The first batch of young women is escorted to a quarantine camp at Shark Bay.
The first batch of young women is escorted to a quarantine camp at Shark Bay.

Looking back: Killer flu halts all business

- This is an historical story from the book 125 Years of Local News, printed as part of the Daily News anniversary celebrations.

ALTHOUGH an outbreak of pneumonic flu had occurred in various countries of the world in 1918, it wasn't until January 25, 1919, that the Tweed Daily reported an outbreak of flu in Melbourne that week.

Australians had been patting themselves on the back that the dreaded scourge had been held off, although it was raging in New Zealand.

On Saturday, February 1, 1919, an advertisement appeared in the Tweed Daily - inserted by the Municipality of Murwillumbah - calling for the position of the assistant secretary to the Pneumonic Influenza Epidemic Committee and general assistant in the office of the council at a salary of three pounds a week.

As news spread, special arrangements were made at the Murwillumbah Hospital to isolate cases, and it was suggested that if the outbreak became serious, patients would be put in quarantine at the showground.

By the end of January, 215 fresh cases of the flu were reported in Melbourne with that city reporting 36 deaths in the first 19 days of the epidemic.

As people in the Tweed became aware of the seriousness of the epidemic, more and more people began to wear surgical masks as a form of protection.

It was reported at the same time that, in the city of Boston in the US, up to 200 deaths a day were occurring.

People in Murwillumbah rushed to be inoculated and, on February 3, a total of 244 persons received their injections from Dr Goldsmid and Nurse Meany.

As people on the Tweed became aware of the seriousness of the epidemic, more and more people began to wear surgical masks as a form of protection.

In fact, a notice appeared at the Murwillumbah Railway Station on February 4 prohibiting any person from entering railway property without a mask.

Queensland people stranded in the south were coming to Byron Bay by ship, by train to Murwillumbah and by river boat to Tweed Heads to pass into a quarantine camp at Coolangatta.

These people coming from affected areas were not welcome and, on February 20, when a large batch arrived at the Murwillumbah station, the mayor, Ald O'Connor stood on the bridge and accosted all people crossing it. Those not going to Tweed Heads were allowed to pass while the others were ordered back to the South Murwillumbah Wharf.

On Thursday, January 30, rumours swept Tweed Heads that Murwillumbah had been stricken with the plague and that Sydney's business world had been paralysed.

That day the situation at Tweed Heads and Coolangatta became very involved.

Traffic between the two towns was usual in the morning but, by 2 pm, the border was completely closed.

Coolangatta people who had gone to Tweed Heads earlier in the day could not get back while Tweed Heads residents in Coolangatta had to remain on that side.

Coolangatta had practically no business houses, doctor, chemist or school. The only bank was operated from Tweed Heads. There was no post office at Coolangatta and residents were restricted to telephone communication.

Local taxi drivers who were seriously affected by the block in traffic changed their cry from "Cab to the train" to "Cab to Coolangatta", "Cab away from the flu" or "I'll sneak you through the border".

People in both towns tried desperately to get the border temporarily shifted from the fence to the Tweed River, to allow free movement between both towns.

In the early days of the border closure, Mr MacPherson, manager of the ES&A Bank at Tweed Heads conducted banking business by sitting on a box in "No Man's Land". He handed out change, received deposits and conducted other banking business with Coolangatta customers over the barbed wire fence.

Later a cigarette box, attached to two long strings, was used to move transactions backwards and forwards across the border.

Because of the large number of stranded Queenslanders (arriving from the south), Tweed Heads was considered more in danger than most other towns. The Queensland Government set up a large quarantine camp at Shark Bay (Rainbow Bay) and people were allowed to cross the border in groups of eight to be escorted by police to the camp.

As the camp was built at considerable expense, it was decided to charge each person seven shillings and sixpence for their week-long stay. Those unable to pay signed statutory declarations, agreeing to pay within three months, before being admitted.

The first batch across were young women and, after examination by a medical officer, were told to have no contact with the public on the march to Shark Bay.

With one mounted policeman in front and two at the rear, the women were marched off like prisoners. One person complained, "it was the most humiliating position to be placed in".

One returned soldier called out, "That's the way they do it in Germany." A second large camp was built on Point Danger and this mainly contained men. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by local ex-servicemen.

It wasn't until almost the end of 1919 that the epidemic ran itself out and the country became free of the scourge that claimed many millions of lives throughout the world.



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