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The Spanish Influenza: some local impacts of the 1919 pandemic

The pandemic referred to as the ‘Spanish flu’ started out on its devastating path in 1918, the last year of the First World War. It was passed among soldiers in Western Europe and at war’s end the virus spread rapidly around the world as soldiers returned from active service. Remote from Europe, and with delays in securing shipping to retrieve its servicemen and women, Australia had a window in which to make any possible preparations. At Armistice it was estimated that Australia had to repatriate 180,000 service personnel.

Oakleigh was a small Borough in 1919, nearby Clayton a modest village. Both had a Mechanics Institute, several churches, hotels and a post office. Oakleigh held banks, council chambers, fire station, police station and court house, several private hospitals and a Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Imperial League of Australia (now RSL) sub-branch established in May 1919. (There was no memorial hall until 1922 when it was opened by Major-General H. E. ‘Pompey’ Elliott to cater for returned services.)

One unlucky soldier, Private Cyril Mathrick, a son of Henry and Charlotte Mathrick of Dandenong Road, Oakleigh, contracted Spanish Influenza at sea on the troopship taking him to serve on the Western Front. Enlisted late in the war in May 1918 and allocated to 9th Reinforcements, he embarked on HMAT Barambrah in August (1). Admitted to the ship’s hospital on 11 October, twenty-year-old Cyril Mathrick died of influenza soon after in England, Barambrah having landed on 13 October 1918. Twenty others on board also died as well as four Navy personnel (2).

The devastating pandemic sweeping Europe entered England in waves, the first in the (northern) summer of 1918, the last ending in May 1919. Camp Codford near Sutton Veny in Wiltshire suffered post the Armistice when over 140 Australian soldiers and two nurses died of Spanish Influenza and were buried in Sutton Veny’s St. John’s churchyard. Every year since on Anzac Day a service is held in their memory, and children from the local school place flowers on the graves (3). At least one Clayton soldier was at Camp Codford after he became ill prior to repatriation. He was taken out of France to England through Le Havre in April 1919 and hospitalised at No. 4 GC Hospital on the 17th of May. From 21 May 1919 he was sent to No. 3 Camp Codford which received men convalescing from wounds or sickness. He survived and was repatriated home (4).

The Australian government determined on a response for containment of the virus, holding a national conference in Melbourne late in November 1918…
‘to consider what steps it will be advisable to take as a precautionary measure in view of a possible outbreak of Spanish Influenza in Australia and the measures that should be adopted if the disease should make its appearance’ (5).
The conference agreed that the Federal government take responsibility for proclaiming which States were infected, along with organising maritime and land quarantine. The States were to arrange emergency hospitals, vaccination depots, ambulance services, medical staff and public awareness measures (6). The population itself was mobile, as repatriation and demobilisation from war service saw the country’s people resettling, some evidence of this being apparent in Victoria’s schools. Just how fluid the local population was at war’s end in 1918 is shown in Clayton State School’s (No. 734) enrolments. Of 88 students in its registers 71 had come from another school and only 17 were re-enrolled from the district (7).

War’s end was celebrated joyously in Clayton and Oakleigh as it was everywhere, although the pandemic that became known in Australia as pneumonic influenza took hold in Melbourne in January 1919, sobering ongoing celebrations. Self-isolation was immediately apparent in a fete staged over two days to aid patriotic funds. Held on Oakleigh’s Drummond Street recreation reserve on Friday evening January 31st and over the next day, the same programme was repeated on the Saturday but the second…
‘gathering was not so large as was expected, owing to the prevailing influenza scare, which also robbed the programme of some of its features, especially those in which the naval men were to have taken part’ (8).

To prevent pneumonic influenza’s spread, schools, churches and theatres were closed and hotels and gatherings were limited. The closure of All Saints Church of England in March 1919 indicates the timing of its impact at Clayton (9). Churches resorted to open-air services to minimise risk of infection and mask wearing was common but debated. Masks were only mandatory in Victoria if you attended an indoor church, one of the few mass gatherings allowed throughout the pandemic’s peaks and troughs (10).

The Borough council chose Oakleigh State School (No. 1601) as the site for a temporary hospital, and two large institutions at Clayton, the Talbot Colony for Epileptics and the Convalescent Home for Women, lent beds and equipment. Nurse Margaret Capon, who had served overseas in Egypt as a staff nurse with the Australian Army Nursing Service and returned to Australia in July 1917, was placed in charge (11). She had the assistance of Voluntary Aid Detachment or VAD nurses while the whole Borough council acted as a health committee arranging inoculations (12).

Free two-part inoculations were dispensed to the population and homes where residents who were known to be infected were quarantined. The inoculations did not prevent infection as no vaccine for the novel influenza was found, but the vaccine appeared to reduce the severity of the disease. Houses quarantined received food deliveries from delivery carts whose drivers kept their distance by extending a pail at the end of a long pole to the household. Troops themselves were often quarantined before disembarking (in Victoria at Point Nepean) which compounded the difficulties of organising suitable homecoming celebrations (13).

Once the pandemic was thought to be over, the hospital at Oakleigh was prematurely dismantled as it was not recognised that the disease was still prevalent and that a second more deadly wave would arise. The women of the district organised themselves into a volunteer force to attend to stricken families in their homes. Their success is difficult to measure but their courage was undoubted. Particular tribute was paid to the wife of former mayor William Thomson, Lucy Thomson, who had tended to sick families for endless hours. The Talbot Colony on Wellington Road was said to be particularly hard hit by influenza (14). Women were often to the fore in a health emergency, and in August 1919 a meeting of the local Ladies Benevolent Society, held in the lodge room of Oakleigh’s Mechanics’ Institute, reported its help to 20 families or 102 individuals distressed due to influenza-related deaths (15). Pneumonic influenza took many lives, among the most tragic of them Jessie Webster, who was one of the women rallying to help. Jessie Webster was a tireless worker for the local Red Cross and had fallen victim while her son James was on his way home from war service.

By the end of 1919 the influenza pandemic was all but over. A fearful estimate put the number of those impacted at a third of the world’s population, with millions dead. It had affected healthy young adults more so than the elderly or those with weakened immune systems, as has occurred in the current COVID-19 pandemic. In Australia, the estimated death toll from pneumonic influenza was 15,000 people and, with a death rate of 2.7 per 1000 of population, was one of the lowest recorded of any country during the pandemic (16). Although figures vary, the Parliament of Victoria recorded its State as having 3561 deaths between 1918 and 1920 from an unknown number of cases (17).

Among the local returned soldiers known to have fallen victim was Herbert Charles (Bert) Whitehead, a plasterer at the time of his enlistment in July 1915 and a ‘consistent member of the Oakleigh Cricket Club, vice president of the Oakleigh Amateur Orchestra and a member of the Murrumbeena Church Choir’. Whitehead was already repatriated to Australia, had married Violet Thorn in April 1917 and was living at ‘Devonia’ in Warrigal Road, Oakleigh when he contracted pneumonic influenza. In 1919, weakened by an injury and the effects of war service, Whitehead died age 29 years in the Caulfield Emergency Hospital on 8 June (18). In July 1919 Private Douglas Curnick, returned soldier of the 59th Battalion, died of pneumonia influenza at Leongatha. Having survived years of war his death occurred only months after his repatriation home in March 1919. He was aged 24 years and his remains were brought to Oakleigh for burial in a family grave (19).

Of local civilians, Oakleigh-born William Waldron Locke, a plumber and son of John A. Locke, an early townsman elected a member of the Oakleigh & Mulgrave Roads Board, died from the influenza pandemic reaching across the country. His remains were also brought to Oakleigh for burial in a family grave. There were almost certainly others in the Oakleigh ̶ Clayton district in 1919 who died or survived the Spanish Flu. What is inescapable is that its impact had many similarities to COVID-19, declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020 by the World Health Organisation.

As with the 1919 pandemic that recorded its first case in Australia in Melbourne, so too was
the first case of novel coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) confirmed in Melbourne. Victoria’s Health Authorities announced its entry in January 2020 after a patient, a man returned from Wuhan, China, flew to Melbourne on 19 January 2020 (20). He was treated at the Monash Medical Centre in Clayton. Believed to be a local resident, the first case was thus identified and treated in the City of Monash. During the pandemic the City of Monash has published regular COVID-19 updates using data provided by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

H. G. Gobbi
October 2020©

1. A. J. Kilsby, P. Beckett, H. G. Gobbi, Fallen leaves: commemorating Oakleigh district men who served and died during World War 1. p. 37, Military Historical Society of Australia, Victorian Branch, 2010, Melbourne.
2. Greg Swinden, The Navy and the 1918-19 flu pandemic, https://navalinstitute.com.au/14244-2
3. Sutton Veny village website https://suttonveny.co.uk/1st-world-war/
4. NAA, WW1 Service Records B2455, Gobbi, J. C., S.N. 14765, pp. 4, 8.
5. The Capricornia, (Rockhampton), 7 December 1918, p. 4.
6. National Museum of Australia, Influenza pandemic
7. Pupils’ Register, State Elementary School at Clayton No. 734, Register Numbers 481 to 569.
8. The Australasian, 5 February 1919, p. 31.
9. H. G. Gobbi, No. 734, 150 years of Clayton North Primary School 1865-2015, p.36.
10.The Age 25 July 2020, online article by Zach Hope, Masks, Lockdowns and a second wave: a century on history repeats itself, quoting PHD research of Mary Sheehan.
11. H. G. Gobbi, Taking its Place: a history of Oakleigh marking it sesquicentenary 1853-2003, p. 149.
12. Oakleigh & Caulfield Times, 15 February 1919.
13. H. G. Gobbi, Taking its Place: a history of Oakleigh marking it sesquicentenary 1853-2003, p. 149.
14. Ibid.
15. Oakleigh & Caulfield Times, 30 August 1919.
16. National Museum of Australia, Influenza pandemic
17. Parliament of Victoria, Epidemics and pandemics in Victoria: Historical perspective
18. A.J. Kilsby, P. Beckett, H.G. Gobbi, Fallen leaves: commemorating Oakleigh district men who served and died during World War 1. p. 81, Military Historical Society of Australia, Victorian Branch, 2010, Melbourne.
19. Great Southern Star, 11 July 1920.
20. Press release, The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health 25 January 2020, https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp)