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Home Feature Denis Gibbons recalls how a century-old pandemic affected his family

Denis Gibbons recalls how a century-old pandemic affected his family

Tommy Gibbons was a stationary engineer at the Beardmore Tannery in Acton when the Spanish flu epidemic hit Canada between 1918 and 1920.

He also was my grandfather and the patriarch of a family that endured the greatest loss imaginable, the death of a child.

Agnes Gibbons, who would have become my aunt, died during the epidemic more than 100 years ago. She was only 13 years old, 7 months.

I learned that as a child. What I did not know is that other members of the family living in the same house, including my grandfather, also were afflicted with the same flu, but survived. Grandad Gibbons rarely missed a day of writing in his diary. But, although he was only 48 at the time, his diary shows 20 blank pages from Jan. 1-20, 1919.

The only small entry reads, “I am sick with the flu.” 

Tommy Gibbon’s diary entry in January 1919

It is a very sad story, nevertheless it might give some encouragement from the fact that all six other people living in the house survived.

Grandad lived until the age of 84, passing away in 1954. Grandma Min outlived the Spanish flu by 23 years. My uncles Frank and Tom made it to 83, my Aunt to 76  and father to 70.

Two year old Denis Gibbons with his grandfather who survived the Spanish flu pandemic

Agnes died on the eve of the 1919 municipal election in the village of Acton. The next day, George Barber was elected Reeve, defeating H.P. Moore, who was editor of the Acton Free Press.

Agnes Gibbons in her first communion dress, who who died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919

Dr. T.W. Peart, a physician who had tended to many Burlington patients during the epidemic that killed more than 100 in that town, was voted in as mayor of Burlington, with Hughes Cleaver winning the race for Reeve.

Cleaver later represented Halton in the House of Commons for 18 years from 1935 to 1953.

Strangely, Peart went down in history as the shortest-serving mayor in Burlington’s history. He and other members of council resigned just 12 days later, upset that Cleaver had taken the liberty of inviting Sir Adam Beck to a council meeting without letting them know.

Beck was proposing taking over ownership of a hydro radial transit system from Hamilton to Oakville.

As a result, a new election was held in February and W.C. Smith succeeded Peart.

Veteran journalist DENIS GIBBONS is the Burlington correspondent for the Bay Observer

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