Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Blue Flu

Blue Mountains influenza pandemic

The mayor’s two sons died. The station master at Wentworth Falls lost his wife. Hardly a family in the mountains was untouched by it. The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the world at the end of World War 1 hit Lithgow and the Blue Mountains particularly hard.

In Sydney, ships arriving from overseas were quarantined – and even the Easter Show was cancelled. Mountain folk believed they had “little to fear of the microbe, being firmly convinced the glorious ozones of our alpine heights are proof against the germ,” as a local paper put it at the time.

But following a bit of squabbling on council, some precautions were eventually taken. The town was cleaned up and inoculations began. Jenolan Caves were closed and – to the annoyance of tourist operators – motoring trips to Mt. York and Mt. Wilson were prohibited.

The full saga of the epidemic unfolds in “The Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919 in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow”, a fascinating monograph published recently by the Springwood Historical Society.

In April 1919 two visitors to Katoomba died. Schools, churches and theatres were closed. Volunteers cooked for stricken families. An emergency hospital was set up. By the end of June, thirty had died. Healthy young men and pregnant women were hit the worst. At times people died within 48 hour of experiencing their first symptoms.

The protective cheese cloth masks which everyone wore in public made it hard to recognise people. “You snubbed last week’s hostess and gushed over her chamber-maid. It was a wild mad tangle of hidden identity and laughable dilemmas,” wrote a Katoomba journalist.

Lithgow cancelled Anzac Day services and the march on the fourth anniversary of Gallipoli. Arguments and tussles broke out on queues at the inoculation depot. Doctors, nurses and helpers in the Volunteer Aid Detachment fell ill.

Lithgow ground to a halt during “Black Easter”. The Small Arms Factory closed and eventually the mines. In seven months 20 per cent of the town’s population had contracted the bug but by September it was over.

World wide the influenza pandemic killed 20 million and more than fifty times that number fell ill. More Australians died of it than lost their lives in World War 1.

The Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919 in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow” by Shirley Evans, is available from Blue Mountains City Libraries for $5.00

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