant’s 1918 entries, curious if he wrote anything about the Spanish flu epidemic.
“The parallels are fascinating,” he said. “Some of the exact things are happening and some things are different. Everyone goes to work (in 1918), there’s no social safety net and no economic bailout.
“There didn’t seem to be much of a provincial presence in health; there was no Dr. Bonnie Henry, they were just local people doing their jobs.”
Francis Grant was employed at Spencers—the biggest department store in British Columbia in 1918—in the mail order department. The first entry that mentions illness was Monday, Oct. 7, 1918 when two of his employees did not show up to work. Four days later, on Oct. 11, Grant wrote “Our Influenza Epidemic is still increasing—175 cases reported in Victoria.”
The first two deaths recorded in Victoria were on Oct. 9, 1918, according to historian Jan Peterson in her book The Albernis. Victoria’s population at the time was around 16,000, or fewer than Port Alberni’s population at the last census.
By Oct. 19, Grant wrote that 1,000 cases were recorded in Vancouver and 700 in Victoria. On Monday, Oct. 21 he wrote “Lots more new cases of the Flu and some fatal.”
A second parallel that emerges in his diary entries is the increase in mail orders Spencers experienced.
“One of the weekly tasks was dealing with the ‘West Coast Mail’ and shipping out the orders on the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) boat, the Princess Maquinna, which served all the west coast of Vancouver Island including Port Alberni,” Hooper said.
By Nov. 3 Grant writes about a ban still being in place. “No meetings allowed on account of the Epidemic but it seems abating a little in Victoria but bad in other places.” At the same time, an end seemed imminent to the First World War. On Nov. 7, despite the bans, word got out that the war was over. “…there was no holding the general public. Demonstrations commenced and kept it up all day. Parades of all descriptions followed one another,” Grant wrote.
The “Influenza bans” were lifted on Nov. 20, 1918, and Grant noted theatres all opened the same night.
Remaining entries in November and into December show the public and officials dropped their guard in the wake of the war ending. By the first week of January 1919, Grant is writing about family members falling ill. On Friday, Jan. 10, he writes: “Reports today are the Flu is worse now than ever. Appeal is out for more nurses.”
By Jan. 25, 1919, authorities are discussing a Ban again. “The Influenza seems worse than ever. All sorts of reports going around.”
The second wave of the Spanish flu hit with a vengeance.
Grant’s diaries are a glimpse into life in the early 20th century. Looking back on the entries, they were daily life for the man who ran the shipping and mailing department at Spencer’s department store, but an historical gold mine for present-day readers.
They have allowed Hooper to get to know his ancestors as children, and to read his great-grandfather’s impressions of life.
“I do remember my great-grandmother; I was finished high school when she died,” he recalled. “Her children were my great-aunts and uncles and I know them as elderly. It’s interesting getting to know them as children.
“It’s like putting pieces in a puzzle: stuff like the winding down of the First World War, the maritime disaster of the Princess Sophia, just the transportation differences in Victoria,” Hooper said.
“To me, it’s just filling in pieces of a puzzle. It’s really neat.”
Hooper’s great-grandmother lived another 30 years after Grant died, and she passed his diaries on to her daughter—Hooper’s grandmother—who in turn passed them on to her daughter, and then finally to Hooper.
“He (Grant) didn’t have any literary pretensions, he just kept them,” Hooper said.
“I’m sure he didn’t feel he was living a particularly fascinating life.
“It was everyday stuff but he seemed a relatively happy person.”
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