David Hooper reads a passage from his great-grandfather Francis Grant’s diaries from the late 1800s. Grant lived in Victoria, B.C. and was working at Spencers department store when the Spanish flu came to Vancouver Island. He wrote about the epidemic in his daily diaries. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

David Hooper reads a passage from his great-grandfather Francis Grant’s diaries from the late 1800s. Grant lived in Victoria, B.C. and was working at Spencers department store when the Spanish flu came to Vancouver Island. He wrote about the epidemic in his daily diaries. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

B.C. man’s diaries reveal glimpse of life when Spanish flu hit

Port Alberni’s David Hooper shares ancestor’s writings from 1918

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.”



susie.quinn@albernivalleynews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusGreater VictoriahistoryPORT ALBERNI

Just Posted

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of three Sooke men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Nanaimo-raised singer Allison Crowe with director Zack Snyder on the set of ‘Man of Steel’ in 2011. Crowe performs a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in the upcoming director’s cut of ‘Justice League.’ (Photo courtesy Clay Enos)
B.C. musician records song for upcoming ‘Justice League’ film

Allison Crowe’s close connection to director led to rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

A 50-year-old man was stabbed in an altercation that started with a disagreement about physical distancing. (File photo)
Argument about physical distancing leads to stabbing in Nanaimo

Suspect arrested on Gabriola Island an hour after incident Wednesday, Feb. 24

A battery electric-hybrid ferry, pictured here, is expected to make its way to Vancouver Island in late 2021, says B.C. Ferries. (Submitted photo)
Hybrid ferry for Gabriola-Nanaimo route launches in shipyard in Europe

Two hybrid vessels to replace MV Quinsam by early 2022, says B.C. Ferries

G.P. Vanier in Courtenay has six members of the community who have tested positive; Island Health identified seven staff and 78 students who will be required to self-isolate. Black Press file photo
Eight sick, 108 more isolating in Comox Valley school district due to COVID-19

District says that all who tested positive did not contract COVID-19 within the school sites

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

The BC SPCA is offering many chances for school-aged kids to learn about animal welfare and other animal topics. Pictured here is Keith, a three-month-old kitten seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
From pets to wildlife, BC SPCA offers animal education programs geared to youth

BC SPCA offering virtual spring break camps, workshops and school presentations

Most Read