By Laurelle Pacey
Soldiers returning from the First World War battlefields of Europe in 1918-1919 took home the highly contagious and sometimes fatal ‘Spanish’ influenza.
It mainly spread where people were concentrated in areas, such as the mass movement of men in armies and aboard ships. It then spread quickly around the world even to remote areas. Unlike most influenzas, it could develop quickly with people sometimes waking up fine in the morning but dying by nightfall.
Tight quarantine restrictions by the fledgling Australian Government to prevent the virus from entering Australia ultimately failed. The first diagnosed case was in NSW in January 1919. In Sydney, public gatherings were restricted, schools and Sydney University closed, while pubs opened for short periods at a time. Victory parades were cancelled and it was compulsory for people to wear masks on public transport or face heavy fines.
Communities in country NSW prepared for the inevitable and made their own quarantine arrangements, usually on local medical advice. Narooma’s main community venue the School of Arts was closed from February as a precaution. Many country shows were postponed because of both severe drought and influenza fears, including Cobargo’s usually held mid-March.
Influenza reached Bega in early June following a visit by a Bega man to a conference in Sydney. Bermagui soon followed.
A public meeting in Narooma on 25 June decided the School of Arts hall (the original one, part of which is now Narooma Newsagency) would become the emergency hospital. Dr Birmingham, who had recently established a hospital opposite, supervised its conversion and Mitchell’s Mill provided labour. The hall was partitioned into two wards equipped by residents. Mr and Mrs Dawson Hansen took charge while Matron McLachlan of Narooma Hospital trained volunteer nurses.
Two days later, three quarrymen building the Inlet’s training walls were admitted. Within days there were 20 patients, peaking at 35. Narooma residents wore masks in public areas and the school closed for several weeks.
By the end of June, Spanish Influenza had also reached Cobargo and Moruya.
Narooma’s Volunteer Aid Detachments (VADs) were locals Queenie Costin, Queenie Fuller, Amy Woollett, Ettie and Lottie Fuller, Dorothy ‘Dos’ O’Connor, Eileen and Alice Lynch, Dolly Costin, Edith Wood and Alma Jones. Eileen Lynch did the cooking and some laundry.
John Hyland of Narooma Hotel placed his horse and ‘vehicle’ and motor car at the Red Cross’ disposal, and his hotel laundered gowns, masks and uniforms. Residents helped by ‘sending cooked viands, linen, milk, literature’ and other requirements. Harry Costin and Mrs Davison sent milk, Mesdames McMillan and Morris nursing gowns, George Fuller potatoes and turnips, Herbert Snell and Thomas Barker wood. Constable Barry supplied bed clothing and pyjamas and was ‘on duty day and night’, as were leading local businessmen John McMillan and Carl Mitchell. Four returned soldiers were wardsmen; Ned Lynch chopped wood.
Above: VADs for 1919 influenza epidemic
Narooma School of Arts was converted into an emergency hospital manned by Volunteer Aid Detachments (VADs). Shown are Amy Verent (nee Woollett), front left; Cyril Fuller, back left, Queenie Fuller, Mr Hansen, Queenie Costin, Ettie and Lottie Fuller (seated right). Hansen’s son Hilary believes the empty chair represents Mrs Dawson Hansen, Hansen’s first wife, who died while nursing at the emergency hospital. Photo courtesy Stella Costin and Narooma Historical Society.
Four died. James Giltron of Cremorne and teamster Edward Heycox of Narooma died in hospital, while Mrs Dawson Hansen and Mrs Amelia Lynch died at home.
By 2 August 1919, ‘the dreaded epidemic’ had left Narooma and the Emergency Hospital had been closed a week.
Meanwhile influenza arrived in Central Tilba on 13 July, brought in by George Ling who had come to work at the recently opened granite quarry. His fellow workers quickly became infected as well as their families and friends.
Cr H J Bate’s ‘commodious’ Red House at Tilba Tilba became Tilba’s emergency hospital. A 15-man working party quickly organised the Red House to receive patients with 22 beds in large airy wards.
Two trained nurses Verrender (in charge) and Motbey were employed for the duration; Verrender had assisted earlier at Bermagui. Lieut Godfrey from Bermagui came across as a volunteer attendant with Jack Horne as wardsman. Mrs John McFaul of Henkley took up residence to do the cooking and housework, assisted by Miss Fookes. Funds were raised to support the hospital and van loads of food were donated by locals. ABC factory manager Alex Livingstone used his car as the ambulance. Dr Lister attended daily with no one else permitted to enter the grounds.
By 17 July, there were 15 cases. Ling initially refused to leave the Palace Hotel (now the Dromedary) where he was staying but was eventually carried to the ‘hospital’ on Dr Lister’s orders. As soon as illness was reported, patients were moved to the hospital to minimise the spread of infection, yet several patients stayed on at the Palace Hotel. By 24 July, 40 patients had been treated, including nine in their own homes. Through this period, Tilba was ‘dead’ with no sports or other social events; everyone staying home.
By the end of July, only 11 patients remained, many having been being driven home to convalesce. No one in Tilba died from Spanish Influenza.
The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the First World War which killed an estimated 18 million worldwide – 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. It is regarded as the biggest natural disaster in recorded history; estimates of deaths worldwide vary from 20-40 million to 50-100 million people.
Australia’s population in 1919 was 5 million. During the War 416,809 people enlisted, 60,000 of whom were killed.
Spanish Influenza infected possibly up to 2 million Australians. An estimated 13,000-15,000 died but it was possibly more because many deaths in remote communities, particularly Aboriginal, were unrecorded.
History Books covering Bodalla, Narooma, Montague Island and Tilba Tilba and Central Tilba on the Far South Coast of NSW.
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Bodalla and the Morts: Bodalla: The Dairy Shed Bodalla Bakery Bodalla Motor Cycles and Power Equipment
All history books: Moruya: Moruya Books Bodalla: Gallery Bodalla Narooma: Narooma Visitor’s Centre Narooma Newsagency Central Tilba: ABC Cheese Factory Gulaga Gallery Bega: Candelo Bookshop
The Author: Laurelle Pacey (OAM) is an agricultural scientist, journalist and historian who lives on NSW’s far south coast. Laurell Pacey was honoured for 2019 Queen's Birthday Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her service to community history.