The story of St Andrew’s College and the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918

Throughout our 165-year old history, St Andrew’s College has faced some extraordinary challenges, one of which was surviving the flu epidemic in 1918. The current COVID-19 crisis has forced us to suspend all activity on our campus but it is not the first time this has happened at College, as 102 years ago our school faced a similar predicament.
The Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 and, finally, the Great War ended.

But no one anticipated that the joy of returning soldiers to South Africa would bring a health threat in the form of the Spanish Flu epidemic during October – November 1918.

‘End of the war’ as reported in a special late edition of the English newspaper, The Evening Standard, on 11 November 1918.

Photo: Sue Maclennan courtesy Albany History Museum Archives

To tell the story of College and the Spanish Flu, the words in black are taken from The Boy in You, authored by Honorary Old Andrean Marguerite Poland, while the words in blue are taken from the St Andrew’s College school magazine, dated December 1918.

Just as the Great War was drawing to a close, bringing, almost daily, more and more names to swell the Roll of Honour at St Andrew’s, a silent and insidious foe was emerging behind the battle lines.

The pestilence, believed to have started somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula, spread with ferocious rapidity. The numbers who succumbed worldwide to what became known as the Spanish Flu would surpass the appallingly high numbers lost in conflict. Indeed, it played a role in bringing hostilities to an end.

On Wednesday 9 October the boys returned to College after the short holidays. That very day one or two of the boys developed influenza. By the third or fourth day over 150 were down with the disease; and in the end there were well over 200 cases, only six or seven boys escaping. Two housemasters, seven of the staff, and two of the matrons were among the sufferers.

No nurses were available and both the school doctors were ill and – although they struggled on bravely – no support staff were able to cook, clean or nurse. Men students from Rhodes stepped in, women students took on domestic chores. DSG sent bread when a famine threatened.

Neither boys nor the staff nor, we venture to say, the parents will ever forget the excellent courage and grip of the situation shown by the headmaster, Canon Percy Kettlewell.

The headmaster, with Herculean resolve, did the work of three men. He barely slept or ate. He nursed his boys. He nursed his staff. And in the end, he nursed his wife, who was seriously ill with pneumonia, a disease, in those days, that was invariably fatal. She recovered and Kettlewell returned to the dormitories, which had been transformed into a make-shift hospital.

Old Andreans came forward. Perhaps most prominent among those who offered help was former OA President William Bennie. Old Jarge, the porter, stamped behind him with his comic smile and his cheery words – encouraging, cajoling, making the fellows laugh, filling the tedium of the hours with his incurable optimism. At night, when the dread of death came closer, Miss Maltby, Mrs Bevan and the patient Mrs Cazalet sat with the worst cases, keeping fear at bay.

Everybody rose to the occasion and cheerfully faced the difficulties of the situation. It would not be right not to mention the splendid way in which the boys themselves came to the fore. Those who were well or had recovered tumbled over one another in their eagerness to help and minister to the wants of their sick comrades. It made us prouder than ever of our boys and showed that they had learnt the duty and happiness of service.

The school magazine records name after name of Old Andreans who succumbed to the flu.

It was a most poignant irony, however, that the only schoolboy to lose his life was young Alfred van der Riet who died at his home, Littlewoods, now the newboy house of Graham. To the great anxiety of his family, his elderly brother, Bobby, had been daring death daily in the Royal Flying Corps. That Bobby should have survived against the overwhelming odds he faced and his younger brother die in his bed, defies all probability.

As 1918 drew to a close Kettlewell allowed most of the boys to go home before the end of term. The matrics stayed on, writing their exams under the most trying circumstances and with little hope of good results. Because of the disruption, no Rhodes Scholarship election took place and the headmaster was hopeful that the trustees would grant the annual award to Cyril Green, the headboy, who had helped with the teaching in the months before he was old enough to join up. Green was awarded the scholarship under these unusual circumstances and his subsequent eminence as a doctor fulfilled every expectation the Rhodes trustees might have had of a scholar elected in the usual way.

“One has to be in real trouble to find out one’s real friends, and it has been good fortune of the school to possess friends indeed who came to the rescue in a magnificent way.

We may safely say that no school has ever had to face such an impossible situation.

May we never have such an experience again but, if we do, may we find such loyal and self-sacrificing friends as we did in October 1918″. (Excerpt from the College school magazine, dated December 1918)