How Did the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 Affect Your Ancestors?


I was not fully aware of the extent of the impact of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 until I read Tim Cook’s book, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918, and learned that it played a major role in helping to bring an end to WW I. Wondering what the epidemic was like for those back at home led me to explore reports about it in local newspapers.

Board of Health Bans
Since I call Lambton County my home, I limited my search to newspapers in that geographical area. I discovered that the epidemic did not affect all communities in the same way. A report in the Alvinston Free Press published 30 October 1918 provides a picture of the precautions taken in that area during the epidemic:
“The Local Board of Health think that it is not necessary to close the schools and churches on account of the Spanish Influenza at present as there is only one case of it in the Village. As a precautionary measure they have decided to prohibit all public entertainments and meetings for which outside talent is engaged until further notice.”1

The front page of the 8 November issue of the Watford Guide-Advocate was a “goldmine” of information about the impacts of the flu epidemic. The Arkona correspondent noted that the Medical Board of Health had lifted the ban on church services but had not lifted the ban on Sunday and public schools.2 The author of the Local Happenings column wrote that the Board of Health had passed a resolution prohibiting “…the congregation of people in the postoffice or business places, and ordering all funerals of people dying from influenza to be private.”3 Many people were sick but apparently few were seriously ill. Bert Edmund Fulcher, age 30, married, had the dubious distinction of being the first person in Watford to die 1 November 1918 of pneumonia which followed a bout with influenza.4

Following the epidemic was easier with the daily Sarnia Canadian Observer. According to the issue published 17 October 1918 the shelves of the drug stores in the city were “…cleared of whisky and other lines of booze.”5 Apparently one of the remedies being used was a mixture of whiskey and castor oil. The 26 October issue reported 50 new cases of influenza in the city.6 44 new cases were reported in the 30 October issue.7 The ban on congregation in Sarnia was still being enforced when other areas were lifting theirs.

Illness of employees was an issue for businesses. The Watford Guide-Advocate issue of 8 November reported that the Parkhill Gazette had not even published an issue the previous week due to the illness of their employees. The Bell Telephone Company of Canada published the following ad in the Sarnia Canadian Observer:
“In common with the general community the operating staff has been affected by the present epidemic of colds and influenza and has been seriously depleted in consequence. At the same time the volume of telephone calls has greatly increased. So many people are ill at home that the telephone has been used continuously and the load of extra calls on our depleted operating force has been very heavy.
Please keep this extraordinary situation in mind and USE YOUR TELEPHONE ONLY WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. You will thus be helping to keep the service intact to meet the urgent demands of the community in the present emergency.”8
Being ill or healthy and stuck at home with limited access to the public library and reduced access to the telephone system must have made for long days.

Perhaps some of my readers have heard stories of what their ancestors did during this difficult time and would share them with us.

1. The Alvinston Free Press, 30 October 1918.
2. Arkona, Watford Guide-Advocate, 8 November 1918, p. 1.
3. Local Happenings, Watford Guide-Advocate, 8 November 1918, p. 1.
4. Death of Mr. Bert Fulcher, Watford Guide-Advocate, 8 November 1918, p. 1.
5. Flu Keeps Druggists Busy, Sarnia Canadian Observer, 17 October 1918.
6. Fifty New Cases of Spanish Flu in the City, Sarnia Canadian Observer, 26 October, 1918, p. 1.
7. Forty-Four New Cases of the Dread Epidemic Here, Sarnia Canadian Observer, 30 October 1918, p.1.
8. Telephone Service and Spanish Flu, Sarnia Canadian Observer, 24 October 1918, p.2.

Alan Campbell
Past President
The Ontario Genealogical Society
(c) 2018 


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