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Spanish Influenza

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on April 22, 2020
“The Nurse” By George James Coates. State Library of Victoria Image

Australia was one of the last countries in the world to suffer through the Spanish flu or Pneumonic Influenza epidemic. Most of the world had already suffered through the horror and tragedy before it arrived on our doorstep. With the return of the soldiers back from the First World War an unwelcome addition to their baggage was one of the worst pandemics Australia had ever seen. Australia was in the unique and fortunate position of having knowledge, time, and medical staff to deal with the crisis. We were an island nation with strict borders. We had plenty of fresh air and sunshine, good food and a relatively healthy population.

In 1918, before the “Spanish Flu” pandemic arrived, the total deaths reported in the newspapers in Victoria was 210. By late 1919, when the worst was over, those deaths had increased to 3536 (NSW reported a massive 6387). Official documentation today shows that by the end of the outbreak in late 1919, one third of the total Australian population had been infected and the official death toll was somewhere between 12,500 and 15,000 dead.

Australia’s situation was very similar to today. We had prior notice and put in place restrictions and quarantines yet ONE THIRD of the population was infected. According to newspaper accounts, the Victorian State government closed borders, pubs, sporting facilities, theatres and there were disputes over the closure of schools with some districts closing and some not. In Berwick and Dandenong the local state schools were used as temporary hospitals. Restrictions were put in place on shipping movements and coal was suddenly in short supply. Lack of coal had widespread repercussions for transport, industry and for average people as many used it for cooking and heating their homes. 

In October of 1918 there are newspaper articles reporting that influenza was present but it doesn’t actually make it’s presence felt until early 1919 when outbreaks and deaths are widespread. In the Dandenong/Berwick/Pakenham area there was a major burst of infections and deaths in late summer then a lull which was followed by another burst during the winter months. 

By March, the people have had two months of restrictions and were getting restless. Town boards met and relaxed regulations. In Berwick churches started holding services, local concerts are held and schools reopen. One month later, in April there is a massive increase in cases and deaths become prevalent. More local schools are used as hospitals. In July, in the Berwick/Pakenham area, at the height of winter, the local newspaper is regularly reporting deaths amongst the ranks of well known local families. The reports then become numbers rather than names and the clusters of deaths become evident. 

The Spanish Flu pandemic cut short the life of many people who were the backbone of the community. We lost community leaders, we lost the mothers, the farmers, the men who worked on the railroads. We lost grandparents but most importantly we lost the children. We lost so much of the future of our society. The Spanish Influenza did untold damage to our society and our local communities.

Eight months after it started, in September of 1919, the last of the local influenza cases was reported by the Berwick Shire Health Officer. There were small clusters and outbreaks in the western district but nothing like the death and fear that had gripped and destroyed the nation. We will survive Covid-19 just as our forbears did 101 years ago but we have the luxury of doing it in comfortable surroundings with shopping down the road and entertainment at our fingertips. I am constantly reminded of great nana’s stories of nursing her entire family through the pandemic with no heating and very little food on the table. We have so much to be thankful for.