It is now 100 years since our district was hit by the dreaded pneumonic influenza (or “Spanish Flu” as it became known). While less than fifty people died in Wagga, there were millions of deaths world wide, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
The first cases in the world were reported during the middle of 1918, mostly in the United States and Europe. Because of Australia’s natural isolation from the rest of the world, authorities were forewarned of the deadliness of the disease and so were able to implement a number of quarantine measures to impede its spread.
However, a significant factor in the effective transmission of the influenza virus was the thousands of soldiers returning home from Europe after World War One. And so it was that the first known case of pneumonic influenza in Australia appeared in Melbourne in January 1919.
Victims would initially show the normal signs of influenza, such as aches, cough, fever, and fatigue. But then the really awful symptom would appear – their lungs would fill with fluid and just simply breathing would be a constant struggle.
More cases were quickly discovered, signalling the virus was travelling inland. This resulted in more quarantine defences being imposed, one being special constables guarding the state border on the Murray.
Inoculation depots were also opened around the country to immunise the population, though a high percentage did not take advantage of the opportunity.
The first case of pneumonic influenza appeared in Wagga Wagga on 20 February 1919. 25 year old William Tyrie of Yerong Creek became sick and had travelled to town to see a doctor. The three men who had been sharing a tent with Tyrie at Yerong Creek also became sick and were brought to Wagga the next day.
27 year old Robert Johnstone was identified as having pneumonic influenza at Junee on 27 February but he was placed into isolation in Junee. It was nearly a month later, 24 March, that more Junee cases were identified.
On 24 March, William Thomas Nugent, a 45 year old farmer from The Gap was confirmed as having pneumonic influenza. He had been admitted to the Wagga District Hospital with mild symptoms on the 22nd, having driven himself in a sulky to Wagga to visit the doctor.
Though many precautions had been taken, the influenza soon spread to Wagga itself, with the first two cases being reported on 28 March – Mrs Bessie Murray and her brother, Richard H. Fox of Docker Street. A week later, there were 12 cases in the Wagga District Hospital and 60 known contacts in isolation.
In order to effectively impose quarantines, the authorities had ensured those people who were possibly infected, known as “contacts”, were isolated in their homes. Yellow flags were displayed outside each home to notify the public of the quarantine.
Cards marked S.O.S. were also provided to each house so that those who were isolated could request assistance for things such as food or medical attention. The public were not to approach a house with the S.O.S. card displayed but were “to communicate with the municipal authorities immediately”.
On 22 April, an official proclamation made by the NSW Minister for Health came into effect. Large gatherings of people were restricted, masks had to be worn, Sunday Schools and “places of indoor amusement” were to be closed, and no person was to remain in a licensed hotel bar for longer than five minutes.
Events such as fundraising dances, agricultural shows, and ‘welcome home’ gatherings for soldiers were postponed for months until the danger passed.
On 11 April, the first death took place in the Wagga District Hospital – William Schofield, a 28 year old man from Ganmain. He had arrived at the hospital on 8 April and, due to the severity of his symptoms, expectations for his survival had been low.
On 17 April, the South Wagga Public School was opened as a convalescent hospital, run by the women of the Voluntary Aid Corp, to relieve the overstretched hospital which at that point was caring for 56 influenza patients.
The Wagga Municipal Health Inspector reported in mid-July that 320 cases of influenza had been registered within the municipality of Wagga Wagga.
To put that in perspective, Wagga’s population at that time was only around 7000 people and that number did not include the almost 150 people brought in to town from outside the immediate town boundaries.
The crisis had died down in Wagga by the end of August. About 35 people had died from pneumonic influenza in the seven months since February 1919.
Official restrictions were lifted, though the public were cautioned against too-close contact with others, and organised dances especially were frowned upon for a few months to come.
Photograph of the Wagga Wagga District Hospital, Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society Collection, (CSURA RW5/366).
University of Sydney News, 21 January 2019: https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2019/01/21/centenary-of–spanish-flu–pandemic-in-australia.html
The Daily Advertiser: 18 November 1918, 25 January 1919, 17 February 1919, 29 March 1919, 07/04/1919, 8 April 1919, 12 April 1919, 17 April 1919, 18 July 1919.
In case you’re finding the letter concerning Mrs Bass a struggle to read, here’s what it says:
Tarcutta 19th April 1919
Subject: Case of supposed Pneumonic Influenza near Tarcutta
I beg to report that a woman named Mrs Charles Bass, was suddenly taken till at Deletroy Station, 3 miles from Tarcutta, on 17th instant.
Mr Burrows, owner of the Station, telephoned Dr Leahy, Wagga, and explained the symptoms and he (the Dr) stated it was Pneumonic Influenza in a very mild form. The patient is still at Deletroy Station, as the Dr informed them there was no room available at Wagga Hospital and therefore no use removing the patient.
The house and all contacts have been quarantined. This woman has been delicate some considerable time and came to Deletroy from Sydney two months ago for the benefit of her health, and is a sister of Mr W T Burrows of Deletroy Station. Mrs Bass has not been examined by a Dr since she took ill.
William F Searson
Constable No. 9209
The Inspector of Police