Some 100 military tents were set up on Jubilee Oval adjacent the River Torrens for a quarantine camp. (State Library of SA: PRG 1638/2/99)
As Australia and the world learns more about coronavirus each day via their mobile devices and television screens, more than a century ago the world was learning to deal with another epidemic.
- South Australian borders closed to Victorians during Spanish flu endemic
- Stranded locals allowed to come home provided they go into quarantine
- Quarantine’s end lamented by many after being considered ‘the great picnic’
The 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, infected an estimated 500 million people, eventually causing the deaths of 50 to 100 million people.
In Australia, around 15,000 people died from it at a time when the country’s population was 5 million.
As far as mortality rates go, only the Black Death of the mid-1300s is believed to have taken more lives.
As today’s Australians quarantined on Christmas Island count down the days before they can return home, and a cruise ship “homeless” in the South China Sea finally makes its way to Cambodia, we go back to 1919 to see how an Adelaide quarantine camp became a place people did not want to leave.
Pandemic confounds war effort
The influenza pandemic began in 1918, during the closing stages of World War I, where it spread through Europe’s Western Front in increasingly virulent waves.
It was considered unusual because many of its victims were healthy, fit, young men and women as opposed to seasonal influenza which typically had the worst impact for babies, the elderly, and those with poor immune systems.
Due to warring countries keeping communications suppressed, it was the neutral Spanish who talked about it most and hence, gave a false impression it was at its worse there.
Subsequently labelled “the Spanish flu”, it eventually affected half a billion people worldwide, killed more people than the Great War itself, and was spread to all corners of the globe by returning servicemen.
‘Victorian cesspool of disease’
The first Australian case was recorded in Melbourne on January 9 or 10, 1919, but the early infections were so mild there was initial confusion about whether it was the Spanish flu or a seasonal virus from the previous winter.
A train ferrying passengers in 1919 believed to be near the Jubilee Oval quarantine camp. (State Library of SA: PRG 1638/2/75)
This delayed reaction allowed the virus to spread to New South Wales and South Australia, which annoyed leaders of the newly Federated states so much they closed borders and withdrew from an earlier agreement to allow the Federal Government to take control of the situation.
According to a souvenir book entitled Normal, written by the [Jubilee Oval] Camp Publication Committee, South Australians on holiday in Melbourne at the time found the gates had closed behind them.
After spending weeks in limbo, the holiday makers offered to go to Kangaroo Island, Granite Island, or even Torrens Island where returning soldiers were being quarantined.
“There seemed to be no place where we could rest our many heads in our own state,” an author wrote in the book.
“Some of the newspapers openly hinted that since we had run away for a holiday in that Victorian cesspool of disease, we should be left there to stew in our own juice till the epidemic was over.”
Allowed ‘home’ from holidays
After signing declarations that they had taken every precaution not to be exposed, several hundred travellers were transported on guarded trains back home to Adelaide.
Young men slept in the Jubilee Oval grandstands during their quarantine. (State Library of SA: PRG 1638/2/102)
From there they were quarantined at the former Jubilee Oval adjacent the Torrens River in the CBD.
Some 100 military tents equipped with bedding, lighting, water, shower baths, a telephone, and a post office, were set up while full-time catering staff, guards, nurses, and doctors were deployed.
More accommodation was set up in the adjacent Machinery Hall and all up, about 640 people who had been visiting Victoria and elsewhere were quarantined at the site.
Quarantine becomes ‘good fortune’
But while people initially dreaded the Adelaide quarantine camp and feared being infected by their fellow campers, they quickly settled in to what some reported to be the extended holiday of their lives.
Crowded marquees set up at the Jubilee Oval quarantine camp in Adelaide during 1919. (State Library of SA: [PRG 280/1/15/431])
“The daily routine was soon well established — bath, breakfast, thermometer drill for women, committee meetings for the few, spraying of tents and removal of dust-bins,” wrote one in Normal.
“Dinner 12:30 or 1:30, cricket, thermometer drill for men, afternoon tea-parties, tea at six or seven, and the concert, or less public entertainment, in the evening.”
They also established writing and poetry competitions — even as concerned citizens on the outside, with vastly different impressions of the quarantine camp, continued to send fresh fruit and other supplies through the post office.
That the camp would be set up at all within Adelaide had created great consternation and fear among the city’s population.
Some also questioned the inhabitants’ moral standards when rumours emerged that they were disobedient, wanted to escape, and had even made an attack on the gates.
“Adelaide was thinking that we were a terrible plague spot, the abode of a sort of human swine-fever,” wrote the authors of Normal.
“It seemed to visualise germs marching in millions over our bodies and believed that we were like lepers doomed to eternal uncleanliness.
“We suspected that if the truth were known, the attack on the gates would come from the outside as thousands of citizens endeavoured to get in to share our good fortune.”
Playing ‘hide and seek’
Some campers ended up having such a good time during what would later be known as “the great picnic”, they lamented having to pack up and return to reality after being cleared of infection.
Those in quarantine used the oval scoreboard to poke fun at Dr Ramsay Smith. (State Library of SA: PRG 1638/2/97)
There were others, however, who played “hide and seek” with police, including throwing parcels over the fence to people outside, sneaking through a neutral zone in an effort to get to the gates, or even talking with friends through a hole in the fence.
Such activities did not impress the Central Board of Health chairman Dr Ramsay Smith, who had helped to bring the South Australians back from Victoria — where 16 deaths had been recorded at the time — despite it being perceived by many as a “considerable risk to the state”.
“These people seem to have no sense of their legal, moral, or social obligations, and no true conception of the conditions on which they have been admitted into this state,” he was quoted as saying.
He further threatened to extend their quarantine period in vastly different conditions.
“Under the bond they signed, they are liable to be put in quarantine in any place that may be found necessary, and they may find themselves somewhere where they may look out for a cow and try to procure seed potatoes,” Dr Smith said.
Influenza pandemic killed 540 South Australians
Just north of the quarantine camp, Adelaide’s isolation hospital was set up at the Jubilee Exhibition Building.
Although no one at Jubilee Oval ended up having Spanish flu, many other South Australians did, and 540 died — a figure some historians believe would translate relatively to about 15,000 people in today’s population.
The former Exhibition Building was used as an isolation hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic. (State Library of SA: B 1606)
All up, 40 per cent of Australia’s population was infected by the influenza but its subsequent death rate of 2.7 per cent per 1,000 members of the population was the lowest recorded of any country during the pandemic.
However, mortality rates among some Aboriginal communities were much higher, at about 50 per cent.
Fast forward 101 years to a new pandemic causing headlines across the world, and just two people have tested positive for coronavirus in Adelaide so far. Both are in a stable condition and recovering.
Across the country there have been just 15 confirmed cases, with five people already recovered, and the remaining 10 stable.
It is a vastly different situation today, and a vastly different era.
Time will tell if those quarantined in ship cabins for weeks, or at a detention centre closer to Indonesia than Australia, will eventually feel as nostalgic about their experiences.