It is not the first time Australia has had to deal with a deadly and contagious disease. As New South Wales and Victoria have had to sit in lockdown, over various weeks, to ensure we don’t spread or catch any variant of Covid-19, our ancestors were grappling with the same issue in 1919 in the form of the Spanish Flu.
Between January and September 1919, pneumonic influenza, better known as the Spanish Flu, killed 6,387 people in New South Wales. There were 290,000 infected in metropolitan Sydney alone. The Northern Rivers didn’t escape the sweeping sickness, as cases were soon reported here as well.
Information for people across NSW during the Spanish Flu in 1919. Photo: NSW State Archives
Word had reached Australia in September 1918 of a “devastating outbreak” of pneumonic influenza in South Africa and America. The disease had been carried by soldiers returning home from the war in Europe and arrived in Sydney from some infected passengers, via a ship from New Zealand on 25th October, 1918.
Despite being quarantined at North Head station in Sydney, the death rate to other strains of influenza in NSW grew more than three times the monthly average. A ‘suspicious’ case of a sick soldier on 24 January, 1919 was reported at Randwick. He had travelled up from Melbourne by ship four days before and shared a compartment with a sick civilian. Within 48 hours, three nurses treating him and seven other soldiers who had also travelled to Sydney from Melbourne had fallen sick. It was the beginning of the first wave.
As the flu travelled outside the major cities, an effort was made by other states to create some form of national quarantine. Queensland borders were shut at 2pm, 29 January and those in Coolangatta who had gone over to Tweed Heads to work, do the banking or shop, were suddenly stranded. For the next few months they waited in tents or public buildings converted to house them, before they could go home.
Lismore became one of the earliest places to experience the flu in 1919 thanks to travellers coming up from Sydney. In a 2018-19 project at the Royal Australian Historical Society entitled An Intimate Pandemic: The Community Impact of Influenza in 1919, medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins tells the story of how Alstonville combated the Spanish Flu. A soldier by the name of Percy Latimer had come home to marry local girl Ilene Bell in 1919. The wedding was attended by 23 people who watched the groom cough through the whole service. Percy ended up spending his honeymoon in hospital and out of the 23 people at the service, 20 caught the deadly flu.
Alstonville reacted quickly, making sick people stay at home and if a member of the household was sick, they were isolated to a room. The disease only spread to two other homes and there were no deaths in Alstonville.
Lismore was not so lucky. By March 1919 local Lismore doctors had issued a statement stating that pneumonic influenza had broken out in the town. A young lad by the name of Cecil Frish from Lismore was admitted to hospital and died shortly afterwards. Other instances of the disease were popping up frighteningly fast. A death at Stoney Gully near Kyogle and eight Indigenous residents of the ‘blacks’ reserve’ at Fingal near Tweed Heads had been reported.
By May 1919, in a second wave of the epidemic, local newspapers reported 200, possibly 400 (where people didn’t admit to the sickness) cases in the area and the hospitals were filled to capacity. The town was declared an ‘infected area’ by official proclamation. Many businesses closed to stop the spread.
The newly formed Voluntary Aid Detachment from the Lismore branch of the Red Cross stepped up and were on duty a few days after its formation. Members helped at the inoculation depot and hospital. A Red Cross kitchen was established, first at the hospital and later at the public school. The public helped by bringing in food supplies to keep the kitchen going with milk, eggs, groceries, poultry etc.
Two soldiers and three Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses with an ambulance. Photo: Australian War Memorial
Local authorities called for medical inspections to be held on each vessel that arrived at Ballina or Byron Bay, hoping to prevent a further wave spreading across the district. Family members and friends were called up to provide basic nursing care for sick patients, as nurses were in short supply. Many of them having caught the flu themselves.
When two young girls, the Misses Landrigan from Broadwater, aged 18 and 13 caught the flu, both parents stepped up to treat their children who had to isolate at home, under the supervision of Dr Monti. A doctor in Murwillumbah lauded the value of inoculation as a way of defending against the flu, saying that of all the cases he had treated only four had been people who’d had it.
By July Kyogle was reporting 500 cases, but Grafton was a success story, imposing strict limitations to public gatherings and ensuring people quarantined. The result was only about 100 cases during the peak of the flu.
By August 1919 the Lismore Municipal Council received a communication from the office of Director-General of Public Health, announcing the withdrawal of the proclamation requiring notification of pneumonic influenza as an infectious disease. By mid-September the epidemic of Spanish Flu was declared over.
This article first appeared in The Northern Rivers Times
· ‘Pneumonic Influenza (Spanish Flu), 1919’, State Archives & Records, NSW Government, accessed online 12th August, 2021, Pneumonic Influenza (Spanish Flu), 1919 | NSW State Archives
· ‘The Influenza Epidemic 1919’, Tweed Heads Historical Society Inc, accessed online 12th August, 2021, Spanish-Flu-at-the-Twin-Towns.pdf (rahs.org.au)
· ‘Does this town hold the clue to surviving a pandemic?’, The Daily Telegraph via The Northern Star, April 17, 2020, accessed online 12th August, 2021, pandemic Spanish flu alstonville | Daily Telegraph
· ‘Influenza in Lismore’, Northern Star, Monday, 3 March, 1919, Page 4
· ‘All the one type of ‘Flu’, The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, Tuesday, 13 May 1919, Page 2
· Notes, The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, Friday, 11 April 1919, Page 4
· Notes, The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, Tuesday, 17 June 1919, Page 3
· Notes, The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, Fridaly, 11 July 1919, Page 5
· ‘Withdrawal of Proclamation’, Northern Star, Tuesday 19 August, 1919, Page 4
· ‘Red Cross Society – Lismore Branch’, Northern Star, Tuesday, 9 December 1919, Page 6
· ‘The Spanish Flu story in Australia’, History Snoop, accessed online 12th August, 2021, The Spanish Flu Story in Australia - History Snoop