3 Apr 2020

Nana Joy remembers the 1925 polio lockdown

1:33 pm on 3 April 2020

Joy Thomas, or Nana Joy as she's known to her grandchildren and great grandkids, was born during the 1918 influenza pandemic in Palmerston North.

For the first three months of her life she was cared for not by her mother, but by the wife of the headmaster at her local primary school.

Her mother was very ill with influenza when she was born, and she grew up with chilling stories that illustrated how devastating that pandemic was.

Joy Thomas, or Nana Joy, as she's known to her grandchildren.

Joy Thomas, or Nana Joy, as she's known to her grandchildren. Photo: Penina Momoisea

She heard of how her mother lay very ill in bed, looking out the window and watching undertakers accompany coffins, one after the other, a procession to the cemetery.

"That didn't make her feel any better."

Nana Joy will turn 102 this year and on a family video-chat, with four generations talking over each other, comparisons were made as to how things have changed since she went into lockdown as a child 95 years ago.

In 1925 there was a polio epidemic, and there would be 175 deaths across New Zealand by the end of it.

"I must have been about five or six, I was in primmer four. We got notification to say no one could go to school. So we were shut down, as I remember, for six weeks."

As the family discussed the worry that not all children today were going to be able to have access to computers, or tablets, or the internet to do their learning while in the current lockdown, Nana Joy remembered a weekly trip to the post office.

"We were posted big envelopes that looked very important, and in it would be our different tables and different little jobs for us to do to send back. Which we did. It was mailed every week, and every week we had to mail it back. And they marked it and sent it back with it all marked."

She remembers a girlfriend in her class who got polio, and that she had to be treated by being put into an iron lung. She remembers how after polio, her friend would forever walk with a limp.

But as a child, the school shutdown was exciting. It felt like a holiday for her and her older siblings. "We were always very happy, we had quite a big backyard with swings."

Her advice to children currently in lockdown is to use their spare time to take advantage of their education, but still have fun. "So put aside a time, probably first thing in the morning for an hour and concentrate on that."

"Other than that. Enjoy. To be happy in life, is one of the main things."