When the pandemic we know as coronavirus (COVID-19) began, we were told it was “unprecedented”. But then stories were told of similarities with the 1918-20 pandemic of pneumonic (Spanish) influenza and the description changed to “once in a 100 years”. Now with the realisation that pandemics are quite regular events it is being called “once in a generation”.
However, the pandemic of 1918-20 does stand out. It came after a global war and men aged 20-40 were its main victims; the same group that had been in the front lines for four years.
We knew the so-called “Spanish ‘flu” was coming as there had been reports from England and Europe of a virulent and deadly influenza since June 1918. Then there were reports of Australian soldiers dying from it on their way home.
People became fearful and rumours about the ‘flu’s origin began to spread. The first recorded case had been at an army base in Kansas, USA. It is believed to have spread to Europe via troop deployments.
People quickly made a link between the spread of the ‘flu and the war. A story circulated that the German military had deliberately spread it along the east coast of North America by landing infected soldiers from U-boats.
The ‘flu could only arrive in Australia by sea, so a quarantine program was introduced. All ships, particularly troop ships, that arrived in Sydney were moored in the harbour. The passengers were examined and sent – not to hotels – but to the quarantine station at North Head.
While there were over 490 cases and 40 deaths at the station, for several months this process was successful in keeping Sydney safe. It is believed that what finally brought pneumonic influenza into Sydney was a ship that docked in Melbourne.
Soldiers who were known to be ill or likely to be ill, were allowed to disembark. As the passengers returned to their home states they spread the disease. It is thought one man – known only as S.L. – brought the ‘flu to NSW. This action lead to much recrimination and ultimately to the closing of borders between states. Efforts to provide a nation-wide response were stymied as states decided to go their own way.
However, the quarantine program did enable NSW to prepare itself. An emergency plan had been drawn up and as early as October 1918 the NSW government had sent a request to South Africa for a “vaccine”.
South Africa, as a port of call for returning soldiers, had been infected early. Doctors had tried to develop a ‘vaccine’ but had no idea that the ‘flu was caused by a virus, so were unsuccessful. However, they did create an anti-bacterial vaccine, which may have helped with secondary infections like pneumonia. The Australian death rate was three times higher in people who were not vaccinated than those who were. Eventually we were to produce a vaccine ourselves and by the end of January 1919 the RPA hospital had produced 3-4 thousand doses.
In the plan, organisations such as Red Cross and St John, as well as independent citizen volunteers, would staff Voluntary Aid Detachments. Initially these VADs made house calls, distributed advice about the disease and checked the health of the occupants. Once patient numbers rose they would help in the hospitals and in houses where people were sick.
The NSW government declared a pandemic on 28 January 1919 and immediately put the plan into action. Borders were closed and places of public gathering such as pubs, theatres, picture shows and schools were also closed. The town halls of Marrickville (Illawarra Road), Petersham and Newtown became inoculation stations and had to run afternoon and evening sessions to cater to all.
Within days Marrickville Council started planning the creation of emergency hospitals in the closed school buildings at Marrickville Primary (Chapel Street), Dulwich Hill and West Marrickville. In the end only the Chapel Street school would be used and it wouldn’t be ready until April.
In the meantime, the schools became relief depots, staffed by teachers and volunteers who distributed blankets, food, masks and medicine. Masks were compulsory – people were charged and fined for not wearing them. However, as now, there was debate about their effectiveness.
The pandemic officially reached Marrickville on 4 February 1919 when the diagnosis “pneumonic influenza” was added to the Infectious Diseases Register beside the name of Arthur Thomas (aged 35) a brass-worker from Northcote Street Marrickville. Oddly, on 30 January the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) had already reported that Arthur had been admitted to the Sydney Hospital to be treated. He then moved to The Coast Hospital at Little Bay. The Coast was far enough away to act as a sort of quarantine station in itself. Many of the first Sydney patients who needed to be hospitalised were sent there.
Others such as Dorothy Watson (aged 20) of Garnet Street Dulwich Hill, who caught the disease on 21 March, were nursed at home by family and VAD volunteers.
The NSW government prematurely began easing restrictions on 4 March and masks were removed, depots relocated and children returned to school. Only five names had been entered in the Register; all men, two of whom, Frederick Tetley and Jack Baker, had died. In the time it took to realise their mistake and reinstate the plan, 25 new names were to appear in the register, including Dorothy’s.
On 2 April, with the virus raging through Sydney, concerned citizens began urging the council to get an emergency hospital opened. Marrickville Public School in Chapel Street was chosen, perhaps because of its proximity to the Town Hall on Illawarra Road, which was now the area’s relief depot. Local builder Mr Legge, returned soldier and ex-pupil Sergeant William Tonkies (Military Medal), and council employees under the supervision of councillors (including William Tonkies senior), set about converting classrooms to wards for the ill and accommodation for nurses.
Within a week of the new measures, one school building had been converted into a ward for 25 patients. They could manage 120 or three times the Marrickville Cottage Hospital limit if needed. Bathrooms and toilets were built, and gas and electricity was connected. There was one “young” doctor in residence and a matron and professional nursing staff supported by St John VAD. The nurses stayed in the old school building, today’s pre-school. Another large school building was set up as a kitchen and dining hall to feed staff, but also to provide meals for delivery to homes where families and VAD staff were nursing the sick. There was also a nursery for the children of patients who had nowhere else to go.
This period, from the beginning of April to mid-May, was to be the deadliest for Marrickville. Over 250 people had their names placed in the Register, 20 died at the Cottage Hospital and 8 died at the Chapel Street emergency hospital.
There were many sad stories. Ruby Nagel (aged 29) and her 9-year-old son Harry of Shepherd Street Marrickville were admitted to RPA. Ruby died within a day. We don’t know what happened to Harry, but going home wasn’t an option while his grandmother was also sick and being treated there.
Roy Strachan was a returned ‘original Anzac’ who had fought at Gallipoli and in France for four years. He was awarded the Military Medal and had married just one month before he died at Marrickville Cottage Hospital on 11 April, aged 27.
Whole families were affected. Six of the Baillie children of Oxford Street Petersham, and five of the Shannon family from Meeks Road Marrickville, were treated at home. Mr Shannon was 50, while young Bert Shannon was only 5.
The wife and two of the children of Alderman Schweikert were also treated at home on Illawarra Road while awaiting the imminent return of two sons who had fought in Europe. A daughter was a Red Cross volunteer in the group photograph above.
The fear of infection lead people to look for home remedies; raw garlic, whiskey, aspirin and Epsom salts, but some were extremely dangerous to their health. Jack Bell (aged 17) of Northumberland Avenue Petersham, died of a cerebral haemorrhage. At the inquest it was found that he had been drinking doses of turpentine to prevent influenza.
Other remedies were a little more considered though just as ineffective or dubious. Medical authorities thought that the inhalation of gases would keep people free of the disease. Many businesses and local councils created inhalation chambers or ‘inhalators’ on their premises. One set up at Central Station was ambitiously intended to process about 2000 people an hour. The Marrickville Council provided an inhalator for citizens at its council works site in Cecelia Street.
Mr A. Payne of Marrickville wrote to the SMH at the end of April about the inhalator at his workplace. He didn’t say where but with a staff of 350 it is likely to be one of the woollen mills. Mr Payne was convinced that the inhalation of “comphenol [sic], glycerine and eucalyptus” meant that none of the workforce contracted the ‘flu. Other sites used a gas comprising sulphate of zinc and some people were poisoned from this. Eventually the authorities began to have their doubts and advised against inhalator use.
And then in May it was all over. Again.
At a state cabinet meeting it was decided that things were back to relative normalcy. Face masks were out and children could go back to school. The schools reopened on 19 May but with patients still recovering, Marrickville Public remained closed until the end of May. The teachers, who were still being paid, remained in charge of the cookery departments and supplied food to households with invalids. Other ‘cookery schools’ included St Peters, Crystal Street, Erskineville, Newtown and Petersham public schools.
People were now feeling confident that the pandemic was over and, no doubt, they were very keen to get back to their normal lives. The state government sent 40 nurses who had contracted the disease off to the “palatial” Caves House at Jenolan Caves for some R&R and promised others they would be next.
On Saturday 24 May, Marrickville was proud to unveil a new memorial to its war dead, the Winged Victory. A crowd of 15-20 thousand turned out to watch a parade of returned soldiers, Citizen Forces trainees, boy scouts and assorted bands march down Marrickville Road from Seymour’s Corner (Victoria Road) to the site. While the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Attorney General and the mayor and aldermen were all in attendance, there was no social distancing and no face masks.
Perhaps not surprisingly, pneumonic influenza made its third appearance in June and July. A further 190 names were entered into the Infectious Diseases Register in those months. However, it would seem people were now getting pandemic weary as the previous restrictions were not reapplied. A lack of volunteers led the Marrickville Council to advertise it would pay domestic workers 2 pounds 2 shillings per day to work in the homes of the sick. Relief depots were open day and night but there were fewer of them.
By August no cases were recorded in Marrickville and on 17 August the pandemic was officially declared over.
It was then almost immediately forgotten.
Perhaps it was the bitter irony that those who gave their lives over four terrible years and who were celebrated, were the people who brought this deadly disease back to Australia.
Today we remember and celebrate the soldiers still, and are now beginning to remember those at home swept up in the terrible aftermath of a terrible war.
For an interesting talk on Marrickville and the Spanish ‘Flu by MHS life member Chrys Meader go to the Inner West Library and History Services Facebook page.