Inside Story

Fighting the goblin of horror

How the Spanish flu reached the New South Wales town of Singleton

Christine Vickers 6 April 2020 2152 words

The Smith family in late 1917, with the children’s home in the background, as Percy was leaving to fight in Europe. Jennie is sitting in the centre with George standing next to her. Her other children (from left) are Syd, Tilly, Arthur and Louisa. Christine Vickers

“We have had a bad turn of influenza here in Singleton,” Jennie Smith wrote to her eldest son on 3 August 1919. Percy Smith had been demobilised in London at the end of the war and was studying accountancy before returning to Australia. There had been “between 5 and 6 hundred cases in the last week,” his mother continued:

2 or 3 of the bakers have been closed, everyone down together. There were 7 deaths, all men. Arthur has been home from school 13 weeks. Syd had to board away from home on account of railway restrictions. All had to wear masks in shops and in churche [sic] and sit 4 feet apart — and only the minister unmasked.

By this stage of the epidemic, Singleton, 144 kilometres northwest of Sydney on the Hunter River, had been declared an “infected town.” A long battle to have the town’s plight recognised had finally succeeded, but the decision came too late to stop widespread infections and many deaths.

Jennie and her husband, George Colton Smith, had been managing the Singleton Aborigines Children’s Home since May 1910. The missionary couple sought to provide some semblance of conventional family life to the children in their care, some of whom had lived there since infancy. The home, established by local philanthropists, comfortably housed eighteen children. But since the Aborigines Protection Board had taken over its management from the Aborigines Inland Mission in 1915, the number was sometimes stretched to as many as fifty. The children were allowed to attend the local school, but when they turned fourteen the board placed them in “situations” — poorly paid or unpaid domestic employment.

“Restrictions were lifted last Wednesday,” Jennie told Percy. Of her younger children, sixteen-year-old Syd had just returned home after having boarded with a family in Maitland, where he was at school, and twelve-year-old Arthur had returned to the grammar school after five weeks at home. Seventeen-year-old Louise, her elder daughter, had been helping out at the children’s home since the restrictions had kept her from making her daily train journey to Maitland, where she was in her Matriculation year. To add to Jennie’s stress, nineteen-year-old Tilda was also back at home, recovering from typhoid fever contracted at Cummeragunja on the Murray River, where she had been working as an assistant teacher to Thomas Schadrach James, head of the Aboriginal school there.

Easing some of the pressure was the return of her Aboriginal charges to their schooling. “The children (home) went [to school] on Thursday, home five weeks, don’t you pity us with 34 of them. We received 2 more last week, tomorrow four more are coming which means 40.” The board’s demands were unrelenting.

The first Australian news of what we now call Spanish flu was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1918. Some saw it as a German illness, a ruse by “Fritz” to delay or avoid defeat in the war against Britain and its Allies. By July 1918, though, it was clear the disease had caused a significant number of deaths among French and German troops and was spreading rapidly through England and Ireland. Journalists puzzled over the fact that this was a summer disease, unlike the usual winter influenza.

At the beginning of August the disease reached New York; at the end of October it landed in South Africa, with devastating consequences for the white and black populations. Some 1600 deaths were recorded there over a five-week period. In September, after India reported infections, news arrived, terrifyingly for the Australian government, that an infected ship from Canada, the Niagara, had reached Wellington in New Zealand. The epidemic occupied the press for the next three months.

Australia’s distance from Europe and the rest of the world bought it time, giving doctors a chance to learn about the illness before it struck. The disease’s symptomatology and progress were outlined by two New Zealand doctors in the Australian Medical Journal of 22 February 1919. The first case there had been diagnosed in September 1918 when the Canadian passengers disembarked in Wellington, New Zealand. It was of the “ordinary respiratory type,” they wrote, with catarrh in the upper air passages. By November the illness was showing up in lungs and then, “with explosive suddenness, a large proportion of the population was attacked; virulent cases streamed into the hospital in dozens and our resources were taxed to the limit.”

Contemporary accounts reveal the numbers of ill people to have been overwhelming. The NZ government took steps to restrict the illness, prohibiting church attendance and closing schools, barber shops and hairdressers. The population was advised to use mouthwash to prevent the spread of germs.

The Australian government had beefed up its Quarantine Department and commissioning new quarantine hospitals at each Australian port. On 27 November 1918 pneumonic influenza was proclaimed a notifiable disease for ships bringing troops back to Australia at the end of the war, and the many soldiers who showed signs of the disease were immediately quarantined.

For several months this strategy seemed to have succeeded. With deaths from influenza occurring only in the quarantine hospitals, some expressed hope that the pandemic would not break out into the community. But ships were continuing to arrive and the number of cases was increasing. The government recognised that it was only a matter of time.

That didn’t stop a Medical Journal of Australia contributor from decrying as sensationalist any talk of a wider threat and criticising estimates of a worldwide death toll in the millions. How could that be the case when London’s official figure for the seven-week period at the height of the epidemic totalled between 1600 and 1700 deaths? Despite reports of large-scale fatalities in New Zealand, he continued, the official return in the four weeks ending 2 December 1918 was “2458 cases across three of the four health districts.

Even so, the press as a whole generally accepted that pneumonic influenza would eventually break quarantine and infect civilians. Reports of its virulence continued to arrive from New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa.

Public education had begun towards the end of November 1918. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, a health department official recommended that people inoculate themselves, make use of “respirators” — face masks — and keep “as much as possible in the open air.” Soon a medical consultative council was established, consisting of the leading members of the British Medical Association, still the body representing Australian doctors.

Pneumonic influenza became a notifiable disease on 22 November 1918, a rule soon extended to ships coming into Australian ports. The NSW government appointed its director-general for public health, Dr Thomas Paton, to oversee an “administrative committee” made up of senior representatives from local government, employer groups, unions and retailers, along with the Ambulance Association and the National Women’s Council. The committee proposed public inoculation programs, the manufacture of masks at a shilling each, and what we now call social distancing. “If a person was four feet clear from the affected person’s face,” advised Dr Paton, “the former would not be affected by the disease.”

Federal and state governments met in Melbourne on 27 November. They agreed on measures to accompany infection proclamations at state and regional levels. The Commonwealth was authorised to take control of a state for the period the infection was active, and road traffic would be blocked at its border until a case broke out in the neighbouring state. Provision was made for specialised hospitals, vaccine depots and ambulance transport; volunteers and nursing assistants were organised. Theatres, hotels, picture theatres, race meetings, music halls, churches and schools would be closed. The medical, nursing and military arms of the Department of Defence would respond as needed.

By the end of December, quarantine had been broken. Of seventy-one deaths in the Blue Mountains town of Lithgow during the four months ending 23 December, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, twenty had been attributed to pneumonic influenza. The state was declared infected. Suspicious cases were reported in South Australia, which was also declared infected, and in Melbourne. Border controls were set up between Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. People travelling between Melbourne and Sydney were directed to return home immediately, and on 25 January passengers travelling to Melbourne from Sydney were tested for the illness. The NSW government ordered all residents within ten miles of the Victorian and South Australian borders to wear face masks while they were going about their business.

The mayor of a city, town or borough, or a president of a shire, was designated as an appropriate health authority and could declare an “infected area” covering a radius of fifteen miles from a case. For the residents of Singleton, the process of gaining such a declaration proved to be surprisingly protracted.

Influenza’s tragedy didn’t extend to regions northwest of Sydney until May 1919, when figures began coming in from outlying areas. Young people, fathers and mothers, entire families were dying. Very young children were orphaned. Singleton’s Dangar Cottage Hospital, which had set up a specialised ward, was filled to its eight-bed capacity. Residents were “fighting the goblin of horror,” as a journalist for the Sydney Sun put it. There was no other way but through.

Hardly a home in Singleton was exempt from the illness. While it might have taken a mild form in many cases, it continued to claim victims. Businesses were depleted. Two of the town’s doctors were ill. On 3 July the editor of the Singleton Argus reported thirty-one deaths in the previous twenty-four hours and 106 newly diagnosed cases. Dr Alister Bowman, Singleton’s government medical officer and a frequent visitor to the children’s home, wanted the town declared infected. But the local council — always lax about these things, according to the editor of the Singleton Argus — was slow to take the matter up, perhaps preferring to believe that the decline in cases across the state meant that the country was getting “over the crest of such cases.” Even when the council did send a report to Sydney stating that the situation was “serious,” the health department still didn’t proclaim the town “infected.”

The editor of the Singleton Argus continued to plead the town’s cause. Matters might be improving in the rest of the state, he wrote, but that was clearly not the case in Singleton. Neighbours might be pitching in to help one another, but resources were low. The bakeries were closed because of illness, and so were the butchers and fruiterers.

The children’s home, long reliant on charity from local businesses, was deprived of the leftover bread and meat that had sustained it for almost a decade. Although it ran its own vegetable gardens and received rations from the government, the donated food had been vital.

Finally, on 12 July, the local council acted on Dr Bowman’s advice and closed the town. Schools had been shut since the beginning of July; now they were joined by theatres, pubs and other meeting places. The town asked the Country Influenza Administrative Council to authorise an emergency hospital at the local school. And finally, just as the epidemic was showing signs of abating, the Singleton Argus announced on 17 July, Singleton was officially “infected.” It was a bombshell for local people after all they had gone through. A row promptly erupted in the town over the delay and the council’s muddled approach.

The closures had not happened when the town most needed them, as Dr Bowman later pointed out, before the cases began increasing exponentially. Yet remarkably, as far as we know, there were no infections or deaths at the children’s home. As Jennie told Percy, “I am glad to say we are all well, all had slight colds, nothing serious. Dad’s was the worst but all are doing well.” We can never know whether those colds were a mild case of something more serious.

We know little about the impact of the epidemic on Aboriginal communities. The Aborigines Protection Board’s minute books and reports made little mention of this illness that had closed state borders, business and schools. Reports published by the Aborigines Inland Mission in September 1919 noted the deaths of three people at Bulgandramine, southwest of Dubbo, and three at Moonacullah, near Deniliquin. In Walgett, the missionary himself had been affected and was using the schoolhouse as a hospital. More alarming is a note that a small camp at Denawan, near Walgett, had been “wiped out.”

After the pandemic, a campaign was launched to stop the Aboriginal residents of the children’s home from attending school. Perhaps feelings had changed when the home had been taken over by the Aborigines Protection Board and was no longer an object of charitable interest. A year later the Smiths were sacked, with George accused of unspecified “improper conduct.” Within a week, the board took steps to turn the home into an institution for boys; within three years the home’s premises, long run-down, had been demolished, a feature of the town’s cultural landscape lost forever. •