The armistice of 11 November 1918 was celebrated in Concord with fervour. Citizens immediately formed tin-can bands and took to the street and within twelve hours of the news of armistice the Western Suburbs Master Carriers’ Association had organised what was then the largest procession in the history of the Western Suburbs. Beginning at Concord Road, it moved through Homebush, Strathfield and Burwood to end at St Luke’s Park.
On Sunday 17 November an open-air religious thanksgiving service was held in Concord Park (now Queen Elizabeth Park). It was attended by over 2000 citizens of Concord. Within a few months, however, the mood of euphoria was dampened by an epidemic of pneumonic influenza (Spanish flu) brought to Australia by returned servicemen. It was often called the “Spanish flu”, not because it originated in Spain, but due to it first being widely reported there.
This pandemic started in 1918, the last year of the First World War, and passed through soldiers in Western Europe in successively more virulent waves, with the first cases identified in Australia in early 1919. In New South Wales the first wave occurred mid-March to May 1919 and the second wave peaked in June-July 1919.
In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, soldiers coming home were quarantined on ships or onshore quarantine stations.
In NSW alone approximately 6,000 people died because of pneumonic influenza.
NSW Public Health Department reported that, in 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s total population had influenza. In some areas of Sydney the deaths from influenza accounted for 50 per cent of all deaths.
Pneumonic influenza was far and away the worst pandemic to hit Australia, and also the last great international flu pandemic.
LOCAL EXPERIENCE OF INFLUENZA
With prior warning of the possibility of an epidemic, Concord Council took precautionary measures to counteract its spread. Lists of volunteer helpers were compiled with the help of the Red Cross and the inoculation depot, opened at the Town Hall in Burwood Road, was well patronised by local residents.
The Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital on the Yaralla Estate was taken over by the New South Wales Health Department in response to the influenza pandemic. The Public Health Act required local government to report any cases of infectious diseases referred to them. In 1919 there were 73 such cases of pneumonic influenza (Spanish Flu) recorded by Concord Council. Amongst those listed were Charles Savage, aged 46, former Mayor of Concord. Savage was known for his encouragement of the Concord Volunteer Workers Association and his support of other patriotic causes.
A public health poster about the Spanish Influenza pandemic was illustrated by children’s illustrator and author May Gibbs in 1919. It features a gumnut baby and a kookaburra sitting on a branch, with eucalyptus leaves wrapped around their mouths in the manner of surgical masks. It used familiar characters from her children’s books to encourage readers, especially children, to wear masks to reduce the spread of the deadly disease.
The public health poster was part of a government campaign in NSW to limit the spread of the deadly disease. People were quarantined, wearing masks in public places was made compulsory, schools were closed, many public activities were banned or restricted and pharmacy prices were regulated.
THEN CAME DIPHTHERIA. . .
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries diphtheria had a high profile. In this period it was a serious and relatively uncontrolled epidemic illness and in the early decades of the twentieth century was one of the greatest causes of childhood mortality in Australia. It was once one of the most dreaded diseases, with frequent large-scale outbreaks.
Prior to widespread vaccination, diphtheria outbreaks frequently reached epidemic levels in Australia, and in the 1920s many dedicated hospital wards were set up to care for victims.
It was in the management of diphtheria that Australian governments first tackled large-scale and long-term preventive measures, most importantly the first mass immunization campaigns; and it was diphtheria control which integrated public education structures with public health structures, school medical services with measures for infectious disease control.
The era was one when diphtheria was a common, serious and notifiable disease. The public appreciated its communicability and the special vulnerability of young children. Family and schoolteachers often recognised early symptoms and did not hesitate to make a provisional diagnosis of either croup or diphtheria.
Afflicted individuals generally sought treatment, if for no other reason than family or peer pressure. Suspected carriers were often quarantined either in home, hospital or in the case of an epidemic, in temporary camps.
Although the Commissioner for Public Health and the federally funded Commonwealth Serum Laboratories had recommended immunisation in 1921, and although there was no direct cost to the recipient, it took five years for local authorities to implement the measure.
At the height of the 1921 epidemic, there were 23,199 notifications (annual notification rate 426 per 100,000 population) and, in the decade between 1926 and 1935, there were 4,043 deaths from diphtheria.
The hardships of the early depression years had made councils more conscious of human problems – health and survival at a subsistence level – than in population growth and building statistics.
Community spirit with regular clean-up campaigns were organised, compacting of garbage in reclamation was carefully screened. “Concord for Cleanliness” became a familiar slogan.
Against bitter opposition from a small section of the community, Concord was one of the first metropolitan councils to enforce compulsory immunisation for the prevention of Diphtheria. Four years after its introduction the health inspector was able to record that in the fourth campaign, over 2,800 children were immune and the incidence of the disease had fallen.
The rate of infectious diseases dropped in Concord due to the sewer being connected in 1933. It went from 11.3 people in 1,000 in 1898 to 5.3 in 1933. Concord was proudly proclaimed as one of the healthiest suburbs of the metropolitan area of Sydney.
Be sure to drop in to our museum at 1 Bent Street, Concord, on any Wednesday or Saturday from 10:00 to 4:00 to see our new display on “The Armistice and Beyond”.