FIGURES from Wonthaggi’s past featured in an episode of ABC’s Australian Story recently, with the local historical society playing a key role in creating, for the first time on television, a unique insight into the “forgotten flu” that claimed the lives of up to 15,000 Australians.
The episode, titled ‘Lest We Forget,’ takes an in-depth look at how Australia survived the influenza or ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918-19, drawing parallels with the current COVID-19 crisis.
As well as historical accounts of mask-wearing, quarantining, and social isolation from some of Australia’s leading virologists, academics and medical historians, it features appearances from the Wonthaggi Town Hall and the story of then 19-year-old Elizabeth Beard (nee Evans), one of six nurses to volunteer to care for patients there.
An interview with Elizabeth’s daughter, Gwladys McLachlan, reveals it was a “very sad, stressful time for everybody”.
“She [Elizabeth] was locked in [the hall] for three months, wasn’t allowed out really, and they kept bringing [patients] in,” Gwladys told the program.
“People were dying all over the town. And I know that my auntie adopted a little child because the mother had died,” she said.
Oral history recordings provided by Wonthaggi and District Historical Society give viewers Elizabeth’s first-hand account of the experience.
“None of us [nurses] had had any training,” she said on a recording made five years prior to her death in 1993, and featured towards the end of the half-hour episode.
“There was a big square tent to be put up for the nurses to sleep in.
“Then there were carpenters making the frame for the stretchers and they were very busy.
“Eventually we had 41 men in the town hall.
“There was a man with a horse and a kind of gypsy van going around to get the patients.
“So, as soon as we had five stretchers, he went out and brought five patients in and they kept on making them.
“One man particularly didn’t seem too bad to me, had no complaints. But each day his temperature went up, and no matter what we tried, it didn’t come down and he eventually died.”
Other recordings and archival material from Wonthaggi and District Historical Society’s collection at the Wonthaggi Railway Station Museum, were also used in the making of the episode.
For those that missed it, it’s available on iView.
The following is the full transcript of Elizabeth’s oral history recording, made in 1989 by the Wonthaggi & District Historical Society.
‘Memories of Nursing Days in the 1920s’
by Elizabeth Mary Beard (nee Evans)
Born March 23, 1899, died June 27, 1993
“I am now 90 years old, so it is nearly 70 years ago. I hope I will be forgiven for any discrepancies.
When I left school I went to live and work for my uncle Harry (J.H. Evans of Wonthaggi). Two brothers of my Aunt Bertha – Fred and Edgar Beard – lived there also. They and three others from Beard Bros butchers went to World War I.
My uncle, who was past middle age, found the extra work very hard, so I did the entering, making out the accounts and banking the money.
My aunt’s brother, Edgar, contracted influenza on Armistice Day in France. We were then receiving telegrams from the army saying ‘dangerously ill,’ ‘critically ill’.
When he arrived home months later he told me he had been in the dying ward. Eight men were carried out the first night in hospital. Probably it was this that influenced me to volunteer.
I was passing the town hall with my father, Thomas Evans, when I told him I was thinking of volunteering. He said if that was so, my name should be handed in now. So I walked in and was the first name handed in. Five other girls volunteered later.
This influenza epidemic started in Europe in 1918 and spread to Australia in 1919 – there were many deaths.
Wonthaggi was the last town to be affected and the worst hit, according to Dr Sleeman.
There was fear everywhere because strong men were being affected. People were being quarantined all over the town, and people were frightened to go outside their gates.
Goods were delivered in those days. Dr Sleeman would quarantine a house, then see the breadwinner down the street, thus prolonging the ‘flu.
One of the first events that affected our town was the closing of the hospital. All but the seriously ill were sent home and no visitors were allowed.
When my uniforms were ready I reported for duty and walked into a hive of industry. Two tents were erected down near the road – away from the hospital. The first patients were nursed there, and also a hut for the nurses’ duty room was shifted there. It was an old hut and water poured in when it rained – the same with the tents. Heavy tarps were borrowed from the railways, but those underneath nearly suffocated.
Nurse Jury made up her mind to do something about the water on the floor, so she told Nurse Mounsey, my cousin, to watch and when she could see Dr Sleeman coming down the paddock to let her know. When she heard him approaching she started to vigorously sweep out the water. It worked! Doctor had the roof fixed immediately. They carried on nursing under these conditions until the town hall was ready for patients.
Dr Sleeman closed all the schools so they could be used as wards for influenza patients.
A hessian wall was erected across the town hall, dividing it into two wards.
A two-roomed house was shifted into the yard and made ready for the cook and her helper – a girl about 14 years old. The cook was Mrs Kuffer. There was a small Dawood stove in the kitchen.
Another hut was moved in – this was to be a laundry, and a frame was made to fit over the trough to act as a table – the meals were dished up there. A fireplace was built and kerosene tins and a kettle were used for hot water. A tent about 10 feet by 10 feet square with a wooden floor and a roof over the tent was attached. Four nurses slept there.
Another tent for the matron was erected, and another down the backyard away from the noise for the night nurse.
There was one trained nurse available – just home from the war – Nurse Jeremiah. She then became our Matron.
Dr Gelbart had a sister-in-law, a middle-aged nurse who went on night duty.
Four carpenters started to make stretchers – I presume we all had one made. When five patient stretchers were made, Mr Bob Allen went and brought the patients in.
Doctor would visit the ill and order patients to hospital, then Bob would be called on to pick them up.
Bob, a returned soldier and a TPI man, was the only one who volunteered to carry patients to the hospital. He had a one-horse van with a canvas hood – he became our daily visitor. As fast as we were ready for him, he brought another patient in. Eventually we had 41 patients.
The bedding arrived – imagine all the mattresses, sheets, blankets, quilts, towels and, I presume, pyjamas! The nurses were supplied also (perhaps not the pyjamas).
Everything was going well until the hessian on the stretchers started to pull away from the tacks. The men fell to the floor on their mattresses. They lay on the floor until the stretchers were taped underneath.
I remember one night when I was on duty. Bob Allen called in at 2.30am and said he had been out to North Wonthaggi and brought in a delirious woman with a baby to the school. He said he had a dreadful time trying to hold her down and drive the horse as well.
Another time he brought in a 23-year-old man whose own father refused to help him out to the stretcher! Such was the fear among the people. Bob then asked a passer-by to help him.
He told us about another time at the school, the nurse had a delirious rabbiter in one room and while she was attending a patient he escaped into the schoolyard and thought he was trapping rabbits – they had a job to get him back.
There were pregnant women in the school. I only knew of one who recovered.
There was a man and his son in the town hall; his pregnant wife was cared for in the school. She later died leaving three children being cared for by neighbours.
My aunt, Bertha Evans, looked after the 12 month-old baby, Lilian Newy, now Mrs Norma Harrison of Inverloch, and then Port Macquarie.
One of the first five men who arrived the first day did not recover. He was from Ballarat. His people were sent for. He seemed to me to not be very ill, but each day his temperature went up and never came down. It reached 107.4 degrees – the highest temperature I have ever seen.
Another man who lived an outdoor life was inclined to be synozed (go blue) and Doctor said when this patient died he was to be sent for – day or night, no matter what the hour. When he did die he was so brown one would think he was an Aboriginal. I think what he would have had was what the English called “the black death”. One miner at a meeting said this patient was to be put in a lead coffin and sealed down.
I seemed to like nursing. The matron told me to keep on with nursing and let the other girls do the sweeping and get the meals, etc, so I kept on with the sponging of patients.
After a few nights, Doctor’s sister-in-law panicked. She knew no-one and was too frightened to give out the medicines. I had to go on with her because I knew most of the men.
I came out from breakfast one morning to find Matron doing the washing, so I helped her until I came off duty.
One night when I got into bed I started to cry. We were very busy and I had quick shifts, which was unavoidable. A nurse told Matron and she brought Dr Gelbart over. I was only over-tired. He gave me a tablet and I slept until morning and felt alright.
During my years as a nurse, two lessons remain vividly impressed on my mind.
Lesson 1: A patient was not responding to treatment – each day a little worse until he was dying. His wife came to enquire after her husband each morning. This particular morning, Matron said to let her know when the wife came in. All day the Matron kept asking if she had been in. At the evening meal she mentioned it again, and one girl said: ‘She did come Matron,’ and the Matron asked her: ‘What did you tell her?’ She said: ‘I told her he was doing well!’ The police lived at the back of us and I think one of them was sent to tell the bad news – to come quickly. It was too late, the patient died before the wife arrived. From then on, if I was asked the condition of a patient I never gave my opinion, but asked a superior.
Lesson 2: One night at 9pm I was finishing a back toilet and we were joking with the nearby patient because he was to get up the next day and this was his last rub. I took up my washbowl and said goodnight, and forgot to take the methylated spirits back. One sister went on night duty and after I was in bed she came across and asked if I had left the methylated spirits on the locker. I said ‘Yes’. She told me to get up, put on my uniform and go and remove it. I dressed, put on my uniform and went over to the hall, put on my gown, collected a mask and the creosote to sprinkle on the mask, then went into the ward. The men were astounded and said: ‘Aren’t you off duty yet?’ I told them I was in bed and had to dress to go and remove the methylated spirits off the locker – they were hostile. Anyway, it taught me a lesson. I lever left it on the locker again!
Two nursing sisters arrived from Melbourne. The rest of the volunteers decided to go to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. I wanted to go, but felt I should go back to help my uncle.”