The quarantine camp at Wallangarra, c. 1919. From QSA Item ID18186.
For the second time restrictions have been placed on Queenslanders to curtail the spread of a virus. The first time was just after the First World War, when the influenza pandemic, or Spanish flu, spread to Queensland.
The influenza pandemic killed more than 12,000 people in Australia and 50 million around the world.
Special batch files at Queensland State Archives, created by the former Home Secretary’s Office, reveal how the Queensland Government used a great range of powers to deal with the crisis.
The Queensland Government declared ‘Pneumonic Influenza’ as an infectious disease on 29 January 1919 and published The Pneumonic Influenza Regulations, 1919.
The Commissioner of Public Health wrote to all local authorities requesting assistance in relation to the threatened ‘visitation of pneumonic influenza to Queensland’. He noted that ‘it was essential to have the co-operation of your Council with the Health Officer by assisting him in every possible way in the administration of the regulations …’ Assistance was required in the form of making council offices available for free inoculation depots, placing staff and gangs, disinfecting and other equipment at the disposal of the Health Officer, distributing masks and generally cooperating to carry out the regulations. The state government would bear the costs of administering the regulations in the local government areas.
The following Health Officers were appointed throughout Queensland at the same time.
On 21 May 1919, His Excellency the Governor of Queensland Hamilton Goold-Adams approved further influenza regulations developed by the Commissioner for Public Health, Mr John Irving Moore. The Commissioner could, ‘for the purpose of preventing or checking the spread of infectious disease, make regulations providing for all or any purposes … that may be convenient for the administration of Part VII of The Health Acts 1900 to 1917.’
The application and enforcement of the regulations was the responsibility of each local government authority throughout the state.
Various powers were given to Health Officers, who were required to examine people if they were suspected of having influenza and, if necessary, ‘contacts’, that is, anybody else those people had contact with, akin to today’s contact tracing.
Patients were to stay at home or, if this was not possible, they were to be sent to an isolation hospital. Patients could be removed from their homes by force, if necessary. Contacts were also to be isolated or sent to hospital. The premises of the patient could also be isolated, using guards and reasonable force to prevent people leaving or entering the premises. Premises could also be inspected.
A financial penalty could also be imposed upon anyone leaving or entering a place of isolation.
Like today, disinfecting public places was paramount. A local authority or medical officer could authorise the disinfection of any space where people regularly or occasionally congregated such as ‘a church, school, public library, school of arts, theatre, picture show, place of public amusement, or exhibition, public hall…or tram, tramcar, cab, or other public, conveyance.’
Regulations that applied to the serving of food and beverages were very prescriptive ensuring that utensils for cooking, preparation, serving or consumption of food be boiled for five minutes in water containing a regulated amount of washing soda. Even the washing of glasses was regulated – they were to be washed under clean running water ‘in a manner to the satisfaction of the inspector.’
No cracked crockery was to be used and all napkins were to be thoroughly washed and cleaned after use. The use of a common towel or drinking cup was prohibited in any shop, office, factory, lavatory, train, ship, boarding house, school, church, or Sunday school.
Not only was it an offence to sell influenza remedies without the written permission of the Commissioner of Public Health, it was also an offence to simply print or publish advertisements for unpermitted remedies.
The Queensland Police Force were to enforce the regulations, and apply penalties for any offence.
In July the government issued another order restricting the holding of public meetings and on 21 May 1919 further regulations were gazetted.
These regulations introduced the closing of public spaces if the Commissioner of Public Health considered it necessary to prevent the spread of influenza.
Much like today, face masks helped prevent the spread of the virus, the difference being that in 1919 the threat was so grave the government mandated them. The wearing of masks was ordered for:
all or any persons in trains, trams, omnibuses, public lifts, in the cabin of any excursion steamer, in ferry boats, upon the wharves and adjoining premises to which ferry boats ply, upon railway stations, in class-rooms at the University. Technical Training Colleges. Commercial Schools, ships, banks, public offices, workrooms where more than five persons are employed …
As the threat increased, the government put in place more restrictive measures. In July public spaces in Bundaberg, Clermont, Southport and Warwick and other areas were ordered to be closed.
Only three months later, On 16 October 1919, John Irwin Moore, Queensland Commissioner of Public Health declared that ‘an emergency has arisen’ and circulated orders to close all public meeting places throughout Queensland.
There were three exemptions to this order, precursors to today’s physical distancing:
- churches, if their services were limited to three quarters of an hour, every alternative seat only is occupied and persons suffering from a cold or coughing or other sickness were not allowed to attend
- if the venue was open air or had no roof and persons suffering from a cold or coughing or other sickness were not allowed to attend, or
- it was a meeting of an organisation limited to a maximum of 20 persons.
Today’s ‘unprecedented times’ do in fact have precedents, and you can discover more about them at Queensland State Archives.
The total victims worldwide has, for sometime been historically revised to up to 100 million, and the official total for Australia is usually stated as being 13,000. Recent historical studies has raised that figure more towards the 20,000.
For example refer to the 2017 James Cook University PhD Thesis, “Flu, Society and the State: The Political, Social and Economic implications of the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic in Queensland”, which extensively references original documents held in the QSA. The very readable thesis is available for free download.
The first image in the piece is from a series of images depicting the quarantine camp at Wallangarra under construction.