Railways office staff in Ladysmith in 1918. Charles Shackleton in the back row, 4th from the left, wearing a bow tie. He survived the Spanish Flu.
Railways office staff in Ladysmith in 1918. Charles Shackleton in the back row, 4th from the left, wearing a bow tie. He survived the Spanish Flu.

Holed up in Ladysmith with the Spanish Flu

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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Durban - Charles Shackleton survived malaria in World War 1, only to come back to South Africa and face the devastation of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Shackleton's fascinating memoirs of that time in history while he was working in Ladysmith, were shared on Facebook group, Durban Down Memory Lane this week by his granddaughter Cheryl Shackleton Dunn who now lives in the Cape.

This week, Shackleton Dunn said her grandfather, Charles had kept comprehensive memoirs, including photographs from his school days and onwards.

Railways office staff in Ladysmith in 1918. Charles Shackleton in the back row, 4th from the left, wearing a bow tie. He survived the Spanish Flu.
Charles Shackleton was a shorthand typist for the railways (SAR) in Ladysmith when the Spanish Flu arrived in SA.

"He kept a big book where he kept everything and it contains the full memoirs of his life," she said.

Charles Walter Shackleton was born in Durban on June 6, 1984 in McArthur Street in Durban where he grew up.

Having been discharged from the army in World War 1 after contracting a bout of malaria from which he barely survived, Shackleton was working as a shorthand typist for the railways in Ladysmith, when the Spanish Flu reached the town in October 1918.

In his memoirs in the chapter titled “The Epidemic”, he highlighted: "The disease showed no discrimination between white and coloured people," with the Spanish flu carving a swathe of death as has been seen with Covid-19 today.

Shackleton described walking through the streets which within a week "were deserted at night. People were fearful of catching the dreaded disease," while he continued to visit his girlfriend Ethel who had caught the flu and was ill in bed.

Needless to say, Shackleton too went down with the Spanish Flu and was steadily getting worse and finally decided on a "Kill or cure" remedy. He managed to get to the general dealer's store where he bought a supply of “paraffin oil”.

This was a known remedy at the time used for constipation, as well as other ailments, paraffin oil, also known as mineral oil, paraffinum liquidum or Russian mineral oil, is a highly refined, clear, odourless mineral oil and is still used in medicines and cosmetics. It must not be mistaken for paraffin or kerosene which is used for fuel.

Shackleton said he rubbed the oil on his chest and throat and dosed himself orally for a few days, proclaiming himself to be better in three days.

Shortly after his recovery, another disaster struck Ladysmith with the Klip River overflowing its banks and flooding homes and streets.

Shackleton ended the chapter on the epidemic by noting "it was some considerable time before the 'flu epidemic' passed and allowed the town to return to normal."

Shackleton Dunn said her grandfather married his girlfriend, Ethel who’s mentioned in the chapter.

"He first met my grandmother when she went to his office looking for a job and he interviewed her. He described her as 'she was a lovely fresh-faced young lady'. She got the job," said Shackleton Dunn.

Shackleton worked all over KZN for the railways, before the couple returned to Durban. He was an exceptional artist and his paintings became well-known, also having many art exhibitions. His paintings often depicted Durban scenes, including the harbour, while he was also the sketch artist who drew the famous three bears for the Beares furniture group.

"The stuff I've got in his memoirs is mind-blowing, there's so much history about Durban and I also have some of his paintings," said Shackleton Dunn, who lived with Charles and Ethel after her parents were killed in a car accident when she was 15 years old.

"He was a good artist and writer, he played the piano and the mouth organ. He was also a ventriloquist with a doll called Charlie.

"I often used to sit down next to his chair and listen to all of his stories," she said.

Shackleton passed away on December 9, 1978.

Independent on Saturday

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