-how our Kentish Community Coped!

During the latter part of 1919 the whole Kentish community was severely affected by the Great Influenza Pandemic that raged worldwide taking around 30 million lives, including 11,552 in Australia, 225 in Tasmania and at least 8 in the Kentish area. It all started in 1918 on a pig farm in Fort Riley, Kansas, USA. When the flu spread to humans it killed 650,000 in USA before crossing the Atlantic with American soldiers fighting WWI in Europe, where hundreds of thousands more died. It travelled to Asia with an estimated 15 million deaths in India before going worldwide. Returning diggers brought it back to Australia late in 1918 where it soon spread to all States.

This super-virulent strain of the flu could kill healthy young adults within a couple of days. Spread by airborne germs which bred on the back of the tongue, it took only one breath of contaminated air from an infected person to catch it. Almost at once victims began to feel unwell. Temperatures climbed, heads throbbed, tongues became furred and they lost all appetite. Next morning their shoulders and back ached, the neck became stiff and the tongue covered with a thick creamy scum. Vomiting and diarrhoea usually followed, the skin developed a bluish plum-coloured tinge and by nightfall they could be dead.

Tasmania was in fact one of the last places on earth to be afflicted by this terrible scourge. Strong hopes were held that somehow our island would escape, but after six months of incessant vigilance, in the second week of August 1919 the disease was detected in Hobart and soon spread State-wide. Within a few days there were 27 cases and 4 deaths, including a dedicated young doctor of Launceston and a young nurse in Hobart. However, the Tasmanian Health Dept had benefited greatly from the prior experience of every other state and all their advance planning here paid off. Both the Claremont Military Camp in Hobart and the Car Villa Quarantine Deport in Launceston were prepared as emergency hospitals. Also, the strong remedial action immediately adopted by Government undoubtedly reduced the number of lives lost.

Tasmania Shuts Down

On Saturday evening 16 August 1919, the director of the Tasmanian Health Department assumed supreme power granted to him under a very recent act of parliament for use in the advent of an outbreak of a contagious disease epidemic. He sent telegrams to all police stations in Tasmanian declaring the immediate prohibition of all public gatherings. Public hall, picture theatres, billiard rooms, all indoor entertainment resorts, churches, school and libraries were ordered close at once. All upcoming military parades, sports events, race meetings, outdoor gatherings and entertainment were also cancelled. No person was to remain in a hotel bar longer than five minutes and masks were to be worn by people travelling on public transport where there were more than three people.

Immediately police from every part of the island began to carry out these instructions. They spent that Saturday evening emptying picture theatres and dance halls, dispersing people wherever they were congregated. For five weeks there wasn’t a social gathering, church service or sports event held in the State. Boarding schools and all similar institutes were closed. Even functions to welcome soldiers returning from the war were prohibited. This robust reaction did cause some strange and rather humorous situations. With all gatherings, meetings, functions cancelled, it meant that all the very people responsible for re-scheduling these events were also forbidden to meet – and they had very few telephones.

By Monday morning 18 August, public excitement reached panic proportions. Chemist shops were besieged with requests for every kind of flue antidote. All well-known cold cures, chest and throat medications, even thermometers, were quickly sold out. Instead of calming people, newspapers couldn’t resist the opportunity to exploit people’s fear. One Hobart reporter said doctors were unable to respond to all calls made upon them as patients could now to be counted in hundreds. He wrote: Yesterday a doctor visited a home in Sandy Bay where the whole household were down. The woman of the house, being in the best condition of them all, arose to admit the doctor but she collapsed in his arms. He feared she would succumb before he could get her back to bed. At another home a family of seven was down with three of them delirious and the rest powerless to assist when help arrived.

One of the first requirements ordered by the Director of Health was for doctors to mass inoculate all Tasmanian school children. The Sheffield Town Hall was commandeered for this purpose and amongst the first vaccinated were Ron Atkins and Rita Gibson.  Whatever the inoculation was, it was soon deemed worthless and discontinued.

By the end of August 1919 there had been 59 deaths – 39 in the south, 11 on the West Coast, 8 in the North and one of the North West Coast. This local person was a 32-year-old man admitted to the Latrobe hospital on the 23 August, who died the next day. By now thousands were ill across the State and there was a pressing need for more medical staff. As the epidemic had subsided on the mainland, Tasmanian health authorities called there for help. Within a few days the steamer Marrawah bought the first lot of helpers into Devonport: three doctors, six sisters and nine nurses. One doctor went to Burnie, one nurse to Sheffield, all the others down the West Coast to Queenstown and Zeehan. The following week 35 additional doctors and nurses arrived on the steamer Rotomahana at Devonport and were taken by special train to Launceston where the mayor of the city was responsible to allocate them to the neediest areas. Two days later another 35 arrived by the Loongana. The Royal Albert Hall in Launceston was commandeered as a central relief depot staffed with a matron, sisters and nurses on call for attending critical cases around the clock. All over the State special isolation hospitals were established to deal with the worst cases.

Sheffield has 1st Case on N W Coast.

On 29 August the first case of this contagious flu on the NW Coast was reported at Sheffield. A nurse driven in a motor car left Devonport at midnight to attend to the sufferer. Soon more local cases requiring medical attention followed and the services of Dr Ferris of Ulverstone had to obtained for a few hours. The local medico at the time was Dr G Musgrove Parker, but Dr Edward Addison of Devonport, just back from 12 months in the USA and Dr J H Drew from the mainland, were assigned to come up and help him.  The recently built Drill Hall in Albert Street was turned into an isolation hospital and the Kentish Council began advertising for people willing to help in any way with the emergency to register at the Council Chambers.

Among the voluntary helpers at the Drill Hall were the two Salvation Army lassies stationed at Sheffield and Lionel & Dora Weeks of Barrington.  Prior to their recent marriage, Dora Weymouth of Hobart belonged to the Volunteer Aid Defence Corp helping wounded soldiers who had been repatriated back to Hobart. In fact, that’s how Dora first met Lionel Weeks, a wounded soldier originally from Staverton. After their marriage, they moved onto a Soldier Settlement property at Barrington. Mrs Alice Green, wife of the local solicitor and leader of the local Red Cross organized all the soup and food requirements for these patients. Let’s follow some abbreviated news reports in 1919 on how the epidemic developed in Kentish.

Sept 4 – Influenza seems to be spreading through the Sheffield district. Dr Addison, acting for Dr Parker who is down with the flue, reported two fresh cases on Monday. There were now eight patients in isolation hospital at the Drill Hall, three seriously ill. Last week the Council Clerk got in touch with the Mayor of Launceston who agreed to allow one more nurse to come to Sheffield to help attend bad cases.

Sept 5 -Sheffield had its first death. It was William Godwin (30) relieving officer at the Sheffield Post Office. The same day a young nurse Ida Stubbings at the Latrobe Hospital also died. This caused an emotional reaction among the nursing staff, especially as her white casket was carried by the Matron and nine chosen nurses out of the hospital to the waiting hearse and later from the hearse to her open grave in the Latrobe cemetery.

Sept 7 David Kirkcaldy (48), husband of Martha (nee Goss) succumbed to the flu virus leaving a family of six children, two other children having previously drowned. Martha raised her young family in a house down the Old Wilmot Road. The victim was the g/grandfather of the David Kirkcaldy who presently lives in Roland.

Kentish in Crisis

Sept 11 Most NW coastal towns have been fortunate to escape any serious visitations of the epidemic. But others have been less fortunate, especially Sheffield, where two deaths have occurred and many hundreds of infectious cases. Owing to the illness of the Kentish warden, the local doctor, the health inspector, the policeman and others, the council clerk Mr A D Soutar has been running the whole show. He has had a lively time sending help to various parts of the district. Even inland districts like Erriba and Moina, among the mountains, have demanded the service of nurses for their stricken residents. The council now have seven nurses moving around treating the sick. Will Howe of Sheffield was the next to die in the isolation hospital in the Drill Hall. He was a prominent member of the local Salvation Army. Out at Wilmot dozens of folks came down with the flu, including William Maxwell’s whole household of nine. The locally improvised hospital at Robert Quail’s boarding house was not large enough to take all the cases, so Mrs Charlotte (Dot) Glover’s 14 room boarding house was also used. Similarly, up at Erriba and Moina, public halls were turned into makeshift hospitals. At Railton nurses and volunteers took over Pedder’s Hall in Foster Street to bed down the sick and dying. Ada Ling, the local baker’s wife, well known for her care of the sick, worked almost non-stop trying to relieve their suffering.

Back in Sheffield, local manager of the Commercial Bank Maxwell Bruce JP was just two weeks into his six weeks of accumulated leave, when he was recalled back to Sheffield, because his relieving manager and staff had come down with the virus. Frank Hughes had just moved from Launceston to open a new motor garage in Main St next to the Sheffield Hotel, when he and his motor car were commandeered to drive nurses to stricken families in outlying districts. John Craze, mine manager at Round Hill and Dave Mason of Barrington volunteered to do the same. By the end of September, the number of nurses employed around Kentish had risen to nine.

At one stage all Claude Road had the flu, some seriously, yet strangely Staverton and Paradise missed out. Barrington had mild cases except for Dave Russell & Mrs Wm Pullen who became gravely ill. Other locals who died were: Reuben Rouse (31) labourer; William Brooks (29) Sheffield jeweller, Zoe Ralph (2) daughter of Frank Ralph the local barber; James Boutcher (60), farmer of Roland and Alf Rolls (65) Barrington blacksmith. When the last patient hospitalized in the Drill Hall was ready to be discharged, they prepared to close it down, but next day six new cases arrived, five being young children from the same family.

A month later Devonport got caught on the second wave of this terrible virus when nearly half the people of that town went down with it. There, the Red Cross Society invited all affected families to display a white flag on their front gates. The town was divided into sections under the supervision of willing lady workers who kept watch for these distress flags. Once spotted, volunteer runners carried the message to special soup kitchens which sent back relief in the form of soup, broth or milk foods.

When the influenza epidemic finally subsided, the Kentish district held a public ‘welcome home’ for 12 local soldiers that had returned from WW1 during the recent shut down. They were Corporal L Porch, Air Mechanic Singleton, Privates E Nunn, C Padman, G Moles, W Bray, C Listner, T Milne, A Rouse, W Hope, J Morris, and B Thompson. Three of them, Porch, Bray and Thompson had married while overseas and were pleased to introduce their wives. The Kentish council meeting on 6 Nov 1919 calculated the cost of fighting this terrible epidemic locally as £874 15s 7d. This included the mass inoculations fees, medical fees, salaries of the nurses, travelling expenses and the cost of fitting out isolation hospitals at Sheffield, Railton, Erriba and Moina. With the local municipal health rate of only bringing in about £200 annually, worried councillors were quickly reassured by the Tasmanian Premier that the State Government would pick up the cost.

While most businesses suffered badly during the epidemic, some companies prospered. The manufacturers of Aspro were quick to assert their claim that ‘it was now universally acknowledged that Aspro tablets have done more to smash the influenza epidemic than any other antidote.’ Similar claims were made for Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Their sales increased to 5 million pills a month. With restrictions on all entertainment venues, the new Edison Gramophone Company grabbed the opportunity to advertise what wonderful entertainment you could have in your own home by playing His Masters Voice records on their new gramophones. It worked; their sales soared as well.