The Gatherings Order podcast cover image. Depicts two people wearing masks, one in 1919 clothing, one in 2020 clothing.

The Gatherings Order

In 1918–19 an influenza pandemic took an estimated 15,000 Australian lives, and millions more around the world. One hundred years on, as we grapple with COVID-19, this five-part series rakes through the archives of the State Library of NSW with historians, public health experts and scientists to trace the path of the 1918-19 pandemic. An eerily familiar story of loss, resilience and discovery in a world turned upside down.

Release Date

The war and pandemic are finally over but an economic crisis looms.

Featuring historian Professor Frank Bongiorno, economic historian Professor Simon Ville, Worimi man and historian Professor John Maynard, public health expert Professor Peter Curson, virologist Dr Kirsty Short, and medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Partita No.5-5.Tempo di Minuetto: Gianluca Luisi, Molène: Eracilon, Fuguencelle: Eracilon, Seung Gong: Dylan Tinlun Chan, Forgotten: Frozen Silence, Sleep: Ludovico Gonzales, Mendelsshon-Barcarola op.19n.6: Aufklarung, Color Blue: Ad Libitum, Le client: Grégoire Lourme, The Role of a Musician: Vladimir Sterzer, Schubert F.6 Moments Musicaux D 780 Op.94-No.3 in F Minor Allegro Moderato: On Classical. (All tracks amended)

Episode Audio

PHILIPPA STEVENS: It’s weird, perception versus the reality of the tape measure.


PHILIPPA: That is something that I have said. You’ve just got to get the tape measure out and start stalking it around.

ELISE: Stalking around with a tape measure is something that Philippa Stevens has been doing a lot over the last couple of weeks. As the State Library’s Manager of Information and Access, she’s in charge of the reading rooms which, after the longest closure since the last global pandemic, are reopening to the public today, 1st June 2020.

PHILIPPA: It’s a really exciting day and last week, as I was wrangling a whole pile of details, I was thinking, “I wonder what those librarians were thinking back in 1919?”

ELISE: Before coronavirus, thousands of people would walk through the library’s doors on any given day but as was the case in 1919, reopening during a pandemic means limited numbers, bookings and social distancing is essential.

PHILIPPA: You can’t just turn up and walk into the library. You need to pre-book because we have to have your contact details for contact tracing and that’s your computer or your seat for 3.5 hours and then it’s cleaned. So we close at 1.30 and then we reopen at 2.30 for the afternoon session.

ELISE: It’s like a scenario that you might get in like a job interview or like an advanced training for managers or something and it’s just to practise and to see how a team works but no, it’s an actual real life, it’s not just a scenario.

Oh, yeah, there’s quite a few people in here, aren’t there, working at computers?

PHILIPPA: Yep. People are working away quietly because I think they can’t do this at home.

PHILIPPA: And we’ve measured out all the seating positions. Staff have got the sneeze guards, there’s wipes and hand sanitiser absolutely everywhere. We’re marking on the floor sort of what one and a half metres looks like. It’s hard to keep it going at all times but everyone’s on the lookout for each other.

ELISE: I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of NSW and this is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. In this final episode, after the turmoil of a deadly war and an even deadlier pandemic, a world in economic crisis tries to recover and forget. So to what extent did the pandemic contribute to Australia’s woes as it rushed towards modernisation or was its impact along with its memory lost in the shadow of the war? As we live through the coronavirus pandemic, looking back at 1919 can feel like holding up a warped mirror to a strange parallel universe, one which at times seems to be looking right back at us.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, January 7, 1919. At the present time, when Sydney people are still feeling grateful to the quarantine officials for having confined the influenza scourge to the quarantine area, we may well ask ourselves whether the rapid development of the aeroplane in times of peace will not add to the difficulties of preventing the introduction of disease from other places.”

ELISE: However prescient this may now seem, the health problems of future generations weren’t going to stand in the way of progress. In 1919, it took seven weeks to sail from London to Sydney. The promise of the aeroplane was a trip that took half that time. As the first wave of pneumonic influenza was dying down the Government announced a great air race, offering a prize of £10,000 to the first Australian to fly from England to Australia within 720 consecutive hours. But with commercial air travel still many decades away the traveller of 1919 was still stuck with the steamship, and in late August, as pneumonic influenza was loosening its grip on NSW, this is how the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, made his way home after an absence of over a year. Hughes had arrived in London in June 1918 to attend a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet. While in England, the war had ended so Hughes stayed to attend the peace negotiations in Paris. This conference of 27 nations involved a complex series of meetings, largely focused on making Germany pay for its part in the war, reassigning its territories, moving its borders, taking over its resources and figuring out how much cash it should hand over as part of reparations.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The war had basically hindered a decades-long global economic system and it’s very unclear in 1919 what is going to replace it.

ELISE: Frank Bongiorno is a professor at the Australian National University’s School of History.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: Hughes had got some great deals for some Australian exporters and producers during the war but, you know, there’s a real sense at the end of the war that Australia could plunge into an even worse economic situation that it’s already in, not only dreadful inflation and unemployment but also a massive debt to Britain, and so a lot of Hughes’ preoccupations are around getting Australia a good a deal as he possibly can and also punishing Germany, screwing as much money as he can out of a defeated Germany.

ELISE: This was an era when most Australians still saw themselves as British yet Hughes understood the country’s unique security, economic and political concerns and insisted in his irascible way that Australia be represented not by Britain but by him, the leader of an independent nation.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: He was a very assertive figure in terms of Australia’s interests, Hughes. He was actually quite successful, I suppose, in getting his way and so it was in some ways an unprecedented assertion, the idea that Australia wasn’t just a kind of an adjunct of Britain, that it had its own interests to pursue and would be willing to do it.

ELISE: The first and most significant of the agreements to come out of the Peace Conference was the Treaty of Versailles and on the 28th of June, 1919, Hughes signed it on behalf of Australia then sailed back home to a hero’s welcome.


ELISE: Met by cheering crowds, Hughes was carried through the streets by the ANZACs he’d championed throughout the four years of war.

“But for the men who fought,” he said, “Australia today would be in chains. Australia’s freedom, which was trembling in the balance, has come back to us in overwhelming measure and all those ideas of which a white Australia is not the least valuable are now still within our grasp. Nothing but our own folly, our own cowardice, our own weakness and our own apathy can lose them. Our destiny lies widespread before us. This war has, owing to the valour of our soldiers, enabled us to take our place amongst the family of nations. We must hold the country and develop it.”


ELISE: In none of the speeches given during his return tour does Hughes make mention of the pandemic or the cost it exacted on Australia in his absence. His focus is almost entirely on the war, the heroes who fought, the cowards who did not and how Australia would embrace its destiny as a global player on the road to economic recovery.

PRIME MINISTER HUGHES: Yesterday the Allied Force was shot and shelled. Today they must fight with trade. The competition will be fiercer than ever. The war has cost us £300 million and it is estimated that repatriation will cost another £100 million. We cannot carry this crushing burden unless we show the same spirit as that which led us to victory. Salvation lies in work.

ELISE: While visiting troops on the Western Front, Hughes had seen their sacrifice with his own eyes and it seems he was determined that this be seared into the nation’s memory as it had been into his own. Though he’d also witnessed the worst of the pandemic while in England, Hughes would’ve been aware of the comparatively light toll it had taken on his homeland and while Australians were suffering through the pandemic he was already looking to the future as he thrashed out his deals in Paris. With the economic black hole created by the war and the promises made to soldiers for a heavily supported repatriation it may be no wonder that Hughes omitted to speak about the influenza. The sacrifices of war and the economic repercussions seemed to overshadow all else. There wasn’t much room left for the Spanish flu. Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Maybe after all the sacrifice, the heroism, the suffering, the grieving and the loss of the First World War people didn’t have a lot more capacity in Australia to also commemorate or remember yet another tragedy and get passed on in their family stories but it doesn’t seem to have been commemorated in any way like the First World War and you can see this playing out across the landscape so that almost every suburb and country town across Australia in the 1920s built a war memorial. It’s a major part of Australian popular culture that’s quite distinct from the rest of the world.

ELISE: Before the coronavirus pushed it into view, this pandemic did not figure in our collective memory. As an aftershock to the war it was in no way the main event, not as long, not as brutal, yet it still shut down society and took its own pound of flesh – 15,000 lives. It’s no small number, a toll difficult to imagine happening here today even while we watch as mass graves are dug in many countries around the world. Despite its early quarantine success, Australia knew it hadn’t rid itself of pneumonic influenza. There was no consistent public health measure they could really point to, no scientific breakthrough, but there was a clear understanding that a combination of geographical isolation and quarantine was what had saved it from the worst. And despite the compulsion both then and now to liken pandemics to war, it seems that when faced with both, it was the deaths of intentional sacrifice in the fight for freedom, deaths which could be built into heroic mythology, that won a place in our collective memory, not those caused by the unseeable, unknowable, unsolvable and uninvited pneumonic influenza. The grief left by both the pandemic and the war would linger for years but it was the economic impact of the war, not the pandemic, that would linger alongside it. Frank Bongiorno.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: We historians talk about, you know, the depression of the 1840s and the depression of the 1890s and the depression of the 1930s. We actually need to have been talking about the depression of the 1910s. The war was devastating to the economy. GDP declined over about six years by almost 10%, 9.5%. That’s a depression, you know, that’s an extraordinary drop in national production. People’s wealth dropped even more, so one of the reasons why it’s very difficult to work out what kind of impact the Spanish flu had is because of course it’s coming up from such a low base given the effect of the First World War on the economy that, you know, it was almost impossible to imagine it going any further down.

ELISE: The depression of the 2020s seems an inevitable addition to future historians’ lists. Recent estimates have shown that the coming financial year will see a fall in Australia’s economy which will surpass even that caused by the First World War. Not long after it became clear that pneumonic influenza would cause significant economic disruption, the NSW Government did pass an influenza relief bill, handing loans and cash payments to distressed businesses and families who applied. But it was a drop in the ocean compared to what the Federal Government is doing today and to the cost of the war back then. In fact, it was a rise in the minimum wage at the end of 1919 which made up the bulk of the State Government’s deficit, not the direct costs of the epidemic. The idea of government welfare was also only partly formed at this time. Generally, people did not look to the Government for financial support. Reports describe workers reluctant to accept the Government’s influenza relief as it “savours too much of charity, instead living off their own savings.” Simon Ville, Senior Professor of Economic and Business History with the University of Wollongong, agrees that the coincidence of these events make it difficult to pin down the exact impact of the pandemic.

PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: I mean, we know that often after war there’s this thing called pent-up demand where people haven’t been able to spend on things they wanted to because they simply weren’t available, so normally you get a bit of a boom after the war. Now we don’t get that straightaway, we get an economic downtown in 1919, so the best take I can make from it is that the pandemic delays the boom. By 1921 growth goes up quite substantially and continues through for most of the 1920s.

ELISE: Whatever the cost of the pandemic it was the mere icing on the cake, as Australia carried its debts into the 1920s toward another global economic catastrophe. Frank Bongiorno.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: It was a bit of a house of cards from Australia’s point of view, really, because, yes, it had massive war debts but again, you know, it also borrowed heavily in the ‘20s. This is the period, of course, of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, there’s a lot of electrification, a lot of developments, which is largely happening with loan money and it’s increasing Australia’s indebtedness. I mean, these are mainly state governments taking out loans in London and even in New York by the 1920s and, yes, it gives a buoyancy to the economy for a few years but it also produces some really dreadful weaknesses that were being exposed, certainly as early as 1927-’28.

ELISE: And it wasn’t just the Government who let the good times get the better of them.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The consumer economy is really taking off in the ‘20s, things like radios, of course, processed foods, even something as simple as an electric iron, you know, household appliances that are becoming more affordable for a greater number of people but, you know, they’re often doing it on credit and many people get into financial trouble, of course, because the good times didn’t last and unemployment was climbing very high even before the New York stock market collapse of 1929 so Australia plunged into a really deep depression from the late 1920s from which it really didn’t recover, arguably, until 1942, the earlier period of the Pacific War.

ELISE: Though modernisation may have taken a firm hold, the world was still relying on economic principles from a now bygone era, principles that proved ineffective in the face of such a dramatic economic collapse. Simon Ville.

PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: The 19th century view was very much predicated on Victorian notions of thrift, saving was a good thing. Economic theory of the 19th century said we didn’t have to do very much because as the economy went through a slump the price of everything went down and therefore labour was cheaper and therefore gradually employers would re-employ, everything would self-correct. The problem was that that wasn’t happening. It went on for five, seven, eight years and it still wasn’t happening.

ELISE: As the Great Depression ground on without any evidence of this self-correction, it became clear to some economists that a new theory was needed.

PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: The economics book of the 20th century was written in 1936 by John Maynard Keynes, who was a Cambridge economist and Keynes said “Economic cycles can get stuck in a depression for a sustained period of time.” He said, you know, there are ways we have to build demand up during a depression and basically if you look at the post-1945 period, all governments had this sort of demand management thing where the economy goes to downturn, we cut taxes, we do whatever we can to boost demand to bring the economy back into a good point again, so that really, really shifted the way economists thought from the 1930s onwards. And even though there’s been a bit of a pushback we’re still now in a situation where that basic idea of financing out of a deficit is seen as a good thing to do.

ELISE: Though it would take until 1936 for the theory of deficit financing to be written, this economic tool, being well-exercised in our current crisis, was something that Australia had first trialled out of necessity when Britain let it be known that Australia would have to pay for its own war efforts. The money just wasn’t there. A deficit was the only answer. It would also have to be the answer to the expensive soldier repatriation scheme which would fundamentally change the nation’s relationship with the Federal Government, moving it towards the model we see today where social welfare is an accepted part of our economic framework. Frank Bongiorno.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: What World War One does is it does boost the direct role of the Federal Government in everyday society and probably most obviously through the very substantial support for returned soldiers, whether it’s soldier settlement schemes where they’re supported to go onto land to farm, support for education, support for housing, pension payments for those who are incapacitated. This is very expensive. It’s one of the big financial problems of the country in the 1920s and ’30s given the very large number of returned soldiers and the incredibly difficult problems, both psychological and physical, so many of them faced.

ELISE: But not everyone who fought returned to the livelihood they’d been promised. Worimi man and historian John Maynard.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: Over 1,000 Aboriginal men went to the First World War and many lost their lives in serving for their country. When they came back they were not treated the same as returning white soldiers. There is now a record that six did get something, a little bit of land from the soldier resettlement but the great majority were basically told, “It doesn’t equate to you.” The other most important thing is that a lot of the land they were taking and handing over to soldiers in NSW was Aboriginal independent farms.

ELISE: As John describes it there was a bubbling resentment growing in the Aboriginal community which would lead to a formal campaign for change.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: The catalyst for the rise of organised Aboriginal political protest and demands for justice in this country erupted in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu, the increased pressure of taking Aboriginal land, removing Aboriginal kids and in 1924 in Sydney was the formation of the first united all-Aboriginal political organisation, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, led by my grandfather, Fred Maynard. They held the first Aboriginal convention in 1925 in Sydney and they were front-page news in the Sydney press of the time. What were the things they were talking about? Land, protecting the kids, health, housing, education, all the things that we’re still talking about today. Self-determination.

ELISE: While the AAPA did succeed in drawing the nation’s attention to their campaign, it was short-lived.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: There was certainly a quite widespread discussion in State Parliament and there’s discussion by the Commonwealth Government but no real action because it keeps coming back to the Protection Board and all that did was bring the police in for greater intimidation and harassment of the Aboriginal activists and that’s why the AAPA basically disappeared from public view in 1929. They were hounded out of existence and driven underground.

ELISE: As John has described, the treatment of Aboriginal soldiers after the war was just one of many concerns that drove the rise of this formal activism. The terrible death rate among Aboriginal communities hit by pneumonic influenza was also a likely factor. But had the pandemic not taken place, these events would no doubt have unfolded anyway, likewise the economic downturn, likewise John Keynes and his new economic theories, likewise the move towards social welfare. But one area that did change as a direct result of the pandemic was in the political arena of public health. Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: After the pneumonic influenza pandemic had passed, Australia was held up worldwide as an example of effective quarantine and the power of enforcing quarantine to keep out infectious diseases and that was in spite of the fact that the disease had come ashore and had infected up to a third of the population.

ELISE: Though lauded for its quarantine success, the Federal Government knew that its limited jurisdiction during the pandemic had caused problems, especially when it came to its relationship with the states. This wouldn’t be the last time Australia would be faced with such a health crisis so they set about establishing a national approach with federal oversight not just of quarantine but of the research, monitoring and management of infectious disease. Frank Bongiorno.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: One of the really direct outcomes of the Spanish flu was the formation of a Federal Department of Health. I mean, that didn’t exist before the early 1920s and was very much a response to the problems of coordination between the states that had been revealed and come out of the Spanish influenza experience.

ELISE: With the end of the war and the dying of the pandemic, the pause button that had been held down for five years finally lifted and the world we recognise today began to emerge full of new technologies of convenience, efficiency and speed which would change the way we live and open us up to the wider world. Influenza restrictions were still in place in Darwin when Captain Ross Smith and his team landed their plane there on 10th December, 1919, becoming the first to fly from England to Australia. They’d completed the trip in 28 days, securing the £10,000 prize money with 48 hours to spare.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The landing was very spectacular and very picturesque.”


“The crowd rushed the airmen and carried them shoulder-high from the ground, men and women struggling to get in and shake hands with them. A citizens’ banquet is being tendered the airmen tonight despite the influenza regulations to the contrary.”

ELISE: That the people of Darwin were marking this historic step while still living the pandemic is remarkable, the timing uncanny. The safety of isolation, of having time on your side to see what’s coming and prepare, could no longer be taken for granted. Of all the surreal new realities COVID-19 has forced us to confront, one of the strangest is that we can no longer leave our island. The ease and ubiquity of international travel is gone. We return to the safety of isolation and silent skies. While the post-pandemic, post-war world rushed headlong into the excitement of the new, only to be faced with another depression, the pneumonic influenza slowly faded from public consciousness. But the scientific community did not forget. This was still a mystery in need of solving and for decades the quest to better understand the pneumonic influenza continued. In 1932, virus were first sighted by British researchers and the work to figure out what they were and how they worked could really begin. Then in 1951, a team of scientific researchers travelled to Alaska on an extraordinary mission, a search to quite literally unearth the 1918 pneumonic influenza virus from the frozen tundra. The Spanish flu hit the Inuit of Alaska hard, many communities enduring death rates of over 50%. As the pandemic continued to rage through the winter of 1918-’19, the territorial government, doing everything in their power to limit the spread, employed local gold miners to travel from village to village, digging mass graves. Expert at penetrating the frozen earth, the miners managed to reach a depth of two metres. Over 30 years later, the scientists reckoned this depth would have ensured a continuity of freezing, enough to suspend the bodies and the virus that had killed them in time. While the expedition succeeded in retrieving lung tissue, no influenza virus was identified. But all was not lost. 45 years later, scientific advances meant that should enough samples of the virus be found its genome could be sequenced. Eventually this would motivate a revival of the exhumation project and in 1997 a team of researchers followed in the footsteps of the 1951 team, travelling to Alaska to reopen the graves. This time they succeeded. The tissue they gathered, combined with samples identified at two historical tissue repositories, yielded enough genetic material to begin the mapping of the pneumonic influenza genome. Nine years later, the sequence was complete and scientists could finally answer questions that had lingered since 1918. Virologist Kirsty Short.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: It was really trying to understand why this virus was so bad and in doing so they were actually able to identify certain components of the virus that were associated with severe disease. Now that’s very important because we do a lot of influenza surveillance worldwide and the sequences of influenza strains are constantly looked at and then monitored so this information is really essential because it means that if you’re looking at what strains are circulating, say, throughout the world and all of a sudden you see these genetic signatures that you know from the 1918 virus are associated with severe disease then you can start putting the appropriate public health measures in place. So a lot of the benefits from these experiments were not only understanding treatment but also for disease surveillance and better prediction of future pandemics.

ELISE: For all the scientific advances of the last 100 years, the coronavirus has reaffirmed that there are not always immediate or easy answers. The question of preparedness is one that may dog us for years to come. As we wrap up this podcast it’s been seven months since Australia’s first case of COVID-19. Infection rates around the world have passed 20 million and shown no signs of abating. Russia claims it’s ready to roll out a vaccine and several other countries are in the final stages of human trials. After 100 days free of community transmission in New Zealand, an unexpected outbreak has seen the city of Auckland return to lockdown and Victoria has gone into stage 4 lockdown, one of the hardest in the world, as they struggle to control a second wave. Borders are closed, masks and social distancing the new normal for all of us. The actions of the individual have never mattered more and until there’s a vaccine, the only thing we can really control is ourselves. Though the way forward is full of uncertainty, one thing is for sure – we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Public health expert Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The governments and a good proportion of the medical profession still tend to believe that we’re living in an antiseptic age, that we’ve confronted infectious disease, that we’ve beaten it, but I think, in some ways, nothing could be further from the truth. I think we’re on the edge of yet another 25 years of changing, mutating infections. We tend to think that we are the dominant species and whatever we do we can overwhelm this, and it’s not true, in a sense. Compared to the animal and microbial world, we’re a minor species.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Viruses have been around for a very, very, very, very long time. They’re really everywhere. Even bacteria can get infected by viruses and in fact one of the places that are most dense for viruses is actually the ocean so there is incredible diversity and I think we’re only really just beginning to tap into the surface of the knowledge that we need to have about viruses.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Given that most of these infections are nurtured by natural animals, we have continued to intrude on their reservoirs, either by extending cities or developing new programs of agriculture or deforestation and the fact that most of the infections that have been around for a long time begin to change, may sometimes become more virulent, they become different, but we live in such an interconnected world, such a mobile world, with so many people moving over time and space – now ally that to the fact that more and more people have been exploring more remote, exotic areas, on occasion confronting areas where zoonotic infections have been there for thousands of years. Anybody can fly in, show no symptoms at all and within a week or two spread an infection that’s never been seen here before or as a more virulent form of something that exists. I think it’s very difficult to control such things.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: It’s actually incredible but over 100 years later we’re still depending on the same public health measures but the reason for that is because they work. They are incredibly effective if everyone adheres to them. Now fast forward to today. Even though it’s not a guarantee that we will get a vaccine we have incredible technology that actually facilitate vaccine design and rapid vaccine design. The speed at which this is happening at the moment is incredible.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: We’re deliberately keeping ourselves indoors, we’re trying to show people that we’re following the rules but we’re also illustrating our compassion. We want to say, “Yes, we care, yes, we’re trying to do the right thing but, hey, it’ll be OK.” There’s a sense of connection between us.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: I hope that we retain the most important lessons from this and that we lose some of the negative effects like, you know, the feeling of isolation that a lot of people have. But I hope that we do learn a lot from this and we learn about the importance of health, we learn about the importance of we’re here together as a society. I mean, who knows how long people’s memory will be. It could be that when this is all over we’ll just go back to how things were, I don’t know.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: It’s hard to know what will be kept and what won’t and of course I’m talking about things we can see now. I really hope that we’re also scraping a lot of the social media data and that we’re keeping a record of websites and messaging and email – they’re the things I think will help people a century on understand how today’s society coped just as I’m grateful for everything that survives at repositories like the State Library of NSW to help me understand how our community coped 101 years ago when we faced a dramatically similar crisis.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Essentially viruses are very, very, simplistic intracellular parasites almost and it’s incredible that these things that you can’t even see with your bare eye can have such a remarkable effect on human history.

ELISE: We want to sincerely thank our contributors for sharing their wealth of knowledge and expertise with us at this busy and difficult time, Dr Peter Hobbins, Professor Peter Curson, Dr Kirsty Short, Professor John Maynard, Professor Frank Bongiorno and Professor Simon Ville. Thanks also to our performers Anni Finsterer, Tim Withers, André de Vanny, Brandon Burke, Nicholas Hope, Bill Conn,  Catherine Bryant, Catherine Timbrell and Alice Tonkinson. The Gatherings Order was researched, written and produced by Sabrina Organo with research, editorial input and narration by me, Elise Edmonds. Sound design by Unison Sound. Thanks to Rawiya Jenkins, Vanessa Bond, Cathy Perkins and Jude Page for their editorial support. And thanks to you for listening. If you have a moment to rate and review The Gatherings Order, we’d appreciate it. It helps other people find the podcast. If you’re in Sydney between 5th September 2020 and 24th January 2021, be sure to swing by the State Library to see Pandemic, a display which includes a number of the items we’ve talked about in this podcast. We hope that we’re able to stay open for you during Covid times. If not, there’s always plenty going on online. You can visit our website at Thanks for listening and take care.

Release Date

A second wave of influenza sweeps through New South Wales. The death rate climbs and hospitals are overwhelmed. Why are some groups of people dying at much higher rates than others?

Featuring public health expert Professor Peter Curson, virologist Dr Kirsty Short, Worimi man and historian Professor John Maynard and medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Scott Joplin’s New Rag 1912: OnClassical, Cinematic: Moff, Cylinder Four: Chris Zabriskie, Belle Reve Lost: Simon Bowman, Fuguencelle: Eracilon, Sad Piano: DDmyzik, Le client: Grégoire Lourme, Funeral: Serge Quadrado, Mirage: Ad Libitum, Anxiety: Shymonmusic. (All tracks amended)

Episode Audio

Please be advised that this episode includes reference to historical events and language that may cause distress or offence to some listeners.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “With the Peace Ball in the Town Hall last night, the first big social function of its kind in NSW since the outbreak of war, Sydney can be said to have resumed its old, light-hearted way. For four long years, we have been a staid, sober community. The real Sydney, with all its light and life, was subordinated to the one thought of helping to win the war. Days of tears, of anxious watching and waiting. Then came the influenza, with its hideous masking and irritating restrictions to give people the doldrums. Little wonder after all this that the Peace Ball was eagerly awaited as a welcome reaction, the laughter of light hearts, the whirl of ever-lighter feet. It was a picture of joyous, pulsating life, a magnificent revel and it will long be remembered.”

ELISE EDMONDS: On 5th June, 1919, Sydney’s Town Hall played host to 1,800 revellers, a crazed maze of whirling figures celebrating the long-awaited peace. But under the myriad lights veiled behind yellow drapings, beneath the baskets of flowers and foliaged arches, among the merry laughter and chatter, the pneumonic influenza was spreading like wildfire. The event would certainly be remembered. In fact, it would become notorious. As the celebrations ended and people headed home, the first ripples began rolling out, quickly gaining size and speed as they grew into a second wave of infections and deaths more than twice the size of the first.


This is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. In this episode, as the pneumonic influenza continues its sweep across NSW, we take a look at who was dying and try to understand why.

SABRINA: Hi. Can we sit down?


SABRINA: Thank you.

ELISE: It’s the 15th May 2020 and the world’s cases of COVID-19 continue to escalate, but here we’re still seeing a steady decline and today cafes and restaurants around NSW reopen to seated customers.

ELISE: A latte and a flat white. And we might split… You can’t split a Portuguese tart. You have to have two. Two Portuguese tarts. Yep, thank you.

ELISE: But in ten days’ time the pandemic will be knocked from the headlines by two huge events, the legal destruction of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural sites in the Pilbara by mining giant Rio Tinto and the police killing of African-American man George Floyd in the US. Despite public health orders, Black Lives Matter protesters will crowd streets around the world, risking their health to demand justice and an end to black deaths in custody. Links between these issues and the pandemic are not difficult to draw. In America, the black population are dying from coronavirus at a rate three times higher than the white. In Australia, if you’re a 50-year-old Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you’re at the same risk of more serious illness if infected with coronavirus as a 70-year-old from any other background.

‘Pandemic’ is a word that’s been around for a long time. The first recorded use dates back to the 1600s, a century when the number of ships criss-crossing the globe was on the increase, taking their diseases with them. But the origins of ‘pandemic’ date back even further, to Ancient Greece. Much like its country of origin, pandemic is a word with very democratic ideas. It derives from ‘pandemos’, which simply translates as ‘all people’. But pandemics and the people that survive them are rarely a reflection of chance smiling equally on everyone. Your age, location and access to health care are just a few of the factors that might predetermine whether you survive or die. The pneumonic influenza wasn’t the first time Australia had experienced an influenza pandemic. The most recent was still a living memory, having appeared just 29 years before. Public health expert Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The significant influenza epidemic of 1890-’91, which was probably the first real great pandemic of influenza, where probably something like 600,000 people in Australia had influenza in 1890-’91.

ELISE: Though infection rates were high, the death rates were low. Numbers are difficult to come by but we know that fewer than 300 people died in Sydney. That flu was what epidemiologists consider typical in that the worst affected were either very old or very young but the Spanish flu behaved very differently.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The most striking feature of the 1918-’19 flu pandemic was that for the first time in the history of flu epidemics, it affected young, healthy adults and that’s never happened before. The people who were most affected were those aged between 25 and 39. They made up about 25% of Sydney’s population but almost half all the influenza deaths, particularly men, who made up 61% of deaths. But certainly those people involved in everyday work, whether it was shopping, interacting with people or carting things or working on the wharves were probably the most vulnerable. You can imagine a society that had lost many young men in the war suddenly confronted with an infection that was taking young men again. And today there’s still debate about why that happened.

ELISE: One theory that attempts to explain why Spanish flu affected people in the prime of their lives has to do with the fact that many of them had been born during that first big influenza pandemic of 1890-’91.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Some people have argued that somehow that affected their immune system, being confronted by that particular flu bacteria then, and that made them more susceptible. Now, it’s partly convincing but not completely.

ELISE: The other theory is also focused on immune response. Here’s Kirsty Short, virologist and Australian Research Fellow with the University of Queensland to explain.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Individuals who had severe forms of this disease, they typically weren’t dying from the virus but they were actually dying from this overzealous immune response. So obviously when you have a viral infection, you want your immune response to be active but your immune response exists in this really fine balance because as soon as it gets over-active it starts damaging the tissue in your lungs and that might have partially explained why people in the middle ages of life who are normally in their immunological prime, so to speak, were having more severe disease because they were having a more active immune response and in this particular context that was leading to more damage of the lungs.

ELISE: As the Deputy Director-General of Public Health William Armstrong explained at the time, “Probably the most striking clinical feature of this epidemic was the colour of the patients in the more severe cases. With the onset of definite pneumonia, the patient often became lilac or lavender-hued.” The medical journal The Lancet provided a similar description.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: They actually drew a picture of a patient in various stages of illness and what you saw at the time is that the patient’s lips became progressively more blue and that’s an indication that they weren’t getting oxygen and the reason they weren’t getting oxygen is because the immune response was just completely destroying their lung, the lung was filling with fluid and so instead of being able to take in air, they were almost drowning in their own fluid.

ELISE: While the Spanish flu was undoubtedly a horrible disease, Australia did manage to avoid the earliest and worst strains of it, evident in the comparatively low death rate. Once the virus arrived in Australia, it appears to have continued on its path of mutation.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Some viruses mutate very quickly and are very easy to mutate. Influenza is one good example of that. This makes sense when you think about the flu vaccine where we have to keep updating it. Normally what happens when a virus replicates is you have a certain protein that goes along and checks the accuracy of the replication. So think of it sort of like a copy editor. What happens in viruses like flu is their copy editor is just really, really lousy. Maybe think of it as like the work experience kid who’s just been dumped with that responsibility and not trained. And so what happens is it allows lots of mutations to come through and then the virus adapts or becomes more virulent, perhaps not even more virulent, maybe more transmissible. That tends to be the more likely evolution. And then you can have the second wave.

ELISE: The pattern that Kirsty describes for viruses to mutate from more virulent to more contagious certainly seems to be reflected in Australia’s first and second waves and the Government took note. In the middle of June, as case rates began to shoot up for a second time, that the virus had become less deadly seems to have formed part of the justification for a wait-and-see approach rather than another hard lockdown. Instead of reimposing restrictions, Premier Holman cancelled the Government’s own large gatherings and expected the public to follow their example.

PREMIER WILLIAM HOLMAN: The Government has no desire to speak in any alarmist spirit but the public must realise that the number of cases are so increased that there is a real danger of the doctors and nurses of the city being overwhelmed if any further addition occurs. It may compel the Government to take stringent measures but it is hoped that with a realisation on the part of the general public of the gravity of the danger and the voluntary avoidance of the chances of infection, the rapid increase in the number of cases may be checked. Happily, the death rate has been strikingly low in comparison with the experiences of other parts of the world and even in comparison with their own early experiences.

ELISE: Yet still the numbers grew. State schools were closed but not as a containment measure.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Owing to the shortage of trained nurses, the Government has decided to call upon the teaching staffs of the state’s schools who did such excellent work during the severe form of the epidemic some months ago to render assistance to the depots.”

ELISE: There were almost continual urgent appeals throughout this period for medical staff and other workers to come forward. As encouragement, the Government had started insuring the lives of hospital employees who attended influenza patients, eventually extending this offering to all frontline public servants, but with little effect. As William Armstrong reflected in his post-pandemic report…

WILLIAM ARMSTRONG: “The maximum number of beds available for influenza cases at the hospital is enumerated 2,000. In addition, a portion of the grandstand at the Randwick Racecourse was requestioned and equipped as a 500-bed hospital. But owing to the shortage of doctors and nurses in Sydney, it was never brought into use, although at two periods of the epidemic when the emergency was greatest these beds were badly needed.”

ELISE: Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: It’s interesting. There’s no detailed information on how many people caught influenza in Australia, particularly in NSW. There’s one survey and it was carried out in 1919 by the State Government in Sydney and that looked at 600 establishments – banks, government departments, city offices, shops and whatever. It involved 106,000 employees working in that situation and they found that 37% of them had flu. Largely they were responsible also for spreading it around, obviously, because they were dealing with other people and you can imagine the impact that had on society.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday June 25th. In some suburbs, the disease has visited almost every house in every street. In fact, whole families have been ill at once. In the flats of Darlinghurst, Randwick, Cremorne, Kirribilli and North Sydney few of the occupants have escaped the disease which has swept through from floor to floor with amazing rapidity. Every large business in the city, every public institution and utility has had to carry on with greatly depleted staffs.”

ELISE: Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Across Australia, the death rate went up by 25% through 1919, almost all of it due to pneumonic influenza and complications for people who already had existing respiratory diseases or heart disease as well, so for every 100 people who we would’ve expected to die in 1919, 125 people died.


NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, Thursday 19th June 1919. The Maitland district has practically surrendered to the influenza epidemic, causing a paralysis in business never experienced in the worst strike period. Public offices, shops, factories are practically at a standstill. Fortunately, the percentage of serious or pneumonic cases is very low.”

ELISE: While reports repeatedly emphasised the drop in virulence there was still a high level of fear among the public. The Government’s policy for compulsory isolation of the sick began to backfire and was eventually abandoned. As the post-pandemic report lamented…

“During the height of the epidemic, compulsory isolation of the sick and their contacts was found to have a negative value because neighbours would refuse to enter a house to render assistance even when all inmates were stricken and other help was unobtainable. In some towns, yellow flags and other symbols were displayed to warn the public from entering the invaded premises and this was cruelly insisted on in some districts where, unfortunately, the local authorities made no efforts to provide proper help for the stricken inhabitants.”

ELISE: One such incident was reported in mid-June by the Dorrigo Gazette. It told of the Nymboida Shire Council failing to respond to reports of a family where several members were on the brink of death.

“A family left in such appalling circumstances to die like flies, to be isolated in in a way back place and left to their doom is revolting. There is no person in the district capable of giving attention and the Nymboida Shire, which apparently is devoid of a humanitarian instinct, has made no provision for any. The Shire’s duty was to give relief, instead of which we find nothing done. If the circumstances are as stated, then the Council should be prosecuted.”

ELISE: Stories of whole families struck down by the pandemic are not difficult to come by. Many children were left without one or both parents and though they were the least affected demographic, 432 children aged 14 years or younger died across NSW. In 2017, the library received a donation from descendants of one such family, the Butlers, who were living in the Sydney suburb of Balmain when pneumonic influenza took their 14-year-old son, Keith. The donation includes telegrams, cards and letters of condolence received by parents Syd and Lil and Keith’s sister Gwen in the weeks and months following his death.

ELISE: (IN LIBRARY) We’ve got these…beautiful…

SABRINA: Oh, wow. Very ornate.

ELISE: Yeah. So this was obviously something that you would purchase at the time. They’re little printed cards and there’s these beautiful little emblems and artwork on them, so this one says, “With deepest sympathy,” and it’s tied with a little bit of black string.

SABRINA: Oh, this is a good one with embossed silver leaves. “Suffer little children to come unto me.”

ELISE: So that’s obviously a special mourning card designed for mourning of children.

SABRINA: Yeah, wow. This is a longer letter. “Dear Auntie Lil… (VOICE FADES, ACTRESS CONTINUES)

“..I was terribly sorry to hear from Kathleen about poor Keith. I hope Gwen, Uncle and yourself are quite rid of the influenza by this time. It still seems to be very bad down in the city. There are a few cases in Hay now.”

SABRINA: Wow, so the whole family had it. “Love to you all, Vic.” Wow, look at this little one. “Life is very sad for many these days but we know it will all end and that we shall have such great joy. ”Mm, something about being with God.

ELISE: Yeah, I’ve got here, “The poor little chap is released from suffering and will doubtless be happy now in a better world. I’m glad you all got well from the influenza. It is raging in this little town.”

SABRINA: Oh, wow, where is he writing from?”

ELISE: Is it Rylstone? “Poor little chap, he was always so delicate.”

SABRINA: This one says, “I feel so sorry for your father. He was always so wrapped up in Keith.”



“..I’m so grieved for you but it’s useless to try and express my sorrow. I did not know of poor Keith’s death for a day or two after it had happened as I very seldom read the death notices. Poor little kid. I’ve been thinking of you such a lot lately and wondering how things were with you and if you were escaping the epidemic. I know a lot of people will say it’s all for the best but a mother never thinks that way, at least not till her sorrow is much older. We keep them always.”

ELISE: So, it’s from Jindabyne. Oh, it’s from the police station at Jindabyne via Cooma.

“Lil said you were very, very ill with influenza when Keith took ill. It would be doubly hard for you, knowing that he was so ill and that you were not able to nurse him. Your loss, I am sure, is a very keen one as you have always had Keith near you, so you will miss him sadly. But your loss is his gain. This is a very poor attempt at a letter but it’s hard to express one’s feelings by letter. With fondest love and our very sincerest sympathy, yours lovingly, Viv.”

ELISE: That’s a good letter.

SABRINA: It’s a beautiful letter.

ELISE: So these last two packets are relating to the actual funeral services that were provided and this tiny little business card that says “J. Matthews, Clarinettist.”


ELISE: So obviously they had a person play the clarinet and we’ve actually got here, I think, an invoice for “the furnishing and conducting funeral of the late Keith Sydney Butler.” So his middle name is Sydney. That’s his dad’s name. “Aged 14 years and 11 months.” So they’re talking about the details of the casket. “Finished with plinths and mouldings and mounted with silver-plated handles and other ornaments, including breastplate with name, age and date of death engraved thereon, complete with inside trimmings of first quality, together with hire of two horses, hearse and two carriages from Long Nose Point to the Congregational Cemetery, Gore Hill.

SABRINA:  £24.10.

ELISE: Yep. They really…

SABRINA: Gave him a good send-off with a two-horse hearse.

ELISE: Exactly. Yeah. So that is just one family’s…

SABRINA: Little experience.

ELISE: Experiences.

ELISE: Over the worst four weeks of the epidemic, from late June through to mid-July, nearly 3,000 are reported to have died across NSW. But there were two sections of the population who were not included in these official figures. The first and largest of these was the Aboriginal community.

DR PETER HOBBINS: In Aboriginal communities our figures are really bad. We don’t know, in NSW, what the impact of pneumonic influenza was but in Queensland and in communities in northern NSW Aboriginal people who were in an infected community were dying at about 10-11% when the rest of NSW were dying at half a percent so a twentyfold increase in deaths that year amongst Aboriginal people. I’m always very cautious about being firm on those figures, our data are very dodgy, but even so that’s roughly the scale of the problem and that’s a shocking impact, particularly along the east coast. And that’s again another what we might call silent pandemic, it just wasn’t well recorded.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Mr L.F. Ward, Relieving Secretary of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, states that in the recent outbreak of pneumonic influenza at Runnymede Aboriginal Station, six miles from Kyogle, 30 of the inhabitants out of a total population of 59, exclusive of the manager and his family, are reported to be affected. The Board of Health has provided nurses and everything possible is being done for the patients who range in caste from octoroons to full-bloods. Splendid work is being done by the police. Dr Armstrong of the Board of Health stated yesterday that the Aboriginal patients had all been isolated and precautions were being taken to prevent the camp from being a source of danger to the white population.

ELISE: The exclusion of Aboriginal deaths from the official record is in many ways a reflection of how Government policy and public opinion had been shaped in Australia since Federation, when the idea of a white Australia became enshrined in federal law.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: 1901, if you look at Federation, I think the process of nationhood was all about removing Aboriginal people from the landscape and then in the record, if you like, and through Government policy they had it in their mind that we, as a people, belonged to the Stone Age and were a dying race. And that’s the reality and we’d quickly disappear.

ELISE: John Maynard is a Worimi man and Professor of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Newcastle.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: But in NSW we were under the control of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board that had been set up in 1883. You’ve also got to remember that the chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board was also the NSW Aboriginal Police Commissioner.

ELISE: Each year, the Protection Board included a census of the Aboriginal population in their reports but even they acknowledged their numbers couldn’t be trusted.

REPORT: “These figures can only be taken as approximate owing to the difficulty in collecting the returns on account of the nomadic habits of the race.”

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: Now, I think for around that time period, off the top of my head, the board figures were something like 7,000 Aboriginal people in NSW but the reality is, I mean, you’ve got Aboriginal people operating independently. A lot of the people were refugees in their own country at that point, a lot of Aboriginal people had been fleeing to Sydney. There was work, particularly after the war. You know, my grandfather was a dock worker, there were a number of Aboriginal dock workers in Sydney, there were numbers of Aboriginal men working in the railway yards at Eveleigh and Chullora but you could also lose yourself in the city away from the clutches of the board.

ELISE: By 1919, any autonomy still held by Aboriginal people was fast being rescinded. While there were still communities camping on Country and in some cases running independent farms, more and more land was being taken and Aboriginal people were being moved onto Protection Board properties.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: This also ties in with the escalation of the removing of Aboriginal children, which really takes off during this time period. There’s records there that you’ve got Aboriginal men over in Gallipoli or on the Western Front fighting for their so-called country and yet their children are being torn away from them back home and institutionalised. This was also to break down the communities and break down the families and really, you know, you can imagine the assault – you think about your own kids being torn away from you and we’re talking about thousands of Aboriginal kids removed. The boys were to be trained as labourers and the girls as domestic servants. I mean, there was no real education for them in those institutions.

ELISE: The Cootamundra Home for Girls and the Singleton Home for Boys are among 30-some reserves, homes and stations mentioned in the Aboriginal Protection Board’s report for the year 1919-’20. In four brief pages it summarises:

“The numbers, location and present condition of the Aborigines throughout the state and the means adopted for their relief as far as the funds at our disposal would admit.”

ELISE: In it, while the board regrets the state of disrepair and overcrowding of much of its accommodation, when it comes to the handling of the influenza epidemic they report success.

“It became necessary to take special measures on Aboriginal stations and reserves to combat the disease. Consequently, reserves were quarantined and nurses were dispatched to attend the Aborigines. The mortality among the Aborigines was surprisingly low and this was no doubt attributable to the energetic efforts put forth by the board’s managers, matrons and the police.”

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: I haven’t seen a lot of records of where medical people were sent in, what I’ve seen is a lot of Aboriginal people being buried. The more heavily congested and controlled reserves at that particular point - Cherbourg, Barambah, as it was then in Queensland, Taroom, another one in Queensland, and Kyogle in northern NSW, there were big numbers of Aboriginal deaths per capita and when you were in a very confined space and when your housing is inadequate, your clothing is inadequate, your diet is inadequate, I mean, you’re going to suffer and you’re going to be the section of the community that will have the greatest impact upon it. And quite a number of accounts said Aboriginal people were fleeing those locations to try and get away from the disease and so that was assisting the spread.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Three more persons, including a child, seven years of age, died in a Stony Gully camp within the 48 hours ending at noon yesterday. Nearly 40 Aboriginals in the camp are affected with the disease. There are a number seriously ill. One Aboriginal who broke quarantine was so ill that it is believed he has since died in the bush. The police are still searching for the missing man.”

ELISE: The other segment of the Australian population not included in the official influenza death figures were unborn or stillborn babies. Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Now, if you were pregnant and had pneumonic influenza and had to go to hospital your chance of dying was almost triple what it would be if you weren’t pregnant, as a woman. If you were still carrying your child they would almost certainly be stillborn. If the child was born alive, if the woman was at term or nearly at term, their chance of dying was about 30% as well. And just on that note of maternal and infant mortality, we often don’t hear about that. A lot of those stillborn cases weren’t reported, they weren’t recorded as a birth or a death and so we have, I think, what you might think of as a silent pandemic there as well. And there’s very little recognition of that extra grief of the families who lost those children through 1919 so there was certainly a dramatic drop in the birth rate in 1919, partly, I think, for that reason and partly because people possibly were holding off having children.

ELISE: As families across the country were still burying their dead, final preparations were being made for Peace Day. The Treaty of Versailles, marking the official end of the war, had finally been signed and Australia was going to mark the occasion with huge parades all around the country. The week that the flags and bunting were going up, 300 people died of pneumonic influenza across NSW. As had been the case since the first outbreaks in January, Victoria’s infection rate had been slightly ahead of NSW. Their second wave had hit the previous month. The death rate stayed high for three weeks then dropped as suddenly as it had risen. Though New Zealand had suffered through a third wave the NSW Government was now relying on their state to follow the same pattern as Victoria.

ELISE: OK, so we are in Bay 108B. Oh, it must be down the other end.

There’s a large photograph in the library’s collection that shows just how prepared people were to accept this information from the Government, though people were still dying as the Peace Day Parade set out through crowded streets.

This is it here. it is such a great image.

SABRINA: It’s like a sepia print that’s been blown up over two metres.

ELISE:  So there’s so much happening. So it’s documenting the Peace March and the photographer has got this fantastic sweeping view back up Macquarie Street towards Hyde Park. You can see all of the crowds, you can see – this looks like naval personnel marching.

SABRINA: But there’s all these beautiful flags lining the street as well. It must have been really colourful.

ELISE: You can see the drummers and… The band.

SABRINA: Brass band playing and all these men in their uniforms, sailors, soldiers.  Look at her in the nurse’s cap.

ELISE: This is cute, the little girl here with the little white stockings on and a little white coat.

SABRINA: Oh, yeah.

ELISE: I mean, the more you look, the more you see, isn’t it, it’s just one of these fascinating huge images that just has so much detail.

SABRINA: But there must be thousands of people in this photograph. It’s like 20-deep on the footpaths. No-one is wearing a mask.

ELISE: So this is July. Yeah, July. This is July the 19th so the peak is coming down, right? But still.

SABRINA: Even though people were still dying in pretty large numbers when this was happening there’s no evidence of it. I mean, if everyone was wearing a mask, of course you would be thinking in that framework but not a single person has got one on.

ELISE: My feeling is, you know, they’d obviously been through the worst months, right, and it was an opportunity for everyone to turn out to celebrate. And of course, this isn’t just happening here in Sydney, right? So, yeah, I guess it was judged that, you know, it’s better to be patriotic and to celebrate the victory and the peace than concerns about spreading the influenza again.

ELISE: Fortunately, the predictions of a fast and final drop in infections proved correct and the record charting the course of the epidemic was stopped the week ending 30th September with 14 deaths. Around the same time, the final troopships made it home. Kirsty Short.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: What happened with the 1918 flu is that that virus didn’t necessarily disappear but what happened is that over time it just became less dangerous in the population, partly due to improved immunity in the general population by exposure but also perhaps due to changes in the virus. It circulated in the human population as a seasonal flu strain until 1957 when it was kicked out of the human population by a new flu pandemic that came along. So it’s actually an incredible story of virus evolution and virus on virus battle, really, if you think about it like that.

ELISE: Across NSW in 1919, 6,244 deaths due to pneumonic influenza had been recorded, 3,902 in Sydney and 2,474 across the rest of the state. As the end of 1919 neared, there were still reports of the occasional death but Australia and the world were seeing the final clouds clear, the end of a terrible and perfect storm. A brutal war and a deadly pandemic were over. Now the recovery could begin.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The flu doesn’t have a devastating economic impact on Australia. It’s the First World War that has a devastating economic impact.

ELISE: That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to Peter Curson, Kirsty Short, Peter Hobbins and John Maynard for taking the time to share their knowledge with us and thanks to you for listening. If you have a moment to rate and review The Gatherings Order please do. It helps other people find the podcast.

SABRINA: You wouldn’t know, like, as you walk through, you wouldn’t know for the most part that you’re in a cemetery until you stumble over a headstone.

ELISE: That’s right. It just looks like a big, beautiful expanse of wildflowers in the bush. So this is the headstone of a nurse, Annie Egan. She died at the age of 27 and she was actually nursing people at the quarantine station and, sadly, she obviously caught the virus herself. And it actually says down the bottom of her headstone, “Her life was sacrificed to duty.”

SABRINA: Shall we walk down to the bottom?

ELISE: Yeah.


ELISE: It’s really sandy, too, isn’t it, this amazing, fine, white sand up here?

SABRINA: Oh, wow, look at these ones. There’s quite a number of slabs that obviously don’t have any identification but presumably they’re from the same sort of period.

ELISE: These are plaques that have been laid much more recently and I think it’s acknowledging the fact that there’s a number of AIF members who are buried in this grave. They were all men who had enlisted in 1918 to be reinforcements, to be sent across to the Western Front, then of course the war ends with the Armistice and the boat basically turned around, it returned to Sydney via New Zealand and the flu had already broken out in New Zealand so a lot of the troops who got off in New Zealand had picked up the influenza so by the time they came back to Sydney a lot of those people on the Medic died of influenza. And here we have another man, “William Campbell Menzies, beloved son of Charles and Jessie Menzies of Dunedin, New Zealand, who departed this life on 11th November, 1918, aged 30 years.” So he died presumably of the flu on the day that the Armistice was signed.

SABRINA: “Unknown to the world we stand by his side and whimper the words, ‘Death cannot…

BOTH: ‘..divide.’”

ELISE: If you’re in Sydney between 5th September 2020 and the 24th January 2021, be sure to swing by the State Library to see Pandemic, a display which includes a number of the items we’ve talked about in this podcast

Release Date

The influenza pandemic spreads and a lockdown is immediately imposed. As Sydney shuts down and masks up, will the restrictions be enough to keep the virus in check?

Featuring public health expert Professor Peter Curson and medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Anxiety: ashot danielyan, Schubert F.6 Moments Musicaux D 780 Op.94-No.3 in F Minor Allegro Moderato: On Classical, Au fil de la nuit: Eracilon, Sad Piano: DDmyzik, The End in your Eyes: Aufklarung, Satie: Christian DALMONT, Promencelle: Eracilon, Entre les cordes: Eracilon, Live: Ludovico Gonzales, Anxiety: Hafizzhais, Anxiety: Shymonmusic. (All tracks amended)

Episode Audio

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Newcastle Sun, Tuesday, 28th January, 1919. An enemy who has worked havoc all over the world and is still working havoc in many countries is actually in Sydney. His name is influenza.”

ELISE EDMONDS: For over six months, Australia had watched as the deadliest pandemic since the Black Death took millions of lives across the world.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The disease fights its way from person to person. It travels as fast as a human being can travel.”

ELISE: The country’s island isolation and long-practised quarantine measures had bought the Government valuable preparation time.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “There is no sure cure but there are precautions which will very greatly restrict the spread of the plague: maintain isolation as far as possible, wear a mask when within a sphere of infection and be inoculated.”

ELISE: Yet in just eight months, an estimated 15,000 Australians would die. This is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales. In this episode, the Government rolls out drastic plans to contain the spread but the death rate climbs. So what went wrong? Or was 15,000 lives an inevitable toll at a time of great social and political upheaval, at a time of limited medical understanding, during what some say was the worst pandemic the world had ever seen?


SABRINA: This will be my first time on public transport in a while.

ELISE: Oh, yeah, right.

ELISE: It’s mid-May 2020, and the number of COVID-19 infections in Australia has well and truly dropped. At its peak, on March 24th, there were 242 new cases. Today it’s 18, with just 8 of these in NSW.

SABRINA: Nobody’s wearing masks.

ELISE: I considered it but then I forgot.

SABRINA: Yeah, I think we all feel like we’ve dodged a bullet.

ELISE: Yeah.

ELISE: But with the good news comes the bad. New unemployment figures have just been released.

SABRINA: Do you find that it’s difficult to remember how busy this would’ve been?


ELISE: In the nine weeks since the coronavirus shutdown began, 600,000 Australians have lost their jobs and 1.6 million are signed up to the Government’s JobKeeper payment, designed to keep workers connected to their employers.

SABRINA: I just wasn’t sure if you turned right but we’ve got to be on this side of the railway tracks.

ELISE: With news that some restrictions will start lifting by the end of the week, Sabrina and I are paying a visit to one community’s response to the fallout of COVID-19.

SABRINA: Oh, maybe this is it up here. There’s a cat sitting on top of it!

ELISE: Opposite the railway tracks, out the side of someone’s house, a wooden wardrobe has been left on the street.

SABRINA: So what does it say?

ELISE: “Take what you need, leave what you can. The Newtown Blessing Box. “

SABRINA: “Be kind to the Newtown Blessing Box, there’s enough for everyone.” And it’s pretty well stocked.

ELISE: Yeah, it’s really well stocked. There’s lots of tinned goods. There’s some pasta and instant dinners, sanitary items and teabags.

SABRINA: That’s a good idea. Soap.

ELISE: Oh, look, there’s even dog food. And then on the inside of the doors are just all these amazing yellow Post-it notes with little notes on them. “Love your work.” “Don’t make me cry.”

SABRINA: “Fantastic initiative. Good luck to everyone doing it tough. We’re thinking of you.”

ELISE: “Thanks for boosting faith in community and humanity. Local student, unemployed.”

SABRINA: “Keep your head high and your heart open.” “I haven’t eaten in days. Thank you.” Wow.

ELISE: Looks like everyone’s just treating it really well and respectfully. “You can always count on the kindness of strangers.”

SABRINA: “Thank you. Broke but not broken.”

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The history of Australia is simply littered with examples of infectious disease.

ELISE: This is Peter Curson, Emeritus Professor of Population and Health at Macquarie University. His particular interest is in how people behave when confronted with major outbreaks of infectious disease.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: One of the things about epidemics and pandemics is that we tend to forget what happened in the past and we don’t learn from it. Since the early years of the 19th century, at least 20 pandemics have affected Australia and possibly 35, 36 fairly significant epidemics. I mean, who remembers encephalitis lethargica? Polio was around in Australia from 1903 to 1956. In 1925, ’26, there were 560,000 cases of dengue on the  eastern seaboard of Australia. And then, of course, we had the plague epidemic in 1900, which lingered on till the 1920s.

ELISE: In late January 1919, after weeks of hesitation, Victoria finally admitted to having an outbreak of Spanish flu but only after NSW had already notified the Commonwealth of its first case and realised it had come from Victoria. Very quickly, the agreement made the previous November, that infected states would immediately notify the Commonwealth and hand over border control, broke down.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: NSW reacted with absolute terror and horror and closed the border. Queensland and NSW fought over the border restriction. The Queensland Government refused to allow ships full of returning soldiers to land. The Government took them to the High Court. They’d cut off the intercontinental train from Adelaide to Perth. Western Australia threatened to leave the Commonwealth. Tasmania has a shipping ban. And so it went. And the whole Commonwealth then collapsed and every state went their own way.

ELISE: With the Federal Government out of the picture, the spotlight moved firmly onto the states. In NSW, that meant Minister for Health J.D. Fitzgerald. The papers of John Daniel Fitzgerald are held in the State Library’s collection, a glimpse of the man who now shouldered the responsibility for Australia’s most populous state. Among files filled with correspondence, legal and political papers, I was surprised to find a folder full of creative writing: novels, film scripts, even a murder mystery. His book, Children Of The Sunlight, Stories Of Australian Circus Life was no doubt inspired by his brothers Tom and Dan. Together, they’d founded the hugely successful Fitzgerald Brothers’ Circus, which toured Australia and New Zealand for over a decade before the brothers’ untimely death in 1906. They passed within three months of each other. Both succumbed to infectious disease. Fitzgerald had started out in the newspaper trade and quickly became a figure in the Labor movement, socialist, republican, feminist, federationist, reformer and radical. He was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage and was at the helm of the maritime strike of 1890. The Spanish flu was by no means his first epidemic. As a child he lived through outbreaks of measles, scarlet fever and smallpox. By the time bubonic plague arrived in Sydney in 1900, he was an alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council which oversaw a campaign of eradication. Fitzgerald then made his way into state government and was vice-president of the Executive Council when smallpox reappeared in Sydney in 1914. For the four years the disease lingered it caused them significant upheaval. Homes were demolished, businesses failed, people were forced from their homes into the quarantine station and vaccination depots were rushed. In fact, it was during this outbreak in 1916 that Fitzgerald accepted the position of Minister for Health. Now, looking down the barrel of a pandemic, it was his responsibility to save as many lives as he could. As a fierce advocate for the worker, that he was now required to force people into unemployment must have been a bitter pill to swallow but he needed to stop the spread and the State Governor issued the proclamation.

STATE GOVERNOR: I, Sir Walter E. Davidson, with the advice of the Executive Council, do hereby order all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor resort for public entertainment in the metropolitan police district forthwith to close and to be kept closed until a further order by me.

ELISE: Fitzgerald urged vaccination and the wearing of masks as immediate measures of defence.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Risk to the medical profession and governments is something that can be measured. You simply take the number of people who are exposed to an infection and you compare that to the number of people who avoid catching the infection. But for you and I, risk is a social, emotional thing, (INDECIPHERABLE) by the people around us, by what we hear in the media, what we believe, what we see from our neighbours, and I don’t think governments really understand that fully. Most of the pandemics and epidemics in Australia happened before television and people couldn’t actually see someone talking to them and they were dependent on the printed media or comments from neighbours or comments from friends and in many ways the human reaction far outplayed the number of cases, in some ways, and created extraordinary scenes in Australian history. And you might say that the governments in some ways believed that a certain element of fear is a useful mechanism getting people to actually do things and remove them from the possibility of infection.

ELISE: When the outbreak was declared, there were two places that people headed, the vaccination depots and the train stations.


Many families made a dash for the safety of the country, vowing not to return until the danger had passed. Towns like Bathurst set up quarantine areas in their showgrounds, their populations fearful that these city migrants would bring the disease with them. As country NSW began calling for Sydney to be cut off from the rest of the state, Fitzgerald began fielding criticism from local councils and affected industries on the issue of lost wages. Unions representing musicians, theatre and picture show workers were the first to approach. It’s important not to understate the role that the public gathering and venues like picture shows and churches played in early 20th century life. No television, no radio, telephones an expensive rarity. Gathering in person was the cornerstone of a functioning and informed community, especially in a city like Sydney where many of the inner city dwellings were cramped and overcrowded.


The days these venues went dark, the Sydney Morning Herald described the city streets as strangely gloomy. Questions from the now unemployed proprietors flowed thick and fast. “If London and New York didn’t close theatres during their outbreaks, why should we?” “Why did picture shows have to close while pubs were still open?” “We can pay our orchestra members to the end of the week but what then?” Fitzgerald would not be swayed and for the most part, at least to begin with, it seems that Sydneysiders attempted to get on with their lives. The big end-of-season sales continued and plenty of people were still going to work. Though travel had been discouraged, trams and trains were as crowded as usual. Tram workers, fearful for their own health, suggested tickets be refused to unmasked passengers. And while large gatherings had been stopped, officers, shops, factories, restaurants and tearooms were to stay open, so a huge amount of faith was to be put in masks as a means to stop the spread. It took less than a week for them to be made compulsory in the metropolitan district and in all trains and trams throughout NSW.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, February 3, 1919. Your neighbour will not, as from today, be able to ridicule you for having worn a mask because he or she is compelled to wear one and the probability is that it will be even uglier than your own. The Director-General of Public Health states that any method of covering the nose and mouth so that the wearer will breathe through at least four layers of gauze or butter muslin closely fitting the face round the edges is considered sufficient.”

ELISE: When masks were made compulsory in America, policemen had escorted non-compliers to the nearest shop, forcing them to buy one, and similar action was threatened here. Sydney responded if you hadn’t bought a mask you made one and improvisation was the order of the day.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “There were masks of almost every conceivable size and shape on view. There was the mask that looked like a pincushion, there were masks that suggested the diminutive birdcage, masks flat, convex, round and square. It might’ve been observed more people wore those masks in their pockets than in the position advised by medical advisers of the Minister for Health.”

ELISE: The day the masking regulations came into place, the Tweed Daily reported that Minister Fitzgerald motored around the city and was amazed at the public’s total disregard for the new rules. “Some people,” he said, “seem to think that half a cigarette is sufficient excuse to uncover the mouth and nose. No excuse of that sort will be accepted after today.” Just three days later, over 1,000 people had been arrested and fined with many of their names and charges printed in the paper. James Clarke, 28, barman, said he understood that persons were not required to wear masks in unfrequented streets.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 20 shillings!

ELISE: Eileen Leigh, 19, said that she had her mask under her chin as she was suffering from blocked sinuses.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 20 shillings or seven days imprisonment!

ELISE: John Campbell, wharf labourer, said he was a returned soldier and had to smoke as he was suffering from asthma so couldn’t keep his mask on.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 30 shillings or seven days imprisonment!

ELISE: Plus 21 days for kicking the arresting officer. Other returned soldiers told of being gassed on the battlefield and that masks hampered their breathing. In the case of Quay Sun, a 52-year-old Chinese gardener, when arrested he protested that the matter of life and death rested with God and that a person will die when his time comes and not before. The magistrate fined him £2 with an interpreter’s fee of  £1/1 or 14 days’ hard labour.

The library’s collection includes some well-referenced photographs of mask wearers from this time. People from around NSW pose for the camera like it’s any other day except for the gauze slung across their faces. But searching deeper into the catalogue, Sabrina and I have come across a reference to the Spanish flu in a family album we’ve not seen before. Like a large portion of the collection, it hasn’t been digitised so we need to head back into the library to see it.

ELISE: I think we want box six, which is this one here.

SABRINA: There are these tiny little square prints, maybe, what do you reckon, 4cm x 4 cm?

ELISE: Yeah. Oh, look, look, look. Yeah. So that looks like Martin Place.

SABRINA: It does. Everyone is wearing a mask.

ELISE: Oh, isn’t that great, yeah, so gentlemen in their three-piece suits.

SABRINA: And look at this woman wearing her veil.

ELISE: They were making their own veils, right?

SABRINA: That’s right.

SABRINA AND ELISE: (TOGETHER) It became this kind of fashion thing.

SABRINA: And there’s actually a number of them here, these women, they look more like beekeepers.

ELISE: The day after compulsory masking came into effect, the Government introduced another regulation, one that would prove what public panic could really look like.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “To some, the newspaper announcement came with the suddenness of a bomb dropped from a hostile aeroplane.”


ELISE: All hotels, their bars and bottle shops would close in the next 12 hours.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Large numbers flocked into the bottle departments of the principal hotels and throughout practically the whole of the day were packed by hot and perspiring crowds carrying bags and baskets and struggling to reach the counters in order to be served.”

ELISE: The other measure that had begun rolling out were inhalation chambers, a mechanism you’d stick your head into while a zinc solution was sprayed, the idea being that zinc would kill any germs in your nasal passages and prevent infection in the short-term. The department store Grace Bros. was one of the many businesses that installed them as a way of encouraging staff to come to work and customers to continue their patronage.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The railway commissioners have fitted up a number of tram cars and railway carriages as inhalation chambers and in case of necessity these will be moved about for use in localities at which it seems desirable the spray should be in general use.”

ELISE: While businesses did their best to retain customers, by the 7th February the number unemployed as a direct result of the pandemic was estimated at 20,000. 12 days after the first case was announced, as the death toll reached five, the Government allocated £10,000 in grants to cover the cost of food and rent for anyone in distress. With schools closed, 750 teachers were called on to oversee the distribution of funds.

DR PETER HOBBINS: People were losing their livelihoods.

ELISE: Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: How do you care for your five children who now aren’t going to school? Who’s going to look after them? Is the breadwinner a soldier who’s still overseas, in which case Mum has to stay home and look after the kids? Or if Mum gets sick then is the father having to stay home from work? So there was a pretty rolling impact straight away and in NSW the Government acted much more dramatically and much more severely than any other state government around Australia. And of course you can imagine the pushback against that as well. Now, not all of the state went into lockdown straight away. Basically those sorts of measures were rolled out over time. Any community across NSW that might’ve been infected by the flu, once cases were spotted then those sorts of measures were brought in. Almost nowhere escaped despite these sorts of regulation.

ELISE: As public health measures were rolled out throughout February, the death rate remained low. By the end of the month, influenza had arrived in just nine regional towns and killed 17 people. Fitzgerald’s medical experts looked at the numbers and thought they were done. On March 1st, just five weeks after the infection arrived in NSW, it was announced that all restrictions would be abolished in the coming week. This judgement would prove wildly premature and deadly. By the end of March, the death toll had jumped to 95. Noises started to be made. What, if anything, was the Government going to do and how could they be sure not to overreact?

DR PETER HOBBINS: You can’t police the city of Sydney or the city of Newcastle or the city of Bathurst. People are still going to try to circumvent those measures and we saw this on the borders as well. There were people at Albury-Wodonga who were theoretically being quarantined for four or seven days to make sure they were safe to cross the border but some people didn’t want to comply with that, you know, they were swimming the Murray River or they were clambering across non-pedestrian bridges like pipelines and so on to get home. People weren’t always complying with these what we now call lockdown measures. Many people seemed to be doing the right thing or at least wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing by wearing these masks or by keeping out of areas of assembly but we still needed essential services as well, people still had to go to work, there were still soldiers coming home, we still needed supplies of food to come into the community.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 26 March, 1919. Epidemic or no epidemic, we must work to live. Nor can we live like hermits apart from each other when we are not working. Social life must be continued, nor should obstacles be placed in the way of the ordinary amusements of the people. If such were done, it would increase the number of those who are victims to morbid fears and the likelihood of infection would be heightened.”

ELISE: The Premier, William Holman, stepped in with his assurances.

PREMIER WILLIAM HOLMAN: It is not anticipated there will be the slightest interference with business enterprise. I have been in close consultation with the Minister for Health and at the present time I do not anticipate anything of the kind.

ELSIE: But the death rate kept climbing and within two weeks of this statement, the Government was forced to renege. Places of amusement were again shut down and a number of other regulations reintroduced, albeit in watered down form.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Sometimes it was piecemeal. They would say, “OK, we’ve closed all the pubs but what we’ll do instead is say pubs can open but drinkers can only come in for five minutes.” Or “Churches have to stay closed but church services can be held as long as they’re conducted out of doors with people at arm’s length from each other and the priest basically yelling at the congregation to get the message across.”

ELISE: Eventually, nearly all restrictions introduced at the end of January were reinstated and in an additional blow, the Easter Show, a huge event for the agricultural and economic heart of the nation, was cancelled. But it was too late. April saw a sharp rise in deaths across the state. Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: People went almost berserk in Sydney. They avoided contact with people, they avoided trams and ferries, they declined to go to any churches, they wouldn’t go to any sports events, shops didn’t want people to come in. Neighbours avoided neighbours, there were fights, people barricaded themselves away. It was a period of substantial chaos, really. The other issue was that the medical profession wasn’t prepared and in some ways ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak like flu. The medical staff were, in 1919, totally undernourished. Many of them had served in Europe and hadn’t come back yet and the efforts of getting enough staff and medical staff to look after people was almost impossible in some ways.

ELISE: With infection rates rocketing into the thousands, the Government knew that isolating the sick was critical. They also knew there weren’t enough doctors, nurses or hospital beds to go around. Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Basically, hospitals in that time, they were very small facilities that had often been funded by the community coming together and actually finding the money to build a little local hospital and to have people on staff there, but really, a lot of people, if they became sick in 1919, would still call for the doctor and have to pay a fee for the GP to come and visit them in their home. And of course not everybody could do that as well, so in 1919 in the crisis there were other groups like the Red Cross which had been set up during the First World War in Australia. They stepped up and provided emergency depots and emergency nursing care in people’s homes or in small facilities like the schools that were sitting there empty, which were rapidly turned into emergency hospitals and managed very much at the local community level, not by the state and certainly not by the Commonwealth Government.

ELISE: In 2016, the NSW division of the Red Cross donated its enormous archives to the library. It’s clear looking at their records from 1919 that NSW and certainly Sydney would’ve been in trouble without them. Coming off the back of a large and well-organised war effort, they were well-placed to coordinate an emergency response which their secretary, Eleanor MacKinnon, headed up with gusto.

ELEANOR MACKINNON: This is a citizens’ battle to save their own lives and there must be wholehearted unity to meet the greatest foe that any country has ever met.

ELISE: Lucky for the Government, these women not only had a strong sense of duty but the time to devote to unpaid labour. Women may have achieved the vote but their participation in the workforce was still frowned upon. Even Fitzgerald, who’d advocated for women’s rights, did not necessarily agree with their participation outside the domestic or charitable spheres. “I think it is, to a certain extent, an evil,” he said, “and shows that the changed conditions of modern society, the keenness of industrial competition, has forced these women into the labour market against their will. They may not think this but it is so.” Whatever the Government’s position on women in the labour force, during the influenza outbreak they were heavily reliant on their voluntary efforts to run the influenza relief depots. The Government ordered people who fell ill to go to bed and stay there. To make sure they could, a card printed with large lettering reading ‘S.O.S.’ was distributed to every household. It’s many weeks into our research that we discover one of these cards while down in the library stacks, searching through a folder catalogued as ‘Miscellaneous Health’.

SABRINA: Oh! Look how big it is!

ELISE: Awesome! Right at the bottom of the miscellaneous folder so “S.O.S. If you want any attention from the doctor, nurse or helper, put this card on the window bar showing the S.O.S. If you want food only, put the back of the card to the window.” There’s nothing on the back. “A depot has been established in this district for the purpose of rendering any assistance required.”

SABRINA: But we’ve talking about this for like three months now and we’ve had one here the whole time!

ELISE: Well, that’s the story of the library. See, you know, we’ve got gold hidden away. You just have to find it.

ELISE: Twice a day, the streets were patrolled to identify homes where assistance was needed. In Sydney, the Health Board, supported by the Red Cross, coordinated hundreds of nurses, doctors, voluntary aides and other volunteers going door to door distributing food, clothing, blankets, medicine and care to the sick. Towns like Lithgow mirrored the Sydney system by dividing their districts into sections. Doctors abandoned their practices and drove street by street visiting every house where the card was displayed. Throughout the worst months of the epidemic the Red Cross cared for almost 120,000 patients. 140 workers came down with the illness themselves, five of whom died.

DR PETER HOBBINS: If you dealt day to day with cases of pneumonic influenza your chance of developing the disease yourself were about 50%. Now that was just wearing masks and gowns and washing your hands and doing all the right things. The disease was that infectious and the precautions that they had in 1919 were that ineffective that you were highly likely to pick up the disease yourself, so given that you were seeing people in front of you who were struggling for breath and sometimes dying of this disease it was extraordinarily brave. I’m astounded at the bravery of those people in Australia who put themselves in the frontline of dealing with pneumonic influenza.

ELISE: The Red Cross not only staffed and ran the emergency depots, they also set up temporary hostels for workers who didn’t want to risk infecting their own families and a hospital for those who fell ill. They coordinated fourth- and fifth-year medical students called upon to supplement the shortage of qualified medical staff. When it became clear their doctors and nurses couldn’t get around fast enough on foot they begged motor cars from willing donors. They made masks. They distributed protective overalls and goggles to workers and government literature on how best to treat the disease to households.

ELISE: This is very delicate paper.  Oh, look at this. “Influenza 1919.”

SABRINA: Jackpot.

ELISE: So this is a leaflet issued by the Department of Public Health. “Advice to those who fall sick and cannot secure the services of a doctor.” So that’s pretty grim, isn’t it?

SABRINA: Wow. So for bleeding from the nose you’ve got a cold compress, for sudden collapse you’ve got a hot compress.

ELISE: “Take your brandy at intervals until the patient revives.”

SABRINA: “Diet should be of a light nature.”

ELISE: “The bowels should be opened daily by means of epsom salts, citrate of magnesia or some other such purgative. The sick person, when sneezing, coughing or expectorating, should do so into clean rags which should be burnt at once.”



SABRINA: ”Any person handling such rags should immediately wash the hands after such attention.”

ELISE: Yeah, I mean, they know what they’re doing in that sense, don’t they, in terms of contagion and so that is dated Sydney, April 1919, so that really is in that peak period.

ELISE: That April, for the first time since the measles epidemic of 1875, NSW saw deaths outnumber births, 1,395 lives taken by pneumonic influenza in just four weeks. The figure would’ve been higher but by how much we can’t know. The lives and deaths of Aboriginal people were not properly counted until the national census of 1971. But there’s no doubt as the disease crept out across the state along roads and railway lines that many Aboriginal communities were heavily impacted. Reports told of people fleeing into the bush. Back in Sydney, many people had stopped wearing their masks and shop assistants had had enough. They lobbied to have all shops with the exception of food and chemists closed, and Fitzgerald conceded. With the virus continuing its spread, doubts were now growing about the vaccine, the inhalation chambers and masks. Did any of it actually work? Piecing together the timeline of 1919 is a confusing business. Regulations seemed to chop and change on an almost weekly basis but in the end it was the virus itself that shut things down. Services like the post office, the police and the rail and tramways reported hundreds, in some cases thousands, of absences due to influenza. While shiploads of soldiers were still making their way home, the cost of war in terms of lives and pounds were being calculated and the numbers were dumbfounding. The Australian Government had promised jobs for repatriated soldiers. 150,000 returned injured and needed care, many more with venereal diseases, tuberculosis, alcoholism or depression. The Commonwealth was now struggling to fulfil their part of the bargain in the middle of a pandemic and the highest level of industrial action the country had ever seen. Then, in the middle of May, restrictions were lifted for a second and final time. In that first week of March, when they’d first been lifted, just five deaths were recorded. This time there were 123. The death rate had only just started to fall and it’s difficult to understand why a simple assessment of the numbers wasn’t enough evidence for the Government to hold its ground. This decision seems to have been a combination of pressure from business, public opinion, optimistic denialism or a throwing up of hands. They’d come to understand that the virus was far less virulent than it had been overseas which may have led to a belief that the worst was behind them. Whatever they told themselves, as the country prepared to celebrate Peace Day, they were marching up the curve of a much deadlier second wave.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Viruses will naturally evolve to not necessarily become more dangerous. Often it’s to become less dangerous and just more transmissible.

ELISE: That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to Peter Curson and Peter Hobbins for sharing their time and knowledge with us. And thanks to you for listening. If you’re in Sydney between the 5th September 2020 and the 24th January 2021 be sure to swing by the State Library to see Pandemic, a display which includes a number of the items we’ve talked about in this podcast.


ELISE: There’s still lots of traffic on the road. It just amazes me that there’s still a lot of traffic.

SABRINA: Yeah, the buses are pretty empty.

ELISE: Did you see – I don’t know if it was the news - about a bus, a normal bus size with social distancing - ten people. That’s crazy. When, you know, the buses are usually standing room only and they are jammed. I don’t know how it’s going to work.

SABRINA: Unless they do eradicate. ‘Cause what’s going to change between now and July, really?

ELISE: No, exactly

Release Date

An influenza outbreak seems inevitable and Australia prepares. As vaccination is rolled out, thousands of service men and women begin returning home at the end of the First World War. But how do you reunite with loved ones when death is following you home?

Featuring medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Molène: Eracilon, Seung Gong: Dylan Tinlun Chan, Tour de manège-version piano: Real Rice, Train: Sergey Kovchik, Fuguencelle: Eracilon, Promencelle: Eracilon, Balancelle: Eracilon, Sur le fil: Eracilon, The End in your Eyes: Aufklarung, Anxiety: Shymonmusic, sun s smile: Alexander Klein, Cylinder Five: Chris Zabriskie, Anxiety: Hafizzhais, The Last Post: courtesy of the Band of the Royal Military College. (All tracks amended)

Episode Audio

ELISE EDMONDS: It’s the second week of restrictions under the COVID-19 gatherings and isolation orders in NSW. The Health Minister has announced this year more than ever it’s important for Australians to get their flu shot. My producer Sabrina has cycled into Sydney’s CBD to do just that.

SABRINA ORGANO: The pharmacies close to where I live were all booked out so I thought it would be a good excuse to do some exercise after being at home for a week. It feels like it’s been three weeks. The city’s actually pretty busy. Lots of construction workers hanging out.

ELISE: Today, the death rate in NSW has reached 20, with one more nursing home resident passing away.

SABRINA: There’s a big sign next to the pedestrian crossing saying, “Don’t push the button. Pedestrian crossing now automated.” This lady crossing the road is wearing a face mask and a plastic eye shield.

ELISE: Yesterday, President Trump announced that 100,000 deaths would be a good outcome for the US.

SABRINA: The buses are all still running. There’s a lot of them around. Only got one or two passengers on them.

(SPEAKS TO SOMEONE) Are you a press photographer?


SABRINA: How are you going?

WOMAN: Yeah, it’s alright. A lot of people are very angry at me.

SABRINA: What do they suppose we – you know, we don’t document it? Like, it’s so important to take photos.

She’s running out into the middle of the street to take pictures. I don’t know if you just heard that but the photographer I just stopped and talked to said that a lot of people were getting angry with her.

ELISE: The library has now been shut for a week. While everyone is figuring out how to work from home, there’s a feeling that no-one really knows what’s going on. We can’t know how bad things will get or how long they’ll last.

SABRINA: All these shops on Oxford Street are closed. Barber shop is closed. Massage place closed, fashion place closed. Café is open. Ah, and the bike shop is open. Yes! My inner tube is very well puncture-repaired. I just wanted to get a spare one in case everything shuts down.

ELISE: I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales. While the country locks down to stop the spread of COVID-19, we continue our exploration of how Australia tried to do the same thing over a century ago, when the Spanish flu appeared.

SABRINA: There’s not a single car on that big stretch of Anzac Parade, which is crazy! It’s like a warped version of Christmas Day.

ELISE: This is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems.

SABRINA: I think a lot of people have got the same idea. Come down to Centennial Park to have a walk or a ride. The big digital signs that usually say things like, “Event parking this way,” or “Bikes, keep to your left,” now reads, “Observe social distancing,” which is really weird. The geese are not observing social distancing.

ELISE: In this episode, with the war won, Australia’s servicemen and women returned to find their homeland bracing for an outbreak. After months of containing the disease in quarantine, could the heroes of war be the ones to bring this new threat home?

SABRINA: Oh, my arm is aching. I don’t know if this was a good idea.

ELISE: Just five days after the streets had been filled with Armistice celebrations, a vessel carrying the first attachment of original ANZACs reached Western Australia. The ship was inspected and declared free of pneumonic influenza.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, 18th November, 1918. The first big batch of original ANZACs on furlough, 800 strong, landed at Fremantle on Friday. They marched in procession through the streets and were enthusiastically welcomed in Perth by the Premier and Mayor. They were entertained at lunch at Government House.”

ELISE: When Britain declared itself at war with Germany, Australia, as a vassal of the Crown, was automatically drawn in to the conflict, and these were some of the first men and women to volunteer their services for King and Country. Britain initially requested 20,000 Australian soldiers. 50,000 signed up. Ultimately, over 400,000 Australians would join the conflict, a huge offering from a country with a population under 5 million. While those left behind did not endure conflict, the war visited them in other ways. Collapsed international markets brought the economy to its knees, a bitter fight over conscription divided families and communities and a constant stream of death notices saw the nation overwhelmed with grief. Australia and its ANZACs would find each other much changed but while those first returnees had their moment in the sun, the ship that arrived the following day was not so lucky. Three cases of influenza were identified and it went into quarantine in Melbourne. By the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, 93,000 personnel had already been returned. That still left 135,000 in Europe and nearly 17,000 in the Middle East. It would take ten months and 201 shipments to bring them all home. Nearly everyone had their hand up to be the first out so the Repatriation Department devised a prioritisation system. If you’d been among the first to enlist and serve at Gallipoli, you’d be the first to return. This is likely why Archie Barwick and Anne Donnell, the diarists we met in episode 1, were aboard some of the first ships to be heading back to Australia following the war’s end.

ARCHIE BARWICK: “I’m actually on my way home, yet it seems to be just like a dream. I’m taking it as a matter of course, the same as I’ve taken everything the last four years, and yet underlying all there is an emotion of almost complete happiness, for one can now look the whole world in the face, satisfied in his own heart that he has done all that was expected of him and perhaps a little more. I’m sure that’s what’s kept most of us alive all through this awful war - the very thought that we would one day return to our native land and get among our own people again.”

ANNE DONNELL: “It’s come, just what we hoped and longed for, but at the same time it’s a terrible break parting from our active service friends and the Diggers. I’m in a party of ten going on the Margha. No-one has heard of the boat before so I’m prepared for the worst.

Later. We are on the ship and it’s perfectly beautiful. It’s adorable and divine and I’m so happy, all of the expressions. I have never been on a ship that gives such promise of comfort. The Ulysses sails too, soon. She looks a nice boat but I like ours best.”

ELISE: The Australian Government were acutely aware of the risk these trips posed, coming as they were from a country still riddled with pneumonic influenza. When Archie and Anne boarded their ships home, Britons were still dying in their thousands. If sickness was found aboard, swift action was taken.

ANNE DONNELL: “We had a wireless to say the Ulysses sailed eight hours after us but has influenza on board and has to stop at Gibraltar to take off the worst cases. It’s hard luck. So far we have no sickness.”

ELISE: The same day those first troops marched through the streets of Perth, the NSW Government convened a special meeting of its cabinet to consider what should be done in the event of an outbreak. In his statement following the meeting, the Minister for Public Health, Mr J.D. Fitzgerald, had a warning for the public.

J.D FITZGERALD: Theatres, picture shows and other such places will necessarily have to be closed which will no doubt cause some amount of inconvenience. But it is expected that in view of the virulence of the disease, the public will accept the conditions imposed on them as being absolutely necessary.

ELISE: But for now, while the disease was still contained in quarantine, the state set about planning for the worst. When the Spanish flu had reached Cape Town in late 1918, 15,000 deaths occurred in the first 24 days. This was pointed to as a possible scenario for Sydney. For a city with a population of just over 800,000, this would be a catastrophic loss, so a special committee was formed. Their plan would see the city divided into 13 areas, each with an influenza relief depot to oversee things like distributing food donations and medicine, transporting patients to hospital and arranging for the care of orphan children. Various public buildings were flagged for conversion into hospitals and a call would go out to former nurses to return to service. But the major plan of action, the one thing the health authorities felt could save the population from total disaster, was vaccination.

DR PETER HOBBINS: The problem is how do you deal with preventing a disease when you don’t know what actually causes it?

ELISE: Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: There were scientists around the world looking down their microscopes to try and identify the germ of pneumonic influenza and they couldn’t find it. Now, we worked out later on they couldn’t find it because it was actually caused by a virus that was too small to be seen through the microscopes they had at the time but what they could see was a range of bacteria that were found in the lungs of people who were sick or dying from pneumonic influenza and they had to kind of say, “Well, somewhere in that soup of bacteria is maybe what’s causing this disease.”

ELISE: The bacteria considered the main culprit had been identified during the previous influenza pandemic, which began in 1889 when a far less deadly strain took over one million lives around the world. At that time, German physician Richard Pfeiffer managed to isolate a rod-shaped bacteria from influenza patients. He hypothesised that this, Bacillus influenzae, was the cause of the disease. With little advancement in the field since Pfeiffer, the medical fraternity, now faced with Spanish flu, were stuck with his hypothesis so in 1918, Bacillus influenzae was one of four bacteria mixed together to create the vaccine.

DR PETER HOBBINS: So the vaccines were created against pneumonic influenza in 1918 and 1919 basically by scooping out the gunk found in the lungs of people who’d died of pneumonic influenza at the quarantine station, in the hope that somewhere in there we’d be injecting people with something that would help build their immunity against one or more of these bacteria, so we did have these vaccines, as they were called, but we had no proof that they actually worked.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: "The medical authorities do not guarantee that vaccination will furnish immunity from the disease. The probabilities are, they say, that it will be of great assistance and should minimise complications consequent on influenza.”

ELISE: Not long after the pandemic had swept across Australia, the Director-General of Public Health started work on a report. In it, he acknowledged that while the vaccine helped reduce the severity, it did not provide anything close to immunity.

DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Investigations during recent years have cast some doubt upon the long-cherished belief that Pfeiffer’s Bacillus influenzae was the essential cause and has raised the question whether some very minute organism not yet identified may not be responsible.

ELISE: It would take just another 13 years for that very minute organism to be found. In 1932, British medical researchers would isolate the influenza virus from humans. But in 1918, physicians still struggled to solve the mystery of the Spanish flu and speculation was plentiful. Was it airborne? Could it be transferred via surfaces? Could wearing masks limit transmission? While debates continued, the first public inoculation depots opened.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, 20 December, 1918. Although the pneumonic influenza has now thrown its sinister shadow upon Australia’s two main gateways and thus made immeasurably harder the task of keeping the dread disease within quarantine, the bulk of the community still view with apparent unconcern the advice of the authorities to undergo inoculation. It is in a spirit of procrastination rather than of direct opposition to it that many people are delaying action until a case breaks out. Precisely in this direction danger lies.”

DR PETER HOBBINS: We have to remember that in the 19th century and early 20th century, being immunised was a far more painful and unpleasant process than it is today. The needles were bigger, they hurt a lot more when they went in. You’d often end up with a pus-y wound at the site of the injection and then you’d have a scar. And many people would feel quite off-colour and even be bedridden for a day or two after being immunised against some diseases so it was much more unpleasant then than it is today. So it was not surprising not everybody wanted to be immunised. Having said that, when a disease hit town, suddenly people are very keen. In 1900, when bubonic plague arrived in Sydney, there were scenes of pandemonium at the Board of Health building, where people basically rushed the building when the doors opened because they heard that there were several hundred doses of a plague serum that had been brought out from India. They were hanging out the windows and actually broke the balustrade inside the Board of Health building because of the pressure of people trying to be immunised. So that gives a sense of the panic when the disease was present and that’s understandable. It’s a present threat.

ELISE: The state continued its campaign, urging the public to be vaccinated. Perhaps as an incentive, the numbers were published on an almost daily basis. For a while, things were looking up. The vaccination uptake grew while numbers of influenza cases being held in quarantine fell and then, just a few days into the new year, newspapers triumphantly reported inoculations had passed 100,000 and influenza was beaten.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, 4th January, 1919. New South Wales is at the moment free from pneumonic influenza. The disease has been beaten in quarantine and it has not been allowed to slip out, a wonderful record when the public are still reading daily of the way in which it has swept through practically every country other than Australia, a result achieved only after a ceaseless and heroic battle lasting about ten weeks.”

ELISE: Throughout this time, 51 ships were received at North Head and over 6,000 people quarantined. 653 of them were diagnosed with Spanish flu. Of the 43 who died, more than half were nurses or soldiers who didn’t quite make it home.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The organisation at North Head, as well as the Health Department’s elaborate plans, will remain intact for some time in order to meet any emergency and on the principle that with a disease such as this there is no knowing what the morrow may bring forth.”

ARCHIE BARWICK: “January 23rd. We are now lying at anchor off Queenscliff. The quarantine staff have come aboard with masks on to have a look at us. We fell in on the boat deck and the doctor came round and took every man’s temperature. After the doctors examined our ship we thought we were set. Everyone was ready, dressed up to go ashore and all were in high spirits but what a shock we got, for a notice was put up on the board to the effect that we were to be quarantined for seven days. The disappointment was too much and a perfect storm of curses broke loose. What made it all the worse was the fact that we have not had a single flu case on board. Everyone is going about the boat as black as thunder and fit for anything. It has been a proper shock to everyone and has knocked all plans on the head. There is a great string of chaps at the orderly room now sending telegrams to their people and swearing like troopers at the same time.”

ELISE: After four years of war, with home just a gangplank away, the soldiers may well have been frustrated but the doctors were right to be cautious for several suspected cases were at that moment under observation in Melbourne hospitals.

DR PETER HOBBINS: When the disease came ashore somewhere in Victoria in early January 1919, there was a problem. We still had seasonal flu, like we see every winter, going through the community and it was present in Victoria in January 1919 so when people started presenting with symptoms of severe influenza and when quarantine seemed to be working and keeping pneumonic influenza out of the country, at first it was just assumed that these were the cases that were doing the rounds every year and it took a while for the Victorian health authorities to realise that, oh, actually maybe this is the pandemic version of the flu that we’re seeing in the community. But because they weren’t sure, because they didn’t really want to be the scapegoats, they didn’t mention that to the other states or to the Commonwealth at first.

ELISE: As vaccination was being rolled out in late 1918, the Commonwealth Government had gathered ministers from each state together in Melbourne. They agreed upon a set of resolutions that would come into effect should an outbreak occur in any part of Australia. Chief among these was a process for notification, a chain of communication that would result in the Commonwealth declaring a state infected. Borders would immediately close to prevent the spread to neighbouring states. In delaying notification, Victoria, it seems, had endangered the rest of the country.

ARCHIE BARWICK: “January 28th. We went through the usual inspections today and the ship was pronounced clean. Everyone is in a great state of excitement tonight, getting cleaned up once more, for I think it’s dinkum this time and soon we shall be home. I can’t realise that we’re now even in Australia yet but once we hit the land, we will understand.”

ELISE: The day Archie writes these final words in his diary, Australia’s first outbreak is reported in Sydney.

DR PETER HOBBINS: You could potentially blame a soldier because, after all, there were so many soldiers coming back from the war, but that would be unfair because we don’t have that evidence but let’s just say there were many soldiers desperate to come home after four years overseas and we know that many of them, once they did come ashore, were trying to break out of quarantine to just get home. You know, they’d had enough and they felt that they were heroes and deserved a hero’s welcome. They didn’t see why they were being locked up for another week when they felt healthy, even though they’d actually seen the impact of the disease itself. And so when a soldier got on a train from Melbourne and spent the night travelling to Sydney in a compartment with a civilian who was coughing all through the night, that poor soldier didn’t know that he was being exposed to pneumonic influenza and when he got sick a couple of days later and reported to Randwick Military Hospital nor did the hospital authorities know that he actually had pneumonic influenza either and so for the first couple of days, his disease was misdiagnosed. And it was only unfortunately when that disease had spread to several other doctors and visitors and therefore out into the community that finally it was diagnosed as pneumonic influenza in late January 1919 - that the NSW health authorities said they had a case. And at that point, Victoria said, “Um, yeah, we might have several hundred cases already.”

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 29, January, 1919. We do not wish to cry over spilt milk or to raise any controversies which may interfere with our heartiest cooperation in the endeavour to stamp out the disease but we cannot help wondering at Victoria’s complacent and short-sighted attitude in a matter of such vital importance. The states on either side of her have made influenza a notifiable disease. Victoria failed to do so with the result that for days there were cases of infection and hosts of contacts before the authorities were able to take any action to isolate them effectively or to identify the disease with certainty. Every case, as far as we know, has been traced to Melbourne. Meanwhile, we must make up our minds to face the situation and to do each our utmost to help those who are charged with the work of fighting the plague.

ELISE: As predicted, there was an immediate rush on the inoculation depots. Hundreds gathered at locations across the city and suburbs, with queues spilling out onto the streets. Just three days after the Sydney outbreak was declared the vaccine began to run out. Not only had the number of depots increased, GPs were also overwhelmed and large businesses started making private arrangements to inoculate their staff. For the two weeks in February that stocks were low, quarter and half doses were given in order to service demand.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Of these hurriedly produced vaccines without really any evidence whatsoever and purely based on the assertions or best guesses of the medical authorities at the time, a quarter of the population of NSW agreed to be immunised in the hope that it would help prevent them catching pneumonic influenza. I think that tells us a lot about the confidence of Australians in 1919 about medical authorities and the power of modern medicine and even though it seemed powerless to stop the spread of the disease in Australia in 1919 at least this was a measure people felt they could take as an active preparation against the disease.

ELISE: The inoculation depots continued to operate until May 1919, when the virus was thought to have run its course, but quarantine as a preventative measure was continued as the first line of defence as it had been since 1814.

DR PETER HOBBINS: So certainly there were many ships arriving, not only in Sydney but also in Melbourne, Adelaide, Albany, Fremantle, Darwin, Brisbane, all of these ports had cases of pneumonic influenza arrive, and it’s worth remembering that those quarantine stations still operated even after the disease came ashore. They were still keeping out cases of pneumonic influenza because we didn’t know how deadly those versions were. They were a major part of protecting the community and stopping the disease escalating even further right through most of 1919.

ELISE: It was near the end of February when Anne’s ship finally neared Australia. By this time, there were 213 reported cases of pneumonic influenza in NSW, it having spread as far as Lismore, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Culcairn, Corowa and Millthorpe. Troops from the transport the Argyllshire had recently marched out of the quarantine station in protest for being held, 900 of them overwhelming the 150 strong police guard at the gate. Calls to move the quarantine station to a less populous place like Jervis Bay, calls which had started in November, had now reached a fever pitch. But as Anne neared the west coast of Australia, her thoughts were far from influenza for her ship would soon stop off in Fremantle, where they would receive their first welcome home. The West Australia troops would disembark and she would have a few hours to reunite with her sister who lived in Perth before sailing onward, home to Adelaide.

ANNE DONNELL: “February 22nd. I just can’t sleep for the anticipation of the pleasure of seeing my folk in Perth, at least will have a few hours with them. We have been seeing the Southern Cross for some nights but today – and surely it cannot be my imagination – but there’s a scent being wafted across to us. Some cannot detect it but I can, distinctly. It’s an uncommon scent but we fancy it savours of trees so we just call it the smell of Australia. Only a few hours now.”


ANNE DONNELL: “23rd. A thunderstorm passed over last night and somehow it predicted a warning of disappointment. I awakened at 4.30 am and thought I would watch the sun rise over Australia. But there was no sun. The ship had anchored about four miles out and then I heard someone call out, “We can’t get off. They’re just going to take off the WA troops and we’re off again.” I couldn’t believe it. We are a clean ship and surely there was some sort of a welcome in store. We’ll get off after the Medical Officer has done his inspection. A little later, that is completed, a farce really. Then a rumour. “We’re a clean ship so there’s a hope of going into the wharf.” Well, that faint hope is soon dashed, though, for a black, ugly, old tug comes along and off go our WA boys with cheers from their shipmates. Can it really be true? Can one ever realise that not a smile is given, not a sign of welcome? After taking eight hours to get off about 50 boys we sail on our way. I could weep and weep with the ache of disappointment. “C’est la guerre,” said someone, but it isn’t.”

ELISE: Since 1915, Anne had kept a continual record of her service and these were her final words. “’C’est la guerre,’ said someone, but it isn’t.” “C’est la guerre,” meaning, “It’s the war,” was a French expression that had come into popular use around Europe, something you would say when anything and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But for Anne, the war was supposed to be over. She was ready to celebrate, to be welcomed back to normal life. Instead, she landed in a country under lockdown, businesses shut, schools closed, public gatherings called off and hospitals overflowing. It must’ve felt, in that moment, like everything they had endured would be cast aside and forgotten. Now that the virus is out, what exactly did it do to Australia?

DR PETER HOBBINS: Neighbours avoid neighbours, people barricaded themselves away. It was a period of substantial chaos, really.

ELISE: That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks once again to Peter Hobbins for sharing his knowledge with us and thanks to you for listening. If you have a moment and are on a platform where you can rate and review that would be great because it helps other people find the podcast.


RADIO HOST: Tomorrow will be an Anzac Day like no other, with no public Dawn Services or major sporting events. Even RSL clubs will be closed. Necessary coronavirus restrictions have put paid to all of that but, as Oliver Gordon discovered, there are plans underway to ensure the rituals and traditions associated with the date remain intact.

OLIVER GORDON: This markedly different Anzac Day is sure to go down in history and NSW State Library curator Elise Edmonds is keen to document it.

ELISE: The word, of course, is overused but it is unprecedented. This year’s Anzac Day we will all be staying at home so we really want to make sure that we capture all of those images of Australians commemorating at home this year so that in 50 years’ time, researchers can access the State Library’s collections to actually see how Australians commemorated in 2020, so whether or not they choose to stand at their front gates or their farm gate at dawn or perhaps they might be choosing to play some two-up in the backyard, we’re asking that if you take photographs of those events, you share them on your Instagram feed or on Twitter using the hashtag #AnzacAtHome. The State Library will capture those social media posts from you and we will be displaying them on our own website, the State Library’s website.

Release Date

The First World War is still raging in Europe when a mysterious disease begins killing soldiers on the Western Front. Long-practised quarantine measures ensure that when it first arrives in Sydney, it’s immediately identified and contained. But will these defences hold?

Featuring medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Rise and Shine-Piano Duet: Hannes Hofkind, Cellofan: Eracilon, Charcoal: Chad Crouch, Cellomane: Eracilon, Melancholy: ANBR Adrián Berenguer, Perpetuum II: Ad Libitum, Sad Piano: DDmyzik, Désaccords: Eracilon, Ad Libitum: Color Blue, Au fil de la nuit: Eracilon, Rising Tides 3: ANW2538_68. (All tracks amended)

Episode Audio

ELISE EDMONDS: On Monday 6th January, 1919, a letter from R. McAnderson of Bundanoon was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.


R. McANDERSON: “Sir, probably because nerves are somewhat frayed after four years of war, we are apt to lose our sense of proportion so that inconveniences loom large and benefits are accepted as a matter of course. For that reason, it is seemly to draw attention to the splendid service performed by our health authorities in saving Australia from the ravages of influenza. Correspondence from stricken countries tell terrifying tales and as a modest estimate Australia’s death roll, had influenza obtained a footing here, would’ve been 30,000 people.”

ELISE: Three weeks later, a suspicious illness is reported in the suburbs of Sydney. After being successfully kept at bay for over three months, the deadly Spanish influenza had broken out of quarantine and would upend Australia for the better part of the year. As we decide to make this podcast and begin our research, Australia is two weeks into government orders to limit gatherings and self-isolate as the world grapples with its latest pandemic, COVID-19. The first fines for order violations have been issued. Community testing is being rolled out. Boris Johnson has been admitted to intensive care. Italy and Spain’s death rates are finally dropping, while the state of New York is preparing to dig temporary mass graves. As politicians and commentators have been sure to point out, this is a 100-year event and we just happen to be here at this moment in time to experience it and we’ll be feeling its consequences for many years to come. But while we look forward to hugging our loved ones, sitting in a café or even having a job again, while many are feeling shaken and perhaps a bit scared about what’s to come, could looking back help us find a way forward?

I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales. While COVID-19 shakes our present, we’ll be raking through the library’s archives to bring you
The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems.

ELISE: I think if we peel off here to the right we can go down the funicular stairway.

It’s the 26th March, 2020, the day after Stage 2 of the COVID-19 gatherings order has come into place and my producer Sabrina and I are walking through the sprawling grounds of Sydney’s historic North Head Quarantine Station.

It’s actually a really steep place, isn’t it? It’s built basically on the side of a hill. Just behind the grand entrance to Sydney Harbour, we can see a Manly ferry slowly heading towards the city and then we can see the CBD in the distance. We’re going to have to walk all the way back up this, I think.

For 150 years, this place played a crucial role in protecting Australia from infectious disease. If you were unlucky enough to have boarded a ship where sickness broke out, this is where the long and arduous journey to Sydney was brought to a halt, a tantalisingly few kilometres short of the settlement. Here at Spring Cove, on the lands of the Guringai people, amongst the sandstone cliffs and eucalypt scrub, you would wait for a clean bill of health or to be laid to rest with a headstone looking out across the Tasman Sea.


Yeah, so we’ve walked down these steep stairs down to the main building, which is now a restaurant. We’re right down at the beach, at Quarantine Beach, so you can hear probably the waves lapping on the sand. So it’s a really beautiful space. This was people’s introduction to Sydney, introduction to Australia. Of course, we’re looking out now over the suburbs of Manly and Balgowlah and lots of lovely sailing ships but, you know, certainly 19th century, early 20th century, there was not a lot to look out on except bushland. And along the side of this road is typical Sydney sandstone and basically this is where so many crew members have carved the details of their ship and the names of some of the crew members who were quarantined here over the life of this place as a quarantine station. This is just one section where there’s a lot of the carvings.


ELISE: Makura. May, 1923.

SABRINA: 1879. SS… What does that one say?


SABRINA: Maybe some of the letterings missing. The Batavia, down the bottom there.

ELISE: Yeah.

SABRINA: With a little Japanese flag there.

ELISE: Yeah! Captain Blackmore, 1922.  And there’s the SS Shelley, 1922, with a lovely little green star in the middle there. Yeah, some of them have completely worn away, really.

There are over 1,500 of these engravings, scraped into exposed rock across the grounds. They date back to the very first passengers who were dropped at this cove in 1835, when it was just a clearing in the bush. But going back to the earliest days of the colony, it wasn’t at first apparent that a place like this was necessary.

DR PETER HOBBINS; Voyagers from Europe to the Australian colonies would often take up to six months and during that long sailing voyage, it was plenty of time for any infectious diseases on board to appear and to be treated and isolated.

ELISE: This is historian Peter Hobbins, Honorary Associate of the Department of History at the University of Sydney and co-author of Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine, Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past.

DR PETER HOBBINS: It didn’t mean that they died out by the time the ships arrived in Sydney Harbour but usually it meant that when a ship did arrive, if there was an infectious disease on board, it was well known to the captain and if possible, if there was a doctor on board, they would know about it as well. There was a surprising absence of sickness on a lot of convict voyages to Australia in the first decades of white settlement here. I mean, there weren’t actually that many voyages, for a start. The numbers of Europeans in NSW was under 10,000 for the first few decades. So initially there was no formal quarantine system in the Australian colonies.

ELISE: Without a quarantine system to isolate the sick, the First Nations population didn’t stand a chance. It’s thought that at least 70% of Aboriginal people in the Sydney area died of smallpox when it broke out in 1789. According to accounts written by naval officer Newton Fowell, their bodies were found lying on beaches and in the caverns of rocks with the remains of a small fire on each side of them and some water left within their reach. It would be over a decade later that the need for a formal system of quarantine was recognised.

DR PETER HOBBINS: In 1814, three convict ships arrived in Sydney Harbour that were very sick indeed. There was a very high mortality or death rate amongst the convicts on those three ships and that was alarming, partly because of the risk of bringing the disease onshore but it was also still really because they were a labour force, you know, the convicts, of course, were being sent to NSW as punishment and to free up British gaols but they were also being sent here as basically indentured labour to help build this new colony, and so to lose that many workers and to run the risk of infecting more of the workers and seeing them die or seeing them unproductive was the major cause for alarm at the time. There were still not that many free settlers in Sydney so it wasn’t so much concern about the disease spreading from the unworthy to the worthy but rather about the hindrance of productivity that would come about.

ELISE: It was an ex-convict, William Redfern, now one of the colony’s primary surgeons, who was tasked with figuring out how Sydney could protect itself from introduced disease, and set about making some changes.

DR PETER HOBBINS: So in 1815, a whole new series of systems came into play, including basically detaining arriving ships that might have disease onboard in Sydney Harbour. Now, that system applied to convict vessels but not to immigrant ships so free citizens arriving in the colony weren’t subject to any of that officially, but gradually that system was adopted, particularly in the 1830s, by most immigrant ships coming to the colony as well. That system worked to a point but diseases were still coming in to the colony so, for instance, in 1828, whooping cough arrived in the colony and actually killed the Governor’s son, amongst other people, so that rather drove home the importance of protecting the colony against these infectious diseases but also showed that nobody was immune. Even the higher classes, those in positions of privilege and relative cleanliness, were not immune from the spread of these infectious diseases. So in 1832, it was decided to set aside an area at North Head, which is one of the Heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, should be set aside as a place of quarantine, a quarantine ground. And several ships were moored off the coast in the next few years, if they came with disease onboard, but in 1835, the very first passengers came ashore.

JOHN DAWSON: “Thursday, September 3rd. Came in sight of the Heads this morning at 7 o’clock. At 2 o’clock, a sailor came off but not come on board. He went before in his boat and piloted the vessel through the Heads and ordered us to hoist the quarantine flag till further orders.”

ELISE: These are the words of 16-year-old John Dawson, documenting his arrival in Sydney Harbour on the 3rd September, 1835. John and his family were aboard the Canton, an immigrant ship carrying predominantly free female passengers, part of a scheme devised by the London Emigration Committee to balance the ratio of males to females in the colony. Four of John’s sisters were among the many females aboard. Every day of the five-month voyage, John wrote in his journal, a document that survives today in the State Library’s collection. About two months into the voyage, John reports that a case of smallpox has been discovered among the passengers. For the rest of the journey, alongside notes about the weather, the varying quality of the food, sightings of sea life, of various accidents and punishments aboard, are updates about the spread of the disease.

JOHN DAWSON: “Thursday, July 30th. A fine day but quite calm. I’m sorry to state that another child named Davies, aged about four years, died of the smallpox this afternoon at 2 o’clock. The beds were ordered on deck this afternoon and the bunks sprinkled with chloride of lime. Had pudding, pea soup and beef for dinner today.”

ELISE: When the Canton arrives in Sydney Harbour, the ship is stopped from coming any further and ordered to raise their yellow quarantine flag.

JOHN DAWSON: “Saturday, September 5th. A very hot day. Orders from His Excellency the Governor came on board, giving the Captain directions that we were to be landed in Spring Cove on Monday.”

ELISE: And with that order, John Dawson became one of the first occupants of the North Head Quarantine Station. John’s final entry, made on his first full day on Australian soil, is a poignant reminder of the premature endings and new beginnings that so often punctuated life at that time.

JOHN DAWSON: “Tuesday, September 8th. A beautiful day and very warm. A child of the name of Hargraves died some time last night of the smallpox and buried ashore today. A woman of the name of Davies delivered of a daughter about the time the other died.”

ELISE: Through days of torrential rain and hailstorms, the Dawson family and their fellow passengers were kept at North Head. During their 33 days of quarantine, John sets a precedent for future residents by carving a simple message into the sandstone, one which survives to this day.

JOHN DAWSON: “J. Dawson. Landed here to perform quarantine.”

DR PETER HOBBINS: There are plenty of accounts of people sailing to NSW who arrived healthy and loved it. They’d been aboard this ship for months on end, having salt meat, biscuits infested with vermin, water that was brackish if not actually green and, you know, the same people for company day after day after day. And suddenly they appear in Sydney Harbour, come ashore into this beautiful bushland, it’s no longer smelly, there are healthy breezes blowing, there are animals and birds around, there are oysters that they can pick off the rocks, they can go fishing. Even though it’s a quarantine station, little boats were coming out from the harbour, trying to sell the new arrivals fruit and bread. So you actually read a lot of accounts of new arrivals saying that this is a wonderful place and they were delighted. That first quarantine in 1835 basically involved putting them up in tents but gradually from the late 1830s, as the number of immigrant ships increased and as the number of infectious diseases arriving on those ships increased, permanent facilities started to be built so that by the turn of the 20th century, the quarantine station at North Head was actually a very large facility with upwards of 30 buildings dedicated to different classes of passenger, different races of passenger, their laundry needs, their servants’ needs, their leisure needs, so it actually became a huge township, you could almost call it. But it often sat vacant for long periods of time until one or more ships arrived when people were sick on board.

ELISE: Over the life of its operation, the quarantine station served as a temporary home to thousands of people. 600 never made it past the gates and were buried on the grounds. Ship after ship arrived, bringing whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, typhus fever. Then in 1918, pneumonic influenza, better known as the Spanish flu.

ELISE: Look at this one. So this is a carved piece that’s in the shape of a flag, a maritime flag and it’s RMS Niagara and it says, “Influenza, October 1918.” So this was the first boat, the Niagara, that was coming through from New Zealand and there was influenza on board that ship. They knew it at the time and so it didn’t spread at that point so the quarantine station did its job.

ELISE: The Niagara arrived on the 25th October, 1918. In that same month, Australian troops fought in the final offensives of the war. But in a cruel twist of history, though the battles were over, death still loomed.

DR PETER HOBBINS: It’s easy to forget that about 2,500 Australians died overseas before the disease ever reached Australia and they were soldiers serving with the Australian Imperial Force in Western Europe and in the Middle East and also the nurses who were caring for them as well. And that was a significant number of deaths out of the 62,500 who died throughout the course of the war.

ELISE: The First World War is often spoken of without any mention of the Spanish flu but it’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Spanish flu without also talking about the First World War. The two go hand in historical hand, each influencing the outcome of the other. Around 20 million people died as a result of the Great War. The nature of the fighting and the living conditions were brutal. On the frontlines of Europe, rival forces dug themselves into trenches on opposite sides of battlefields, strung end to end with barbed wire. Through beating sun, drenching rain and icy winters, they would wait for the order to attack.


ELISE: When it came, soldiers would drag themselves and their guns over the top, only to face a wall of machine-gun fire and heavy artillery. Their bodies then would lie in the middle of the field, no-man’s-land, for weeks, unclaimable in the deafening stream of bullets and shells. For four long years, it flattened cities and towns, created famine and left Europe in a debt spiral. It’s difficult to comprehend that while humanity was already suffering this nightmare of its own creation, nature was about to unleash additional devastation to the scene. The barracks and trenches were fertile ground for sickness and disease: cramped quarters, poor diet, stress, little hygiene. Built as protection, the trenches instead became what many historians have called hell on earth – muddy, filthy and infested with rats and lice. And when pneumonic influenza appeared, it ripped through the frontlines with as much force as the machine guns that sat atop their battlements. In fact, there are some epidemiologists who argue that it was the conditions in the trenches that allowed the virus to evolve from the first more benign wave that arrived in the European spring into the far deadlier strain that emerged later that year. It was undoubtedly the movement of troops all around the world that ensured its status as the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing up to 100 million people. Press censorship, intended to protect Allied information from the enemy, also stifled swift and accurate reporting of the spread and severity of the illness. Spain, as a neutral territory, had no such restrictions so it was the first country to report on the appearance of the illness, giving the mistaken impression that it was not only the birthplace of the sickness but that it alone was suffering cases. Like the rest of the non-military world, the Australian public first learnt of the flu via reports from Spain.


NEWSPAPER REPORT: "Wednesday 29th May, 1918. A Madrid message states that a mysterious epidemic is spreading over the country in an alarming manner. 40% of the population have been stricken. The railways, tramways, factories, newspapers, schools and theatres have been seriously disorganised owing to the depletion of the staffs, and many have had to be closed. The King and several of the ministers are ill.”

ELISE: Within a few short weeks of what could now be looked back on as a global public health warning, Spain was forever branded, becoming the namesake of a virus whose origins, even to this day, are uncertain. By the time this report was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in late May, the influenza had already been spreading through the Allied Forces in France for almost two months. American troops were among the hardest hit. In fact, many US training camps reported outbreaks of a flu-like illness in March, leading some researchers to conclude that this was the first wave of the pandemic which then travelled with US troops into France. Throughout 1918, as the virus worsened and continued its spread, 30,000 American soldiers would die before they ever reached the battleground. Ultimately the pandemic would kill more US military personnel than the war itself. Whatever its origins, it spread incredibly quickly. By June, its effects were being felt in England.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 26th June, 1918. Spanish influenza is spreading in London. It is extremely contagious and immediate isolation for five days is essential, directly the lassitude, aching limbs, headache and higher temperature commence. Huts are being erected in some districts where the hospitals are crowded.”

ELISE: Of course, it wasn’t just civilian hospitals that were brought under pressure by the arrival of pneumonic influenza but military facilities too. All along the Western Front, transport trains and field hospitals were overflowing, influenza patients far outnumbering the war wounded. Soldiers brought from the frontlines to England were treated in temporary hospitals which took over various buildings, including schools, the Brighton Pavilion and in the case of the number one Australian Auxiliary Hospital, the stately home Harefield House in Middlesex, just outside of London.

SISTER ANNE DONNELL: “Influenza, or as the boys say, “the dog’s disease” has arrived and is still raging here. Half the staff and patients must be laid low with it. Matron says to do the most important work, give the treatment and keep the place as tidy as we can. Several sisters on duty are feeling sickly but are still sticking it.”

ELISE: This incredible first-hand account was written by Sister Anne Donnell in her diary in June 1918, while serving as a nurse in Harefield House. We have this record thanks to the efforts of principal librarian Willian Ifould and Mitchell librarian Hugh Wright, who decided that the State Library should collect the diaries of Australian servicemen and women as they returned from war.


ELISE: (IN LIBRARY): There’s seven levels underground in the library so we’re the second to bottom stack area, so here we’ve got a huge bay upon bay of bound manuscripts, so that’s like journals and log books and diaries.

 ELISE: (NARRATES) It was around ten years ago that I first started spending a lot of time with this collection. Many of the diaries weren’t recorded in our online catalogue so my first project was to come down here to the stack, work through the shelves and determine how many diaries we had before delving into their individual stories.

 (IN LIBRARY) So we have around 236 diary collections that were acquired, recognising that these voices, these accounts, were going to be of great significance to future generations of Australians.


OK, here’s this box. We’ll just bring them out to a flat area so we can spread material out.

(NARRATES) Among the sea of soldiers’ diaries acquired straight after the war, Anne Donnell’s was the only account written by a female while on active service.

(IN LIBRARY) It’s a very small little diary that you can support in the palm of your hand. She’s just writing quickly, as you would in a library.

(NARRATES) Anne was a 39-year-old nurse living in Adelaide when she enlisted in 1915 and was first sent to Egypt, then to treat the Gallipoli wounded on the Greek island of Lemnos. She’s then moved to Europe where she spends 1916 and ’17 serving at various hospitals, before ending up at a casualty clearing station in France, not far from the frontlines.

(IN LIBRARY) So by the time that she’s celebrating New Year 1918, she’s pretty down and she’s pretty depressed and she’s talking about how she can’t sleep and the incessant bombing and the noise and that some of the hospital staff were celebrating the new year but she couldn’t and she didn’t feel up to celebrating and she just sat and was very homesick and she said she just cried and the exhaustion, I think, has hit her by 1918. And so ultimately she’s moved back to England by the middle of 1918 and it’s actually there that we start to hear about Anne’s experiences with this influenza.

ANNE DONNELL: "June 23, Sunday. This morning I missed Sister Dickinson’s tired face at breakfast and on making enquiries, someone said she was very ill through the night. Then later it was whispered that Sister had pneumonia.”

ELISE: Even after having seen three years of war, some of Anne’s saddest entries detail her fellow nurses ending up as patients in their own hospital.

ANNE DONNELL: “Poor little Sister. She passed peacefully on at 4.30 am with her friend beside her. She really had died at her post for she was on duty the day before. It is one of the saddest things that has happened yet, to think that she was in the midst of professional help and yet so far. We’re so pleased that she is to be buried in the ANZAC corner with the boys here. It is such a peaceful spot by the side of the church.”

ELISE: The day after Anne writes of Sister Dickinson’s burial, Archie Barwick, a 27-year-old soldier from Tasmania, arrives at Harefield House and is put to bed feeling about the worst…

ARCHIE BARWICK: “..about the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. Didn’t care what happened.”

ELISE: Archie’s diaries were also acquired by the library around the same time as Anne’s and it’s interesting to think that for the few days he spent at Harefield House, it’s likely that she was one of the nurses who cared for him.

ARCHIE BARWICK: “27th June. I passed another wretched night. No sleep, heavy sweats, bones aching, head splitting and as weak as a kitten, a pretty state of affairs, and my chest and throat are red raw. Plenty of blood comes up. They say I have this dog’s disease in a very bad form and I believe them. This epidemic is raging throughout England and it attacks anyone. It knocks you out in a few minutes, it’s that sudden. I have eaten nothing all day, only lay and squirmed in my bed with the intense heat and they don’t seem to worry their heads in the slightest over anyone. And as for tucker, well, don’t mention it. Nothing but salty kippers and rabbits. It makes me sick to look at them. It’s a regular starvation hole for a sick man. A big batch of men left here for Australia last night. Nearly all had lost limbs or something.”

ELISE: Archie, having already survived the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Belgium, makes a recovery and is released in the first week of July. Anne remains at the hospital but doesn’t write of influenza again until October.

ANNE DONNELL: “My poor old diary. With the best of intentions I haven’t made an entry for ages but really I don’t ever remember fighting so against time. For a fortnight we have had very sick influenza patients in. It’s a terrible flu, the worst I’ve come in contact with. It starts with an ordinary cold and then almost without warning an acute pneumonia sets in which makes it hard to combat. We lost one of the dearest boys that way and so suddenly, Sergeant Bradford from Murray Bridge.”

ELISE: While Anne continues to lose patients to influenza at Harefield, Archie, now living in a military camp in the south of England, waits for a transport ship home. Though fully recovered, he finds himself still affected by the flu.

ARCHIE BARWICK: “The boat that loaded up the other day has gone and we’re left on our own and heaven only knows how long they’re going to keep us. We were to have gone some days ago but for the outbreak of flu. They then decided to put fewer men on each boat so that’s how we came to be stranded. Everyone is fed right up to the neck. If they would only tell us how long we’re here for and let us make our plans accordingly it wouldn’t be so bad. But as it is, now we don’t know what to do. There’s practically nothing to do here. Ah, she’s some camp.”

ELISE: The same day, Archie complains of the flu holding up his trip home the SS Niagara steams into Sydney Harbour. Its passengers and crew are disembarked at the quarantine station while the ship is taken for disinfection and its cargo of mail is fumigated. By this time, Australian papers were publishing regular articles charting influenza’s spread as it raced around the world, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, America. As the final days of the war played out, England and Wales continued to be overrun. Just days before Germany’s official surrender, 7,417 influenza deaths are reported across the two countries in a single week.

DR PETER HOBBINS: We had multiple warnings about this before it ever came near our shores. There were the Australian medical authorities who were part of the Australian Imperial Force serving overseas who could report back on what cases looked like, how this disease was developing, how it was moving through the troops and then into the civilian populations as well. We certainly needed to make sure that troop ships didn’t bring it back to the country. We then also had Government health correspondence coming through from England and the Middle East and from the United States and New Zealand, where the health authorities in those countries were sending urgent messages to Australian health authorities saying, “Be prepared, because once this gets into the community, you can’t control it. It’s so overwhelming, it’s so infectious and it debilitates so many people so quickly that you won’t be able to keep up, so do whatever you can now to be prepared.” And, of course, they also saw any press reports as well, which were raising alarms, particularly after the war ended and censorship started to relax at the end of 1918.

ANNE DONNELL: “November 11, Monday. The armistice is signed. The guns went off at midday. There’s a certain amount of quiet excitement with most of us. The Sisters who went to London said there was great rejoicing, everything packed and people shouting. A band was playing down Oxford Street.”

DR PETER HOBBINS: Victory celebrations of the armistice in Europe, England and in the United States were famous, infamous, for accelerating the spread of pneumonic influenza in the community.

ARCHIE BARWICK: “Everyone is kissing in the streets and no-one seems ashamed of it! Procession after procession goes by, singing and waving flags. This beautiful and historic place is crammed with people all laughing and shouting.

DR PETER HOBBINS: And, of course, this came at the end of a very long and very harrowing war and people were desperate to celebrate as well, so certainly in England, by November 1918, the pandemic was in full swing, it was at its most infectious but also its most deadly as well and in places like San Francisco, in the United States, victory celebrations and parades were definitely associated with a major acceleration in cases because so many people came together and mingled and yelled and cheered and breathed all over each other at exactly the moment they shouldn’t have been doing it. Australians almost alone amongst the countries that had fought during the First World War could celebrate the armistice in November 1918 without fear of picking up the influenza because it hadn’t made it ashore in Australia at that time.

ELISE: Australia did celebrate the end of the war. It seems the whole country came out onto the streets, cheering and waving flags. But while brass bands marched up and down towns and cities all over the nation, four influenza patients quarantined at North Head died and several new cases broke out. As the ships kept coming, Australia was on its guard now quarantining passengers at most major ports. But how could the country prepare for what many said would be an inevitable outbreak?

DR PETER HOBBINS: The problem is how do you deal with preventing a disease when you don’t know what actually causes it?

ELISE: And when it finally happens, who is to blame? That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to the wonderful Peter Hobbins for sharing so much of his knowledge with us. And thanks to you for listening. Please take a moment to rate and review. It helps others find the podcast.


ELISE: So this is the plaque that’s saying that this place functioned as a quarantine station from 14 August 1832 through to February 1984.

SABRINA: “Commemorating the quarantine service officers. Their dedication and vigilance has significantly contributed to the health and prosperity of our nation.” Wow. Alright, shall we head up to the morgue?


SABRINA: This is the other thing. The checks that they would’ve done on incoming passengers probably weren’t much more sophisticated than what’s been done in recent days at the airport where they just waved people through, you know, and said, “Go home.”

ELISE: Absolutely. Well, I know that they were definitely checking temperatures and checking for other flu-like symptoms.

SABRINA: They were checking temperatures?


SABRINA: We didn’t even do that!

ELISE: I just bought my first thermometer the other day. I have not had one in the house for a long, long time, since I was a kid and Mum had it. But it’s a digital one. I’m thinking, “What?” I don’t know even know how to use it!

SABRINA: Yeah, the old thermometer under the tongue. Those were the days. Makes it sound like we’re 112!