Townsville relied heavily on what came in and out of its port on steamships. The railway was connected to the port, carrying cattle to the abattoirs, coal and sugar to the wharves, and foodstuffs and people to neighbouring towns. Anyone who cared to read the papers, or listen to friends or neighbours, knew the Flu was on its way in May 1919. The State government had worked hard and well to keep the state ‘clean’ since the end of January, and the City council was determined to keep Townsville clear of it too. It would probably come by ship.
Boats had been arriving from down south in the last weeks of May with Flu cases on board, including the Allinga, the Paringa, and the Wodonga––unloading stricken people and ‘contacts’ into the quarantine station. Paringa and Wodonga both had returning AIF soldiers aboard, impatient to return to their homes but who understood the grim threat the epidemic posed. The Royal Navy’s gunboat, Una, was also visiting Townsville at the end of May.
The steamer Morialta had been sent from Mackay, because that place had no facilities for quarantining ships’ passengers and cargoes. The Commonwealth Quarantine Officer (Dr Harris) wanted the vessel to undergo quarantine, but the State Health Officer (Dr Humphrey) seemed resigned to the influenza’s entry into the city. He allowed the Morialta to berth at the jetty wharves. Townsville’s own City Health Officer (Dr Nisbet) was appalled at the prospect, and resented his State counterpart’s apparent lack of concern. The City Council telegraphed protests to the Federal and State governments for permitting the ship to tie up so close to peoples’ homes. The news soon spread among the highly concerned community.
Townsville was far from passive. It was the heart of the Red North, surrounded by districts full of cane cutters and coal miners. The city itself was home to many hundreds of workers from the meatworks, wharves, and railway. The place was ready for trouble. [Footnote: Within six weeks there would be gun battles between police and socialists.] The powerful trade unions were in no mood for their members and their families to be exposed to a dangerous infectious killer. The Waterside Workers’ Union declared no one and nothing would come off the Morialta until at least seven days had passed.
Joe Clark was as old as the century, and an apprentice blacksmith in Townsville’s railway workshops, when he caught the Spanish Flu. He worked in what they called the ‘carriage shop’.
It was winter and a cold one. The flu was raging all over the world according to the cables. … It wasn’t long before we were all scared of the thing which we knew so little about. It came on fast and the two undertakers were busy all day long doing their job. I was still well but I had a sore throat, then a coaster called the SS Morialta landed here with two cases on board. Now, as you can imagine we were all very concerned about more disease coming to the town––so we all knocked off and marched down to the jetty to protest about it. On the way, we met Jack Macintosh, our ambulance chief complete with his mask driving the two flu cases to the Townsville General Hospital.
Joe and his mates were already agitated, and became very angry when they saw the loaded ambulance carrying proof––within breathing distance––that the dreaded disease had arrived in their city.
It was the last Friday in May. A stop work meeting in the Railway workshops in the morning voted to join their maritime comrades in a ‘monster Union demonstration’ at the jetty that afternoon. The whole of the railway men gathered at the workshops around 2.15, and the waterside workers gathered at their union office around the same time. Several hundred men sarcastically cheered the police heading to the jetty in police vans and on bicycles. Around 2.30 Inspector King and Sub-Inspector Kenny went to meet the union leaders and Tom Foley MLA. Given assurances that the demonstration would be orderly, the police gave permission for the procession.
A few hundred railway workers came marching over the Ross Creek Bridge, led by their band. The waterside workers opened their ranks and then joined up behind the railway men. The marchers were more than 1000 strong, including the police officials who accompanied the march. They sang songs, including ‘The Red Flag’, as they made their way towards the infected ship that threatened their city. At one point the police officers and a couple of journalists took a shortcut and came out ahead of the crowd, so it looked like they were leading the march.
When they arrived at the end of the railway at the wharves, Mr Kelly (Chairman of the Townsville Industrial Council) stood up on the timber stop at the end of the line and addressed the huge crowd. He said employers thought they had the workers in the palm of their hands, and they were prepared to let influenza into the people’s homes and into the city. He said they (the bosses) were not concerned about the health of the workers, or their wives or children, so long as they got their pound of flesh, but they (the workers) were showing that day that organised labor was prepared to do something to try and stop the disease.
Mr Cameron (President of the Waterside Workers) said it was not often that anyone saw John Cameron in an emotional mood, but he was in that mood this afternoon. He said that after more than 20 years in Townsville the demonstration this afternoon was a revelation to him, and he felt the waterside workers owed a debt of gratitude to the railwaymen for their assistance in keeping Townsville clear of the epidemic. He told the crowd there had been another case of influenza on the Morialta the day before, and there would be no work done on the vessel till seven clear days from then.
They marched on to the wharf, and saw the Morialta in mid-stream, and the gunboat Una between it and the wharf. It was later reported that Inspector King had earlier talked to the ship’s captain, telling him that police could not guarantee to protect it. Captain Irvine had then sent a radio message to the gunboat, asking for its protection if needed.
… the ship that had been at No 1 wharf was pushed out between there and the concrete wharf, and in her place was a small British Destroyer full of Pommie Blue Jackets with rifles––she must have come in with the coaster. We just stood there confused as we weren’t red ragging––we were just plain scared. Then a clown named Crooksy Baker, a wharfie recited ‘The Pommie’s Farewell to Queensland’. We all just went home disgusted.
Three cheers were given for the crew of the Morialta, and the railway band led the marchers back to town. Three groans were given as the procession passed the offices of the ‘Townsville Daily Bulletin’.
Joe came down with the Flu that night. He spent nine days in bed, but fortunately he was the only person in his house to catch it. One of his co-workers at the carriage shop went home crook, and was dead three days later.
Everyone wore facemasks covered with eucalyptus as a precaution. Joe’s mum asked a chemist to mix quinine with ammonia. She would put four drops on a sugar cube four times a day, and mother him until he’d eaten it. It was as awful as it sounds.
… you didn’t want food, and you lost your tan and all your fat.
Hotels, churches, and graveyard were very busy in Townsville as the epidemic raged. The pubs sold a lot of rum, and the churches were crowded in June.
The churches were filled to overflowing on Sundays with a very strong smell of naphthalene on the men’s clothes. The Hermit Park and West End buses put on extra buses to the cemetery to accommodate the folks with pickle bottles and flowers to do up the graves of their loved ones. The cemetery staff had to be enlarged to accommodate the number of burials.
Townsville’s epidemic followed the pattern set in almost every city the Flu visited. Schools were closed. Public meetings were called to organise patrol workers to go street to street, and into homes where people needed help. Hundreds of residents lined up for inoculation shots at the Town Hall. The Isolation Hospital at Belgian Gardens State School soon filled up, and a second one was opened at St. Ann’s school––and when they were both full the Council erected tents borrowed from the Army. Patients began to arrive from the Alligator Creek Meatworks, which had a severe outbreak among its workers. Nurses fell ill at an alarming rate, as did ambulance bearers and drivers. By mid-June more than 100 railwaymen, around a quarter of the workshops staff, were down with the Flu.
Everyone who wasn’t sick was busy with anti-epidemic work, or carefully avoiding contact with other people. The workers’ anger was subsumed by the impact of the epidemic on almost every part of daily life. June was spent fighting the Flu, but July would bring a new and dramatic problem––when violence gripped Townsville’s streets and workplaces––but that’s another story…
Roz Glazebrook and Matthew Wengert