The book is now available from the City of Canada Bay Museum, 1 Bent Street, Concord at a cost of $20.00. We are open every Wednesday and Saturday from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm. It’s a great read and would make a unique Christmas present.
The following article tells of how the Commonwealth Bank dealt with the pandemic. It was found too late to make it into the book. When you’ve purchased the book, check out the chapter “The Borders are Closing” to see how the Coolangatta residents conducted their banking business in 1920.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, another pandemic was causing devastation around the world. At a time where digital banking and contactless payments couldn’t easily substitute the use of cash, Danny John and Juli Liddicoat investigate what the world looked like for Commonwealth Bank employees and customers, as seen through the eyes of the Founding Governor Denison Miller and the Bank’s first Chief Medical Officer.
From her pristine and well-equipped clinic in the Commonwealth Bank’s renowned “Moneybox” headquarters in Pitt Street, Sydney, Sister Elizabeth Murrell had more than a passing interest in the outside world that she could view from her gleaming windows in April 1920.
Having survived the horrors of World War One as one of 3,000 Australian nurses who had cared for wounded, sick and dying Allied soldiers on battlefields from the Middle East to the Western Front, the 40 year-old medical professional was well-acquainted with the risks posed by disease and infection – no matter how young or healthy her patients might appear to be.
She had also seen more than her fair share of death caused not by a bullet or shell wound but by dysentery, malaria and black water fever during freezing winters and mosquito-ridden summers in the makeshift field hospitals of Salonika in Greece where she had been posted in 1917.
It was this knowledge that had drawn her to the Commonwealth Bank on her return from war in November 1918 – a return born of personal and painful experience after her discharge from military service that same year on the grounds of being medically unfit.
Like the many soldiers she had cared for, Sister Murrell had fallen victim to the very debilitating illnesses she had sought to treat.
After recovering from her sickness, she had resumed her nursing career at Randwick (now the Prince of Wales) Hospital in Sydney when the call came to join the CBA in 1919. The letter was from none other than the Bank’s Founding Governor Denison Miller (who today we would know as the chief executive and managing director).
In April 1919, the world and Australia was in the grip of another global war. While the guns on the western front had fallen silent the previous November after four years of devastating conflict, another, even more brutal killer was stalking nations across the globe.
Even countries which had been mercifully left untouched by warfare were now falling victim to a virus which was indiscriminate about who it touched, infected and, in far too many cases, killed.
If WW1 had shocked the modern world with its estimated 20 million dead, the Spanish flu pandemic between January 1918 and December 1920 left it reeling. Of the 500 million people thought to have been infected – equal to a quarter of the world’s population at the time – a staggering 50 million are estimated to have died.
Denison Miller had, like Sister Murrell, seen the devastation left in the wake of war and pandemic at first hand. While hundreds of thousands of Australian servicemen had travelled overseas during WW1, Miller was one of the few privileged civilians to make an international trip in the last months of the war to witness for himself its impact on North America, Britain and Europe.
What his tour hadn’t quite prepared him for was the ravages being caused by the Spanish Flu. No country was immune, no people unaffected.
Writing afterwards of his experience, the Governor told CBA’s staff: “Windows in all the tram cars were taken out and all the attendants in the shops and large offices wore masks while in some of the states coming across Canada we had to wear our masks in the train.”
That episode was repeated in London and Auckland on his way home and in uncanny parallels with the pandemic 100 years later, Miller was on-board a ship, the Makura, which was carrying a number of passengers with suspected influenza cases.
Like today, Australia had introduced strict border and immigration controls under the 1908 Quarantine Act to prevent the transmission of Spanish Flu. The Makura was sent to Sydney’s Quarantine Station on Manly’s North Head where Miller and his fellow passengers spent a minimum of seven days.
Luckily for the governor, no further cases were detected and he and his colleagues were released from Quarantine on 21 December 1918.
The Governor re-emerged into a country that was struggling to cope with the growing threat posed by the pandemic. At the end of 1918, 848 Australians had died from the Flu. Over the next 12 months that number soared to 11,552.
Miller knew that the bank had to take steps to protect both its staff and its customers. American newspaper reports in 1918 had attributed the spread of the disease to germs being transferred via dirty bank notes. While this was later proved incorrect, at the time it was considered a real possibility.
The Bank quickly took a role in educating the public about the benefits of keeping bank notes clean and made bank wallets available in branches in an attempt to prevent the virus’ spread.
In January 1919, the Governor instituted the wearing of masks for all staff in Sydney. Shortly afterwards, images of staff wearing masks appeared in local newspapers.
Despite the precautions, the strain on staff became evident at the Bank’s Head Office in Martin Place. That’s when Miller turned to Sister Murrell, appointing her as CBA’s first medical officer, with the job of caring for the staff if they got sick and introducing measures to prevent the spread of the flu.
According to the staff magazine Bank Notes, government institutions and large firms followed CBA’s lead and implemented the wearing of masks in the work place. By February, the government announced that the use of masks in public was mandatory. Those that did not comply could incur fines or imprisonment.
Among these were a decision to close the office each day at noon from the 22nd April, the result of reduced staffing levels and increased stress levels amongst those did make it into work.
One of the aims was to provide staff with time to rest although, where necessary, some members would remain until 3pm to meet banking requirements. Early closure also became a reality for branches where staff were heavily affected by the disease.
These rules mirrored government-initiated restrictions as traffic between states was stopped temporarily, some schools were closed early and public gatherings were minimised to avoid the further spread of the virus.
But 1919 was a hard year to bear as increasing numbers of war-battered soldiers came home to a grateful people, only to find themselves dealing with another tragic set of circumstances and military-style orders designed to keep them apart from their loved ones and their communities.
As the two most populous and therefore most at risk states, NSW and Victoria, bore the brunt of the infections and related deaths. Just as they are doing 100 years on.
Slowly but surely, however, the transmission of the pandemic was contained. As the New Year – and a new decade – progressed both transmission and death rates started to fall. By the middle of 1920, the peak had been reached and the curve of both, as we know of them today, had been flattened.
By the mid-to-late spring the number of deaths had fallen to almost the same level as to when the pandemic had started to make its deathly presence known just over two years before. Year 1920 ended with 448 deaths, taking the overall toll across Australia to 15,000. The greatest killer of recent modern times had exhausted itself.
For Governor Miller and Sister Murrell there was quiet satisfaction that the pandemic had claimed just four lives amongst CBA’s staff. While that may have been four too many, they could set that against the 26 of the Bank’s young men who went off to war between 1914 and 1918 and never returned.
Never ones to highlight their own efforts to contain the devastating effects of the pandemic, it was left to others to comment on the contributions of quiet achievers such as Sister Murrell.
In an article for CBA’s then staff magazine Bank Notes in November 1919, an unnamed writer who was being treated in the Chief Medical Officer’s Pitt Street clinic, noted: “In two rooms full of sunshine glistening white with the gleam of polished nickel and plate glass, conveying the hospital touch, Sister Murrell sits, white coiffed and white-gowned, alert and ready to squelch the many maladies that beset the path of the toiling bank clerk.
“Sister says she finds us as ‘cases’ a very healthy, uninteresting lot from a professional standpoint and rightly so, she says. With the splendid building we are in and the healthy conditions generally, how could it be otherwise?
“And then Sister gets a reminiscent look in her eyes, the shadow of a sigh escapes her as she remembers the fine lives ‘gone west’ and from a sentence or two, you learn that men in hospital huts in frozen Salonika did not exactly live in the lap of luxury.”
Little more than a year after those words were written, Elizabeth Murrell was able to turn her hands to the mundane task of caring for Head Office staff with more minor ailments as the pandemic faded away.
Honoured by Governor Miller in January 1920 for her war service, she became an institution at the bank, introducing new innovations such as midday exercise sessions for female staff, health talks and after-hours physical culture classes. She also helped to establish the bank’s hospital cot committee, part of the staff club that supported local communities.
Known as “Beth”, Sister Murrell stayed with the bank until retiring in June 1937. Her thank you presents at a farewell tea party held at the Pickwick Club in the Sydney CBD included a handbag from the staff and a wallet of notes from the bank’s deputy governor. She spent her retirement in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, passing away in November 1970, aged 90.
As for Denison Miller, the founding father of the “bank for all Australians” he was knighted by the Prince of Wales in 1920 on behalf of a grateful British Empire for the role he had played in helping the fledging Commonwealth of Australia get through WW1 and supporting the efforts to rebuild the nation in the face of the pandemic and the resulting post-war economic slump.
A man of great principle whose calm and stoic approach, it was said, was appreciated by all those who came in contact with him, Miller died suddenly of a heart attack three years later. He was 63.
On his death, the distinguished Australian writer Edward Vance Palmer said that while the Governor’s personality was “neither dramatic nor colourful it made a deep impression on the public mind”. The new bank, he wrote, might have been as outstanding a failure in the hands of the wrong man, as it had been a success in Miller’s. His ability to secure co-operation and loyalty was not the least of his strengths.
Palmer may well have been describing the very essence of the institution Miller left behind – a bank literally forged in the heat of a global war and the furnace of the pandemic that followed. A hundred years later those very strengths have again come to the fore as history once more seemingly repeats itself.
By Commonwealth Bank’s Editor-in-Chief Danny John, and the Information and Archive Analyst Juli Liddicoat
“Reproduced with the kind permission of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. This article appeared on the CBA Newsroom (link: https://www.commbank.com.au/guidance/newsroom/tale-of-two-pandemics-spanish-flu-202004.html) on 22 April 2020.”
Cabarita Point was first named in the 1856 Survey Map. At the time there was a property known as “Cabarita House” near Kendall Bay. It is not clear whether the location took its name from the house or if the house was named for its location.
Cabarita is presumed to have derived from a local aboriginal name for the area meaning “by the water”. However, this is unsupported by documentary evidence and is not recognised by the present-day custodians of the Wangal language. There are other places in Australia that share the name Cabarita, but are unrelated to local indigenous culture. These include: Cabarita Beach in northern NSW, the suburb of Cabarita in Mildura, Victoria, and “The Cabarita Resort” on Stradbroke Island, Queensland. There is also a Cabarita Island and the Cabarita River in Jamaica.
A more likely scenario is that the name is a reference to the Cabarita region in Northern Spain where Surveyor General, Major Thomas Mitchell served in the Peninsula War. During this campaign Mitchell was tasked with surveying an area close to where British troops were camped.
Early land grants did not refer to Cabarita, but described the allotments as being close to Hen and Chicken rocks, a notation that appears on sketched maps of the Parramatta River drawn by Lt. William Brady, who with Captain John Hunter undertook the first exploration of the Parramatta River in February 1788.
The first land grants were offered to non-commissioned officers of the NSW Corps on condition that they occupied the land and carried out improvements such as clearing the land for farming or erecting buildings and fences. For the most part the grants were forfeited or sold to investors who consolidated them into larger holdings.
John Ward was one such investor who owned most of the area now known as Cabarita. On his death his estate passed to his adopted son Alexander McDonald.
In 1883 the Australian Gas Light Company purchased 32 hectares at Kendall Bay and established a large gasworks plant on the site. This created a need for houses, shops, schools and places of worship nearby, giving rise to the growing township of Mortlake.
McDonald subdivided his land into portions that were auctioned in separate lots between 1886 and 1909. They were advertised as the McDonald, Riverview and Singlewell Estates. MacDonald retained an area between France and Exile Bays where he built Collingwood House. The property was acquired by orchardist William Cox and on his passing the estate was subdivided. Collingwood House was demolished to create a street of the same name and allow access to more housing blocks. (Andrew West)
A commode is often assumed to be a euphemism for a toilet. Originally it referred to a chest of drawers or cabinet used for storing personal items. The name derives from the French word meaning convenience or suitable. French furniture makers in the 18th Century fashioned highly decorated cabinets topped with marble. These were fitted with gilded doors and cabriole legs and stood about table height.
Some early versions were curved and intended to stand against a wall. Behind the doors of the cabinet might be a porcelain chamber pot that was emptied by a chambermaid.
Gradually, a commode came to refer to a box or other item of furniture that enclosed a chamber pot. These reached heights of ingenuity in Victorian England, disguised as chairs or steps. Some were transformed into washstands complete with marble top, mirror and a closed cabinet below in which to keep the chamber pot.
The commode, once an extravagant piece of French furniture in an upper-class boudoir evolved into a more prosaic version in the homes of the working class. Towards the end of the 19th Century the commode became an item of convenience largely for the invalide and elderly as the advent of the flushing toilet inside the home replaced the need for an outside dunny.
Jean’s story continues about her experiences as a Voluntary Aide at the Walker Hospital in 1919
Brother dear, your expression has several times saved my life already. When the milk boiled all over the clean floor and I was fit to weep about it, I merely stood still and said, #^&%*@#. No, I won’t write it down as mother may read this letter, but it soothed my temper like a charm.
You will probably receive a petition from the four nurses in my room to not write me such humorous letters because I can never read them till I get into bed and then I keep the others awake by giggling irrepressibly. I stick my head under the pillow, but even then, they can hear muffled screams of delight and they get peeved and jealous.
Matron asked me this morning was I going home on my twenty-four hours leave and said she thought there would be no risk if I had a Lysol bath, wore a mask all the time, clean clothes and kept six feet away. When I asked her was she going home, she said no. On the whole, though I long to see you all, I think I would rather not spend the subsequent nights worrying myself sick for fear I had given it to you. Some of the girls do go home, and some don’t. I’ll spend a luxurious and quite happy day here – twenty hours in bed and four in the garden.
On night duty now. On the whole it’s much better than day. One hates it when going on at 9 pm but loves it madly when coming out of the wards into the dewy garden at 6.30 am. Night duty is a weird business but, on the whole, less rushed than day duty, so we are thankful for small mercies.
Five of us – two Sisters and three Aides – now live in the usual night quarters. It’s a dear little fairy book cottage amongst the trees, built round a little square court, where four orange trees grow in tubs. Since, in peace days, it was the children’s quarters our furniture consists of tiny chairs, a sofa and tables, a musical box, a doll’s house, a woolly bear, a rocking boat, a see-saw and many celluloid fishes and tin buckets and spades.
We have such nice mornings just “messing around’, cleaning our shoes, washing our clothes, making our beds, sweeping, doing the flowers, making ourselves tea, gathering mushrooms, writing letters and sewing – it doesn’t sound very exciting, but I don’t know anything pleasanter in this wide world than a cottage morning.
Our day begins with a telephone call to wake us up at 7.45pm. We dress and trail over to the hospital for a hot dinner at 8.30 on duty from 9pm to 6.30am.
It’s a funny existence – there are a Sister and two Aides in women’s wing and we take up our position in the central hall – the Sister on a couch and Jean and I on the floor with two pillows each and we lie and write letters, and listen. Because the wards are so still, one can hear the faintest sound, and when the sound comes one of us gets up and flits off with an electric torch into the darkness, fixes it up, and slips back in silence. And that lasts all night with the exception of one more exciting half hour when one relieves the Aide on the men’s side, where things are diversified by seeing a delirious man suddenly peering round the ward door at you, or climbing out the window.
Then at 3.30am the rush begins – zero hour. We wash the patients and make the beds by lantern light – heavy work which leaves us aching all over, and blind with weariness by 6.30am – talk of hopeless dawns. However, we then have breakfast and a bath and feel a bit better and spend the morning in our cottage, cleaning shoes and ironing quite happily. Bed at 12 sharp and so to sleep till the telephone rings again.
Our calm was rather shaken yesterday, but fortunately, the episode ended happily this time. We were having morning tea when we saw an orderly tear down the grass to the water’s edge, and the next instant the whole hospital came flying out from every door. We all made a cordon by the water’s edge. There was a man who had, for two days, been swearing he would get away from us so you can imagine our relief when, about seven minutes later, he was found hiding in another ward.
Mummy, can’t you understand how impossible it is for me to do as you suggest, and get afternoons and evenings off for dances and kitchen teas. I can only come to the boat race, to watch my brother racing, because I am off duty anyway.
Flu is real – flu is earnest – and whew, one gets letters such as I did the other night from friends, insisting on my coming to picnics, and to even try on bridesmaids’ frocks, and one doesn’t quite know how to answer them without appearing either melodramatically tragic, or else apparently putting them off for insufficient reasons as they seem to think that it is the easiest matter in the world to come out.
They had to recall two Aides from legitimate leave the other day, so how can I, who have had so comparatively much, ask for extra days.
There are many rumours of good news and much news of closing down. Only, please don’t believe it yet. Still, the very fact of rumours is something. Our conversation has been in the Bairnsfather line, “Doctor So and So says the eleventh month will be the worst, and after that every thirteenth.”
It’s just midnight and I haven’t had a call for 20 minutes, touch wood.
Brother dear, I’m afraid the boat race is quite off for me, as I will have to be asleep. Fancy going quietly to sleep within half a mile of the boat race!!!
But there can be no question of it – as it’s the inviolable rule of the hospital – night staff in bed at 12. However, to stay awake would be a sheer physical impossibility. But just possibly, I might sleep from 7am till 3 – come out with the launch and go back to sleep at 5pm. I wonder would I be able to sleep. I’ll see how experienced I am by then.
Saw a Shore Four on Thursday and raced madly along the waterfront but too late – also on Friday ditto. Today I saw you way off and waited long but in vain. Walking home from Rhodes on Wednesday I caught a glimpse through the trees. I’ll always remember because it was so beautiful – the Eight flashing past with every oar blade dripping silver and the sun on the white singlets.
Have you ever seen this river at 3.45am? Jean and I fly down to the wharf for a breath of pure air at that time every night and it’s absolutely wonderful. You can think of me at 8.30pm every night and wish me luck.
City of Canada Bay Heritage Society Inc., PO Box 152, Concord, 2137 :: Phone: 9744-8528
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