Gympie’s first epidemic

More than a century before the Covid-19 pandemic, Gympie was struck by the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish flu is considered second only to the ‘Black Death’ plague pandemic in overall mortality rates.

In January 1919 ’Spanish’ influenza which had killed thousands of people in the northern hemisphere entered Australia through Sydney, prompting authorities to make it a notifiable disease.

The Queensland Government closed its borders and established quarantine camps along its southern boundary.

The main camps were at Wallangarra and Coolangatta.

Travellers were required to remain in the camps for seven days before being allowed to enter the state.

On 13 May 1919, The Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette ran the headline: “INFLUENZA STILL SPREADING: FIRST DEATH IN GYMPIE“.

For country districts, the effects of the epidemic were quite different.

Four and half thousand local men had enlisted for service during the war, leaving farms and vital infrastructure either short staffed or closed.

Elderly men and women along with wives and children attempted to keep farms and businesses running hoping these would be viable when the men returned. Gympie and the surrounding communities were ill equipped to handle the epidemic as it spread like wildfire through the district and rushed into the farming centres.

Dr Macleod, local general practitioner, intimated that the influenza appears to have taken a more serious turn in Gympie judging by the cases he observed.

Dr Pennyfather Ryan, who was the Government medical officer, estimated that there were 60 or 70 cases in the towns of Imbil and Kandanga.

The effects of the epidemic were severely felt in local businesses.

The Gympie Railway Station was the business hub of the town, transporting produce and goods all along the east coast.

It was reduced to being run by apprentice clerks as 57 of the staff were off-duty and a single porter was left staffing the platform.

As a result, local farmers had great difficulty getting their goods to city markets and deliveries of urgently required supplies were delayed.

At the Post Office, the centre of communication for the town, nine officials were reported ill, so work was being carried on with difficulty.

In a time when households relied on home delivery, there were no deliveries from businesses such as bakers and butchers therefore there were shortages of vital food and supplies in the town and surrounding districts.

In an unprecedented move, Gympie chemists were given permission to open from 7pm to 9pm on weeknights to cater for the sufferers of the influenza.

While the results of the pandemic were devastating to all Australia, country districts suffered in distinct ways.

Without medical infrastructure which existed in the cities medical treatment was hampered.

The loss of life following the war had left farms and business short staffed and under manned to be now hit again by labour shortages which would reverberate in the district for years. Local businesses, where the focus of supply was different from the cities, were under great pressure with some forced to close leaving the town depleted of important services.

A final factor was country towns did not have a system of public transport to expedite travel to seek medical attention or to purchase necessary goods and farm supplies.