Woonona Public School became an emergency hospital during the 1919 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic

Emergency hospital at Nowra Public School for the 1919 influenza pandemic. Picture: Supplied. Inset: Volunteer nurses at the Woonona Public School emergency hospital during the 1919 pandemic. Identified on the left is Catherine Herring, who lived in Wilcath Street . Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.

MANY folk of the old Bulli Shire were eagerly awaiting their influenza inoculations in 1919.

Between January-September 1919, pneumonic influenza, commonly known as the ‘Spanish Flu’, killed 6,387 people in New South Wales, infecting as many as 290,000 in Metropolitan Sydney alone.

The Spanish flu infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves.

The Bulli Shire never escaped the pneumonic influenza, with many succumbing to the respiratory condition after a warning of a pandemic.

The new strain of influenza, authorities warned, could spread from the quarantine hospital housing patients at Sydney’s North Head.

An urgent meeting between Bulli Shire Council’s health inspector, Mr. J. J. Hiles and the district’s three doctors at Helensburgh, Scarborough and Bulli was called on December 31 1918.

At the meeting it was decided to establish inoculation depots at Helensburgh, Thirroul, Scarborough and Bulli, after the Shire Council had already acquired sufficient supplies of the flu vaccine.

Also, it was decided to establish temporary hospitals if needed and to call for volunteers.

As predicted the virus did escape the quarantine hospital in Sydney and within a month had spread into the Bulli Shire.

The pandemic threw the people and the NSW Government into a community effort rivalled only by that of the Great War, in an attempt to lessen the spread, and impact, of a deadly disease. The Sydney Mail newspaper reported on February 5 1919:

The Hyde Park inoculation depot. Depots like this were set-up at Helensburgh, Scarborough, THirroul and Bulli during the 1919 pandemic. Picture: Sydney Mail February 5 1919.

AT THE HYDE PARK INOCULATION DEPOT. During the week nearly 200,000 persons were inoculated (against pneumonic influenza) at the various Sydney and suburban depots and by private physicians. As over 100,000 had previously been done; nearly half the population of the metropolis had thus been treated by the beginning of this week.

In April 1919 Bulli Hospital set aside two rooms for the treatment of ordinary influenza, with Nurse Cox in charge. Should pneumonic influenza spread further, the rooms, it was reported, would be used as a temporary hospital for the treatment of the outbreak.

By April the first case of pneumonic influenza had been recorded in the Bulli Shire. The son of William Young, Aubrey of Stanhope Street, Woonona, had contracted the Spanish flu and was treated at home.

While it’s difficult to determine the exact number of cases in the Bulli Shire, there’s little doubt the pandemic also caused the deaths of patients with underling health conditions.

In April, James Swan, 23, died while being taken to Bulli Hospital in the ambulance wagon. On arrival at the hospital it was found that he had died of double pneumonia. His older brother, William, 26, had died just three weeks previous in the Coledale hospital of the same infliction.

Also in April, the cook at Bulli Family Hotel, William Cornish also succumbed to influenza, as did Blanche Clarke and Cuthbert Moore.

The Sydney Mail reported on April 2 1919 that Thirroul storekeeper, Edwin H. Tucker installed an “inhalatorium… for the benefit of residents and tourists as a precaution against influenza”.

The “inhalatorium” outside Edwin H. Tucker’s Thirroul general store, 1919. Picture: Sydney Mail April 2 1919.

An inhalatorium was a room in which respiratory conditions could be treated using vaporized medication. It’s not sure how qualified Edwin Tucker was to administer the vaporized medication; however, the South Coast Times was not backward in promoting the storekeepers’ inhalatorium. The newspaper reported on April 11 1919:

THIRROUL: The public generally are urged to take advantage of the inhalatorium near Mr. Tucker’s business premises. This is a very simple but most effective preventative of the flu. Many railway workers as well as others are taking advantage of it. Parents would do well to have their children pass through this inhaling chamber every day. It is expected that public inoculations will commence again shortly. The large yellow posters now exhibited should be well read.

The following month, Bulli Hospital reported that there were 11 patients in its wards suffering influenza. The Bulli Health Inspector J. J. Hiles reported to Bulli Shire councillors that there were 20 cases of pneumonic or Spanish influenza within the Shire on May 8, 1919.

Two of these were at Helensburgh, two at Thirroul, and the remainder were from Bulli and Woonona. The South Coast Times reported on Friday 9 May 1919:

Messrs. Alf Welsh and H. Miller are doing good work in night nursing delirious cases. Many others have offered their services, but have not yet been, called upon. The ordinary patients who were in the Bulli Hospital have been sent to their own homes, and two have been conveyed to the Illawarra Cottage Hospital (Coledale). This leaves the Bulli institution available for pneumonic influenza cases. Mr. P. Harris, of Russell Vale, was taken in yesterday afternoon. As a result of a deputation on Wednesday, introduced by Mr. W. Davies, M.L.A., relief depots are being established… Messrs. E. Cameron, R. Sheppard and P. B. Wright are the authorised depot masters, and will insure relief orders when required. From another source, it was learned that Constable Harmer is a great helper in many ways.

In the infantry drill room, Park Road, Bulli, a hostel was provided for 12 voluntary aids with Mrs J. Hiles in charge. The volunteers were Mrss. Herring, Pendlebury, Russell, and Hayes, and the Misses Joyce, Turnbull, McDonald, Thomas, M. Evans, Thelma Rixon, A. Salisbury, Kelly and A. Miller.

A public meeting was called by the Bulli Shire Council in May 1919 and a decision was made to hastily transform Woonona Public School into an emergency hospital. A meeting of the Bulli Cottage Hospital Committee decided the following month to transfer all its influenza patients to the newly opened emergency hospital at Woonona.

The sad cases of death from the flu continued, with well-known local identity, 43-year-old Thomas Condon succumbing to the virus at Bulli in May 1919. Nobody could be found to carry Condon’s coffin from the inside of his residence to the outside, and it had to be done by his wife and daughter. The undertaker, it was reported, had great difficulty getting assistance for the removal of the coffin from the hearse.

The South Coast Times reported on June 20 1919:


(Our Correspondent)

Influenza Outbreak

This town is now in the thick of the influenza scourge, and all must be thankful that, so far, it has taken a mild form. All the same, it very soon gets all the household from father to baby down and practically helpless, when precautions are not taken at once. Both Doctors Crossle and Palmer are working at top speed and long hours; so much so that it is not possible to visit all cases. When, any calls are omitted, some one should attend the surgery, where instructions and medicine will be provided. Serious symptoms, of course, will bring as quick attention; as is possible. Now the epidemic is on us, it behoves all to render what assistance is possible to help, the doctors. In the early part of the week Dr. Crossle was called to take over Dr. Fetherstone’s work as far as Stan-well Park, when he hardly had time even to make up medicine. The local de-pot is centred at Mr. Moore’s furniture shop, corner Main-road and Lookout-st., and the depot master Mr. Wright, who has been relieved from school duties, is kept busy rendering assistance where urgently needed. Three nursing assistants have been appointed to go to homes where no assistance can be obtained. These ladies are Mrs. Luke, Mrs. Hayton and Mrs. Gemmell, all of whom had volunteered at once to nurse. They are doing, fine work, and we are very thankful to them. Numbers of others are willing to assist, but all who wish to be enrolled, should apply to the depot master. Miss Moran, of Ocean-street, who had volunteered to nurse a family all down, was unfortunate enough to also contract the pneu-flu. The temporary hospital has been opened at the Woonona Public School, where patients will be nursed by members of the Thirroul V.A. Detachment, of which Misses E. Hicks, Young and M. Towson are on duty and others are in readiness for orders. Messrs. Davis, of ‘Wilberoi,’ and Keene, of ‘Stella Maris,’ have already been sent to hospital. Serious cases will be sent as well when the congestion of home nursing gets too bad. Those in charge of the hospital are very thankful for the generous assistance given by the Thirroul people in helping to equip it; at present more sheets, towels and pillowslips are needed. The depot master is very pleased at the willing assistance in all directions that has been offered by the townspeople. He strongly urges that greater pre-cautions be taken at the homes when the flu has got in. The first one to take it should be at once isolated and the one attending the patient should be masked. 

However, the worse was not over. Private Ralph Codlin, who had recently returned from fighting in the Great War, died from influenza on July 1, 1919 at the Woonona Emergency Hospital. He lived at Old Bulli, and left a wife, but no children. Codlin was one of the first to enlist from the Bulli district in the Great War.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday July 1 1919:

SOUTH COAST OUTBREAK SEVERE. BULLI, Monday. There were 15 patients in the temporary hospital at the Woonona Public School last Saturday, and five deaths have occurred. There were about 400 cases of ordinary influenza at Corrimal last week, and 150 at Coledale. Dr. Featherstone, of Scarborough is laid, up with influenza and it was found necessary to requisition a doctor from the Board of Health to look after that district. The epidemic shows no sign of diminishing. The Coalcliff colliery was unable to resume work through many employees being absent from work last week.

As winter came to end, the influenza epidemic had eased in the Bulli Shire with no cases reported in the Woonona Public School Emergency Hospital. It was reported in August 1919 that the school was “thoroughly cleansed and generally renovated” to receive the return of students.

The Helensburgh correspondent to the Illawarra Mercury reported on August 1 1919 that the influenza epidemic had “about run its course. There are a few cases and all mild. The schools have opened again and business is about at normal.”

By the summer of 1920 the Illawarra was over the worse of the epidemic. The South Coast Times reported on Bulli Hospital cases during the epidemic on Friday January 16, 1920:

During the period of pneumonic influenza, 18 cases were admitted, three deaths occurred. There had appeared in the ‘Telegraph’ a statement purporting to be Inspector Hiles, to the effect that the hospital had been vacant for about 14 weeks during the epidemic and the nurses titivating with white enamel while people in the town were dying. The committee would have treated this article with contempt but for the reflection on the staff, which had nursed patients for nine weeks at the hospital and for three weeks at the emergency hospital [at Woonona Public School].

The exact numbers of deaths in the old Bulli Shire as a result of the pneumonic influenza or Spanish flu is difficult to determine. However, about 40 per cent of the Australian population fell ill, and around 15,000 died from the virus spread.

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