Two Families Under Lockdown (1918 vs. 2020): A Micro-History Case Study

Photos from Findagrave.com, it is of the Allen couple’s headstone.

Originally published on LinkedIn: March 11, 2021

If you live in a home that is over 100 years old and you’re going stir-crazy from the COVID-19 lockdown/stay-at-home orders, imagine the person who sat in your house in 1918-1919 to avoid the Spanish Flu pandemic. After pondering this, I researched the family that lived in my parents’ house in 1918-1919. (My current residence did not exist in 1918, and my family has lived in the house for about 20 years).

A year ago, I completed a house genealogy on the residence that my family has called home in Peterborough, Ontario. The first European-owned structure was built on this particular plot of land in 1900-1901. (The indigenous land that Europeans colonized and named “Peterborough” is on Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee)Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭMississauga, and/or Wendake-Nionwentsïo, native land.[1] For privacy reasons, I am not going to specify the address of the house.

The Families

During the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, the Allen family lived in the two-storey house. In 1918, the family consisted of 35-year-old Robert Allen, his 30-year-old wife Loretta (née Conroy), 6-year-old son Bernard, 4-year-old daughter Eileen, and 1-year-old son John.[2] Robert and Loretta had been born and raised in the Peterborough area and married in 1911. The couple moved into the house in 1913.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bertrand family in the house consists of my mom and dad, a dog, a cat, and a bunny. The now retired empty-nest couple grew up far from Peterborough (Manitoba and Michigan respectively) but met in Peterborough in the 1970s, married, and moved to the house in 2001 (although the Vernon’s Directory says 2003, my dad and sister are adamant that it was 2001). When us kids lived in the house we consisted of my older sister, myself, and younger brother.

The House

The house is similar to a foursquare style Edwardian home with front gable roof. However, the front porch is much smaller than classic foursquare style houses. There was an addition of a summer kitchen (I believe it began as a summer kitchen), now the permanent kitchen, and a mudroom extension at a later date. Summer kitchens were additions to square houses to help keep the cooking and laundry work out from the living areas.[3] In Canada, and northern U.S. eastern coast states, these summer kitchens were technically used year-round. The sides of the house have modern siding on it, however, the front potentially has the original half vertical, half horizontal, wood clapboard.

In 1918, the house did not have interior plumbing. Interior plumbing was built into the house in 1929. Hygiene would have been vastly different for the Allen family than my family is capable of in 2020-2021. I am unsure when internal electric lighting and heating was available in the house, but Peterborough was the first town in Canada to have electric street lighting on George St. (the main street). In May 1884, the first 17 street lights were installed.[4] There was a wood or coal stove for heat. The house has a chimney that currently is not connected to a stove pipe or fireplace. Robert worked at Weir & McCarthy (a coal and wood business) and hopefully he was able to bring adequate heat into the home by knowing how to work with these resources. There is no information on how Loretta did the laundry of the household.

In 2020, the house has two bathrooms. One with a tub, and one with a shower. The kitchen and laundry facilities work. Furnace heating, and air conditioning were installed prior to our residence. When we replaced the upstairs washroom’s toilet, we found newspapers from 1929 bunched up between the footings and the floor. Hence, my guess for the addition to internal plumbing was 1929 based on the newspaper. The kitchen could potentially have been the placement of the summer kitchen for past families. In European style, the laundry unit is in the modern kitchen, but this may be the result of the summer kitchen installation.

Daily Living

For those of you whom are at home with children and having difficulties teaching your children and working from home, imagine Loretta Allen, pregnant, with 3 children under 7-years-old, with no indoor plumbing and shoddy (if any) electric lighting. She likely taught the children by sunlight and candlelight. Robert would have come home after a hard day wondering, just as we do during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether he was bringing the Spanish Flu home with him. He would have walked to work, since his employer, Weir & McCarthy was not too far away. Masks were worn in 1918 to protect against the flu, just as we have masks to wear 100 years later.

Although we’re all in our 30s, none of us Bertrand kids have kids, so the pandemic has not pressed us to find alternate daycare, home schooling, etc. as many of our friends have had to. Thanks to my employer allowing me to work from home during the pandemic, it allows me to be low risk, and I have been able to visit my parents and spend time at the house. Television, computers, and internet access have been great luxury items during the stay-at-home orders. Netflix, YouTube, and internet research have allowed modern hobbies to ease boredom. My mom uses one of the bedrooms that likely was Bernard, John, and Daniel’s room to work on puzzles. The smaller room was likely Eileen’s in 1918, and also mine before I moved away in 2012. Reading is also an important past-time for every member of my family during the pandemic. Hobbies to get through the pandemic are important. It makes me wonder if Robert and Loretta had any down time outside of work labour; and home and child care labour to have any hobbies.

Stresses

Modern medicine has increased, and child death rates have decreased in the last century, so thankfully, my family has not dealt with major loss in the same way that the Allen family did which likely made them even more worried about the impact of the Spanish Flu on the family. By 1918, Robert’s father John Allen had already experienced his wife Christina’s death in 1907 from tuberculosis, the death of three of his daughters under age 5 due to childhood illnesses, and in 1917, the family was devastated when 26-year-old Daniel Edward was killed in action in France in November 1917. Loretta was one of fourteen children, 3 of whom died prior to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Modern medicine is not the only 21st-century luxury that my family is able to utilize that the Allen family did not have, we have technology.

Local Losses

If Robert and Loretta knew about local gossip or news, they may have heard about two specific stories of young-persons who died from the Spanish Flu who were from Peterborough. In Peterborough, 22-year-old Private Victor G. reported for duty to go to France and after his training in Kingston, he was sent to Halifax by the summer of 1918. By October, he was in Halifax’s Station Hospital with the Spanish Flu. The sad tale of his suffering was recorded by the medical staff.

“On the 11th [of October], pneumonia was confirmed when his temperature climbed to 104°[F]. As his breathing grew more laboured, exceeding forty breaths per minute, Victor lost control of his bowel and bladder functions. The next day his temperature was still above 104°[F] and his breathing was steady around thirty-five breaths per minute. That night he began to cough up bloody, frothy pus. Filled with fluid, his lungs were no longer absorbing enough oxygen, and he became cyanotic. Doctors noted that his condition was ‘grave’. But then came signs of improvement. During the night of the 12th, Victor’s temperature dipped below 102°F for the first time in nearly a week. For a brief moment it looked like he might recover. The next day, his temperature rose again and his breathing grew more laboured and rapid, climbing to about fifty shallow breaths per minute. Victor was now struggling to breathe. Each rapid, wheezing inhalation drew air into the congested, soggy mass of pus and blood that used to be a pair of healthy lungs. On the morning of 14 October, at about 7:30, his breathing grew shallower still. A nurse recorded that he was taking in excess of sixty breaths a minute. Gurgling with fluid, his lungs could not absorb enough oxygen to keep him alive. At 8:00, Victor G., a conscript, died of the Spanish influenza far from his home and family and less than a month before the war ended. His body was shipped home to his mother in Peterborough, who buried him beside her husband. It was difficult for her and thousands of other families to find meaning in the deaths of unwilling soldiers whose lives seemingly ended in vain.”[5] [Additions added for clarification]

On October 28, 1918, 19-year-old Francis “Frank” Montgomery died in the Oshawa Hospital due to complications from “pneumonia following ‘flu’”.[6] He was a rising-star hockey player in Peterborough and Sarnia prior to his death. In 1916-1917, he played on the Peterborough Junior O.H.A hockey team. In 1917-1918, he played as a defenceman for the Sarnia team. The funeral took place at his sister’s house at 354 Stewart Street prior to burial in Little Lake Cemetery. On November 7th, it was reported that the Oriental Hotel on Hunter St. had been converted into an emergency hospital to care for patients suffering from the Spanish Flu. [7]

Whereas the Spanish Flu hit a younger demographic in 1918-1919, COVID-19 in Peterborough has killed those in an older demographic. Six out of eight deaths were people in their 90s, one in their 80s, and one in their 60s, according to Public Health Ontario.[8] Outbreaks of COVID-19 cases have been mostly within retirement residences, however as of early March 2021, a large Fleming/Trent student party pushed the city into a red zone lockdown straight from yellow zone due to the volume of new cases. Some of the students have been threatened with expulsion and fines.[9] The only losses my family has personally been affected by during the pandemic have been non-related to COVID-19, however, the ability to mourn and attend funerals of those we have lost has been cut off by lockdown measures.

Lockdown Statistics in 1918

In Ontario, 300,000 cases of Spanish Flu and 8,705 deaths were recorded.[10] By October 16th, cities began to close down just like we did in 2020: “All schools, seminaries, Sunday schools, dance halls, billiard and pool rooms, bowling alleys, theatres (music or concerts), halls – public or places or amusement, places for public gatherings and amusement are to be closed. Declared: All meetings or assemblies are prohibited, Public funerals prohibited, all utensils in boardhouses/restaurants must be immersed in boiling water for three minutes, no use of common towel/drinking vessels, only four passengers plus elevator operator, all gatherings essential for the war are excepted.”[11] By the middle of November, many of the closing orders in southern Ontario had been reversed, though subsequent flare-ups in certain cities did prompt re-closures. On November 11, it was nearly impossible to convince Ontarians to stay home when celebrations occurred en masse outside for the victory of the Allies in World War I. After experiencing the end of a war and massive pandemic, no wonder the 1920s were filled with extravagant clothing, drinking, parties, and socializing. After COVID-19 can be handled by governments and societies around the world, maybe we can celebrate again with another roaring 20s.

The Allen Family After the Spanish Flu

Robert Allen had bronchitis for about 10 years prior to his death in 1930.[12] The incessant coughing exacerbated the gastric ulcer that eventually caused his death. Although one may wonder whether Robert actually suffered from complications from the Spanish Flu, what is more likely is that his persistent work with coal, coke, fuel, etc., damaged his lungs over time. The other sad event that occurred after the Spanish Flu was a thing of the past for the Allen family; in 1924, 7 ½ year-old John Allen died after an ulcerated tooth caused spinal meningitis. He died on November 4, 1924. Bernard worked in aviation. Eileen was a nurse. Loretta outlived all but one of her children, Daniel, to be 101-years-old. She died in 1990.

You can help those impacted by COVID-19

My parents love the 120-year-old house they reside in. The house that Robert and John died in continues to allow its current residents to sleep, eat, relax, and be socially distant from others during this pandemic. The walls have been more than just a house for the Allen and Bertrand families, but a place of safety during two major history-making pandemics. However, there are many people across Ontario that do not have walls to protect them from the virus. Homeless people in Ontario are suffering greatly from the effects of government orders and the disease itself. The Canadian Medical Association reported that “Individuals recently homeless were over 20 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, over 10 times more likely to receive intensive care, and they were over five times more likely to die within 21-days of a positive test.”[13] If you would like to donate to help those who are unable to obtain proper medical care and housing during this pandemic, please consider these options, but also your local food banks and shelters: Canadahelps.orgYES Shelter for Youth and Families (Peterborough)Khaleel Seivwright (Toronto shelter builder), and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (Toronto).

Are you curious about your own history?

If you are interested in your family genealogy or house genealogy, please contact me for information on my research rates. With over 13 years of experience working on genealogical research, I have worked on over 9 family histories, individual historical figures history, and 2 house genealogies. All information gathered for clients is confidential and I will never share or sell to third parties.

Disclaimer: The statistics and information regarding COVID-19 in this article are current as of March 9, 2021. This article is based on personal research compiled by the author and is not meant to disrespect any members living or dead, of the Allen family. Copyright © 2021 Alicia Bertrand.

Footnotes:

[1] https://native-land.ca/

[2] Numerous documents go back and forth on his name being John or Jack. His death certificate says John so I am sticking to John.

[3] https://archive.curbed.com/2016/6/16/11954538/old-house-kitchen-history-summer

[4] https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/life/2016/11/05/part-1-of-a-series-the-street-railway-in-peterborough.html#:~:text=Peterborough%20was%20the%20first%20town,on%20its%20main%20downtown%20street.&text=Soon%20after%20Edison%20Electric%20(known,first%20buildings%20on%20Park%20Street

[5] https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/excerpt-last-plague-spanish-influenza-and-politics-public-health-canada

[6] http://ericzweig.com/2020/04/15/3812/

[7] https://www.marmorahistory.ca/stories/2016/3/16/buzi7xwk5teu98mypt7dywa9hmjdbi

[8] https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/news/peterborough-region/2021/02/03/covid-19-death-in-peterborough-along-with-seven-new-cases.html

[9] https://www.cp24.com/news/covid-19-outbreak-at-peterborough-student-residence-now-includes-44-cases-including-30-that-have-screened-positive-for-variants-1.5334223https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/news/peterborough-region/2021/03/03/suspension-expulsion-from-fleming-possible-after-party-at-peterborough-residence.htmlhttps://globalnews.ca/news/7684105/covid-peterborough-update-march-8-2021/;

[10] https://www.tvo.org/article/when-the-spanish-flu-came-to-ontario

[11] Ibid.

[12] Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Collection: MS935; Reel: 398.

[13] Kate McGillivray, “Ontario’s homeless 5 times more likely to die of COVID-19, study finds,” CBC News, Jan 12, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-s-homeless-5-times-more-likely-to-die-of-covid-19-study-finds-1.5869024


Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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