Spanish Influenza Strikes Melbourne’s Suburbs

Barwon House, Main Street, Mordialloc, 1919.

With the outbreak of Spanish Influenza in Melbourne in December 1918 people were advised not to panic. Earlier local authorities were aware of the disease in Europe and its devastating effects upon the population so strict procedures had been put in place in order to limit its impact here. As a consequence Melbourne escaped relatively lightly compared to the number of deaths in Europe and America. The exact number of deaths world wide is not known but is estimated as being between 20 and 40 million people. This is more people than lost their lives due to the Great War

Although named ‘Spanish Influenza’ its origin was not in Spain but in United States of America. Later it was officially named ‘pneumonic influenza’. [1] Spain was incorrectly dubbed as the source of the virus because that country had a devastating outbreak in May and June 1918. But because they were not participants in the World War raging at the time, their press was not subjected to strict censorship and was able to report deaths. This was not so with other countries including United States of America, France and Britain. What was happening there was not publicised.

Fort Riley in Kansas, United States, is usually cited as the source of the virus. There in March 1918, soldiers burned tons of manure and, according to one report, “a gale kicked up. A choking dust storm swept over the land … a stinging, stinking yellow haze. The sun went dead black in Kansas.” Two days later the first soldiers reported feeling sick. Forty eight soldiers died at Fort Riley with pneumonia listed as the cause. [2] The virus was carried to Europe where more soldiers were infected and the sickness grew more deadly in the process. Eventually it moved to the general population and spread throughout the world.

The disease struck with amazing speed, overwhelming the body’s natural defences, causing uncontrollable haemorrhaging that filled the lungs, resulting in the victim drowning in his or her own body fluids. Individuals who were healthy in the morning were dead in the evening. Not only was it strikingly virulent, it attacked the young healthy adults rather than, as might be expected, the very young, the very old and the infirm. This was a reversal of the normal morality pattern.

While the Melbourne Argus, in November 1918, was tracking the progress of the disease and resulting deaths in Sydney, no similar outbreak was evident in Melbourne. Nevertheless people were being advised to take precautions. Dr William McClelland, the medical officer for Brighton, proposed in early December to establish an auxiliary hospital in the Wilson Recreation Hall, with one ward each for males and females. Bedding, because of its scarcity, was to be provided by the patients as well as food such as eggs and milk. [3] By February 22, 1919 the hospital was established and Nurse Powell was appointed as matron to be assisted by VAD nurses. Her weekly wage was set at £4. [4]

It was in January that Victoria was declared infected and the State placed in quarantine with theatres and schools forced to close. The outbreak was first recognized on January 21, 1919. [5] Dr McMeekin said that several cases had been reported to the management committee of the Melbourne Hospital early in December of the previous year, but that a quiescent period occurred so it was not until January that the presence of an epidemic was recognized. [6]

Steps were taken to contain the spread of the disease. People were encouraged to wear masks in shops, hotels, churches and public transport. Public meetings of twenty or more people were prohibited and travel in long distance trains was restricted. The New South Wales government closed the border with Victoria prohibiting traffic between the states. Where a member of a family was infected the house was isolated and quarantine rules were applied. Some people turned to folk remedies such as wearing a clove of garlic around the neck, or camphor balls, or kerosene impregnated sugar. Advertisements were run in the Argus in December and January for Clements Tonic and Nicholas Aspro. The producers of Clements Tonic claimed their tonic purified the blood and thereby helped people resist the disease, while the Aspro slogan was “Two Aspro Tablets a day should keep Spanish Influenza away.” [7]

Advertisements in the Moorabbin News indicated that religious services continued but often, weather permitting, they were conducted out of doors. St Matthew’s Church of England at Cheltenham reminded its members that the eleven o’clock and six thirty services would be held in the church grounds, masks were to be worn and at the service of Holy Communion the distribution of the elements would be done by intinction; the dipping of the bread in the wine, rather than receiving the wine from a communal chalice. [8]

A Presbyterian clergyman from Whittlesea expressed concern about the unhealthy practice of kissing. He confessed that when he saw people indulging in promiscuous kissing it produced in him a feeling almost akin to nausea, and he felt, for the welfare of the community, that the practice should be rigorously suppressed. “If young people of opposite sexes found it necessary to kiss each other,” he suggested, “ let them do it on sanitary lines, and use a sterilised germ proof gauze. Sentiment was good and well, but in a case of life or death sentiment should be placed aside,” he said. [9]

Local doctors implemented a program of inoculation at local centres with several hundred people taking advantage of this service. [10] Nevertheless there was not universal acceptance amongst members of the community of inoculation as a means of preventing infection or restricting the progress of the disease. According to a report in the Argus, a major difficulty at the time was that the medical profession had not isolated the causative organism and consequently all preventive inoculations were more or less an experiment. [11]

Cr Hash of Brighton said the main thing was care in the first place and “inoculation should be seen as a public duty.” As an additional precaution he recommended those who had to visit the city should immediately remove all their clothes on returning home, as he did himself. When speaking about this suggestion to his council colleagues, it caused considerable hilarity. [12]

Another piece of humour during a time of worry and death was the fictitious tale printed in the Moorabbin News of the ‘wash lady’ arriving at the shire hall for her inoculation. When asked to bare her arm she replied, “I can’t as I have to use my arms vigorously in my work.” The doctor then suggested the injection could be in her calf. “Oh no,” said the woman, “that would never do as I am on my legs all day, but (with sudden inspiration) I don’t sit down very much.” [13]

A reporter of the Brighton Southern Cross cautioned people not to panic and expressed his view that influenza “was a common complaint, and like the poor is always with us.” Acknowledging that while auxiliary hospitals had been established as a wise precaution, it was unnecessary to put them into operation unless the city hospitals where qualified staff existed could not cope. Influenza had reached a serious proportion but in relation to the total population the number of people suffering from pneumonic influenza he believed was very small indeed. [14]

Local clergymen applied to visit the sick in the Brighton hospital and administer to their spiritual needs but were denied access by the responsible committee. The committee took the attitude that it would be inadvisable to permit such a procedure unless the clergy were prepared to undergo quarantine. [15] Earlier this attitude was strongly criticised by Roman Catholic bishops. Dr Mannix of Melbourne and Dr McCarthy of Sandhurst who were vehemently critical of the decision in Sydney not to allow a priest access to give a nurse, who contracted the disease during her duties, the consolation of the last rites. [16]

The Moorabbin News believed the Moorabbin Council was slow to take appropriate action in the face of the epidemic even though a committee had been formed in December 1918 to consider what to do. [17] Subsequently, notice was given regarding the closure of public halls and mechanics institutes but no places had been nominated as inoculation centres nor had churches been closed. One irate correspondent wrote that the Moorabbin Shire had been caught in a state of somnolency and would probably wake up when the threatened influenza epidemic had passed. “Then they will possibly invite the ratepayers to attend the Shire Hall and other centres to partake of refreshments in the form of inoculations,” he complained. [18]

When the Moorabbin Shire Council established an auxiliary hospital at Barwon House in Mordialloc great indignation was expressed by some members of the community because of its location right in the centre of the town. [19] Protesters, at a meeting organised by the Mordialloc Progress Association and held at the Mechanics’ Institute, argued that the building was unsuitable because of insanitary surroundings and the confined space for convalescents. Cr Dave White, a Mordialloc resident and president of the shire, forcefully presented the council’s position. He pointed out that the auxiliary hospital was established within four and a half days, a significant achievement considering the tremendous difficulty in finding staff. He thought it “astounding that a few laymen could pit their knowledge of the existing conditions against three expert medical men.” [20] Following this speech an amendment was presented to the motion initially moved condemning the council’s action in establishing the auxiliary hospital in Barwon House. Rather than reproving the council, the amendment gave “hearty thanks to the Moorabbin Council” and “congratulated them on their success up to date.” [21]

Doctors Joyce and Scantlebury, the Health Officers for the shire, had visited Mrs O’Brien’s boarding house known as Barwon House and ascertained its suitability as an emergency hospital. They believed the building could be converted to a hospital with forty beds with minimal cost. Mrs O’Brien was agreeable and there were already twelve people in residence suffering from the disease. The doctors recommended that Mrs O’Brien and her house staff be engaged for housekeeping duties, a trained nurse be employed as matron, as well as one additional nurse and one VAD for every ten patients. In addition they recommended that the Council supply an ambulance, and if that could not be done, supply a car to transport patients. [22]

The Council accepted the recommendations of the doctors, establishing the hospital with a matron, two trained nurses, three VADs and one orderly. Joyce and Scantlebury shared the duties of medical attendant. Only the municipal health officers were approved to attend patients. Other doctors were barred from entry. The managing committee also decided not to admit residents from another district even though those individuals might be property owners in the shire, arguing that the hospital was established for residents only. Subsequently the Shire Council confirmed the actions of the committee. [23] By February 17, 1919 the hospital was caring for seventeen patients none of whom were regarded as serious cases. [24]

At the Council meeting of March 5, 1919 Dr Scantlebury’s report on the state of the influenza epidemic was tabled and discussed. Scantlebury listed recent cases of the disease in his area – Mr and Mrs Taylor of Glebe Avenue, Mr Cochrane of Bourke Street, James Morrison of the Convalescent Home Cheltenham, Mrs Harvey of the Mentone Hotel and Charles Elliott of Charman Road. It was this latter case that incensed Dr Scantlebury. Elliott was employed on the wharves in the city loading wheat. He went to the Melbourne Hospital when feeling ill. He was told he had the ‘real thing’, to go home and take the supplied medicine and return in a few days if he had not recovered. Scantlebury saw this as a flagrant breach of regulations as no person afflicted with influenza was permitted to either travel on a train or enter any place where people congregated. Moreover, he believed, the doctor instructing Elliott what to do was equally culpable. If the Central Board of Health knew and permitted this action they were, Scantlebury claimed, “guilty of the most outrageous and criminal negligence as the presence of such people in railway carriages exposes a great number of people to the probability of infection with death possibly resulting.” [25]

By March 1919 auxiliary hospitals at Mordialloc and Sandringham had been closed down but in that month there appeared to be a resurgence of the disease. Three constables and a sergeant from the Brighton station were admitted to the hospital in the Wilson Reserve suffering from pneumonic influenza. Immediately the police station was quarantined and a disinfectant program commenced. Later that evening the constable who was assisting in this process was admitted to the hospital also suffering from influenza, making five out of a local force of eight of the station off with the ‘flu’. [26]

By the end of 1919 the calamitous disease that had struck the world abruptly began to vanish. One suggestion for this state of affairs was that the disease had probably ran out of people who were susceptible and could be infected. Whatever the reason, people were pleased to learn that the danger of infection to themselves and others had passed.


  1. Argus, November 28, 1918.
  2. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch, March 1918.
  3. Brighton Southern Cross December 7, 1918.
  4. Brighton Southern Cross, February 22, 1919.
  5. Since January 21 upwards of 170 cases had been reported to the Board of Public Health. 67 cases had been admitted to hospital, of which 14 were dead, 53 remained in hospital, of which four were dangerously ill. Thirty four of the cases were definitely pneumonic in type. Two wards had been isolated, and the attendant nurses also. Argus, January 29, 1919.
  6. Argus, January 29, 1919.
  7. Argus, December 18, 1918 & Argus, January 31, 1919.
  8. Moorabbin News, February 8, 1919.
  9. Argus, February, 1, 1919.
  10. The average daily attendance in mid February 1919 was reported as Caulfield 600, Brighton 250 and Sandringham 150. In addition there were individuals who privately consulted their medical practitioners. Brighton Southern Cross, February 15, 1919.
  11. Argus, January 4, 1919.
  12. Brighton Southern Cross, February 1, 1919.
  13. Moorabbin News, February 15, 1919.
  14. Brighton Southern Cross, February 15, 1919.
  15. Brighton Southern Cross, February 22, 1919.
  16. Argus, December 10, 1918.
  17. Brighton Southern Cross, December 7, 1918.
  18. Moorabbin News, February 1, 1919.
  19. Brighton Southern Cross, February 15, 1919.
  20. Seaside News, February 15, 1919.
  21. Seaside News, February 15, 1919.
  22. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, February 17, 1919 p554.
  23. Brighton Southern Cross, February 22, 1919.
  24. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, February 17, 1919 p554.
  25. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book March 8, 1919, p560.
  26. Brighton Southern Cross, March 8, 1919.
27 June 2018
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