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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 6 months, 1 week ago

Time Travellers in Essendon, Flemington and the Keilor Plains


Essendon Emergency Hospital, 1919


by Lenore Frost



City of Essendon Influenza Hospital, source: Essendon Historical Society.  The doctor standing the the back row, far right, is Dr Nathan Dennerstein.  The woman in the centre of the middle row with a belted long cardigan is probably Matron Muriel Seward.


The influenza strain commonly known as the Spanish Flu, arrived in Australia with returning troops at the end of the Great War in 1918.  Another source of infection might have been cross-Tasman travellers, as there was a frightening outbreak of the flu in Auckland in 1919.



Common Policy Adopted.


A conference of mayors and medical officers of metropolitan municipalities,

presided over by the Lord Mayor (Alderman W.W. Cabena), at the Town Hall

yesterday, adopted a list of suggestions for uniform action drawn up by

Professor Sir Harry Allen, the main feature of which was the provision by each

municipality of local accommodation and attendance for the sick. The conference

also decided that special committees for influenza should be formed in each municipality.


The Lord Mayor, in opening the conference, said he did not think that anything

would impress upon those present more fully the danger they were in than the

experience of Auckland, which, with a popuIation of 130,000, had 70,000 cases

and I,500 deaths.

MUNICIPAL CONFERENCE. (1919, February 4). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p.5.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1426882



Several Councils already had plans in place by the time of the meeting, including Essendon:


Essendon. — The mayor of Essendon (Cr. A. Fenton) reports that the new

influenza hospital will accommodate 100 patients, and will be ready to-day.

Nurse Seward has been appointed matron, and negotiations are in

progress for the engagement of a resident medical officer. Over 60 beds

and many articles of furnishings, besides £100 in cash, have been provided

by the citizens, and sufficient voluntary help to staff the hospital is

forthcoming. The council has consented to accept serious cases  from

Glenroy and Broadmeadows.

MUNICIPAL CONFERENCE. (1919, February 4). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p.5.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1426882


The Essendon Municipal Health Officer, Dr Patrick Flanagan oversaw the establishment of the Essendon Emergency Hospital, issued edicts closing picture theatres and halls, and 150 citizens were inoculated at the Town Hall.   Marilyn Kenny's study of Dr Flanagan relates further details of his activities in this time


Essendon had been heavily invested in the war effort, and it would have been no great thing for the local citizens to swing back into war mode against this deadly disease.  


In 1918 the Victorian Board of Public Health issued a pamphlet entitled "Spanish" Influenza in which it described the symptoms, measures to avoid infection, and obligations to report infection.  The following paragraph  probably explains the Council selection of the fairly newly opened Essendon High School as a suitable hospital for treating patients.  


"Spanish" Influenza, Victoria. Board of Public Health, [Melbourne, 1918]. State Library of Victoria Collection.


With classrooms laid out around a central quadrangle, and communications between rooms being from the quadrangle, the extra fresh air would have made the school ideal as a hospital, according to the medical opinions of the day. 


The dark area shows the original 1913 building, Essendon High School. 


Essendon High School, 1913.


Essendon. — The mayor of Essendon (Cr. A. Fenton) reports that the new

influenza hospital will accommodate 100 patients, and will be ready to-day.

Nurse Seward has been appointed matron, and negotiations are in

progress for the engagement of a resident medical officer. Over 60 beds 

and many articles of furnishings, besides £100 in cash, have been provided

by the citizens, and sufficient voluntary help to staff the hospital is

forthcoming. The council has consented to accept serious cases from

Glenroy and Broadmeadows.

IN THE SUBURBS. (1919, February 13). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954), p. 6.



At present there are 13 cases In the Essendon Hospital, and all are progressing

favorably. One of the patients gave birth to a child soon after admission. The

baby has since left the Institution, while its mother is reported to be well on

the road to recovery.

HOSPITAL TREATMENT (1919, February 15). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 -954),10.  



The first public health advice to be made in January 1919 was that people should be inoculated,  with municipalities providing the inoculations for free.  A local resident, John Vosti, who worked at the Cordite Factory in Maribyrnong, recorded in his diary on 24 January that the papers had recorded a severe influenza epidemic had broken out.  On 27 January he reported that the Port Hacking, a vessel full of troops, had disembarked after being "in quarantine for 3 or 4 days". By 28 January he wrote that Victoria, on this day, had been declared an "infected State". This would have invoked Commonwealth powers to deal with the epidemic. On Friday 31 January the employees of the Cordite Factory were inoculated against the influenza.  A week later the Factory employees received their second inoculation. 


In the meantime, The Age reported on 25 January that owing to fears that special restrictions would be applied at the border between Victoria and New South Wales, holiday makers crowded onto trains to return to Sydney.  The Acting Medical Officer had begun checking passengers at Albury, with people displaying symptoms to be isolated at the Albury Hospital.    Attempts to find additional nursing staff began.


Victoria was declared an Infected State on 28 January, and restrictions came into force to close churches, public halls, and places of instruction.  The rules for social distancing in those days were not quite as clear cut as they are today.  Theatres, dances, and gatherings over 40 people were forbidden, but you could still go to the football.  And church if you wore a mask and didn't sing any hymns.  Within days the restrictions included churches and schools. 


Despite the restrictions, John Vosti didn't report any significant change in his, or his family's activities.  The Autumn meeting of the VATC was postponed on Saturday 8 March, he reported, but a "Large crowd present".  Also a cricket match was played between two teams of the Cordite Factory, on the Essendon Scottish grounds.   Other than that, friends and family continued to visit the house, the band continued to play at the local shops, the VRC races were held on 18 March (Frost, p109).  The Band travelled to Frankston for the weekend on 22 March (Frost, p 110)


The need for these suburban emergency hospitals came about because the major city hospitals were overrun with patients.  The Essendon Hospital was most likely unable to find a resident doctor, a complaint of one of the parents of the pupils from the school.  Doctors were more than likely already flat out attending their usual hospital visits, plus home visits for their very ill regular patients.   Nurses were in seriously short supply.  When the Essendon Hospital had to re-open in April, the opening was delayed because no nurses could be found to staff it. 


Nurse Muriel Seward, who was appointed Matron of the Essendon Emergency Hospital, had trained at Geelong Hospital, receiving her certificate in January 1912. (Register of members [nurses] February 1922. Royal Victorian Trained Nurses Association. 1922.)  She spent a number of years working in hospitals in the Riverina, and parts of Victoria, including the Diphtheria ward of the Geelong Hospital 1910 during her training. She became head nurse at the Hay Hospital in 1913 and Matron of Jerilderie Hospital in 1914.  Muriel was registered as a midwife on 11 March 1918, her registered address being 4 Scott St, Essendon.


By 1919 Muriel Seward was back in Moonee Ponds advertising her services as a Visiting Nurse, whereby she offered her expertise for surgical, maternity and other general nursing in the home.  As she was not already working in the hospital system, this made her available for the temporary Essendon Emergency Hospital.  She lived quite close to the school in Scott Street. 


Nurse Muriel Eileen Seward on her new bicycle, 1902. Courtesy of Tyntynder, Ancestry.com.


During the outbreak, local community groups swung into action, particularly the Red Cross Society.  



For use as art emergency hospital for the treatment of Influenza cases Red

Cross Society has handed over its No. 1 Rest Home (Wirths' Park) to

the Health authorities. The staff is to be provided by the Red Cross, and

the health authorities have agreed to refund all expenses in connection with

the running of the home as a hospital. The Red Cross Kitchen is supplying

emergency hospitals with invalid food. The authorities are also making use of

the organisation for the purchase of supplies for emergency hospitals, and

workers at the Central Depot are engaged in making masks, mosquito

nets and other required articles. Satisfactory enlistments have been

received by the Voluntary Aid. Detachment committee, which will be glad

to hear from other members wishing to register for service. Members of

the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps are also Invited to enroll as orderlies.

The V.A.D. office has supplied 54 women to the Base Hospital, Fairfield;

Homoeopathic Hospital, Melbourne Hospital, Red Cross Rest Home, Inocula

tion Depots and private houses. Orderlies have also been supplied.

Metropolitan and suburban Red Cross branches are advised to concentrate

their relief work at a definite centre, the address of which should be

made known to the public. They should co-operate with their district health

authorities, and should undertake the special duty of furnishing assistance to

any household placed in difficulties through the illness of its members.

When such assistance cannot be procured in the district application should

be made to the V.A.D. office, 1 Queen street.

Officials of Red Cross branches wishing for Information or advice should

apply to the secretary of the Australian Red Cross Society, Federal Govern-

ment House.

RED CROSS SOCIETY ACTIVE (1919, January 31). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 - 1954), p. 7.



This was the first time the Red Cross had responded to an emergency not related to war.


Another less well-known community group which responded to the emergency was the the 1st Moonee Ponds Boy Scout Troop.


"Members of the [1st Moonee Ponds Boy Scout] Troop volunteered for service at the Essendon High School Emergency Hospital where they risked their own health to assist as messengers, orderlies and stretcher bearers. Some stretchers were later donated to the Troop for first aid training..... 


The Matron of the Emergency Hospital (Miss Seward) wrote a letter to Scoutmaster Stevens saying "Your Scouts are wonderful boys, always so willing and ready to go any messages. I don't know what we could have done without them. Will you convey to the boys our everlasting gratitude."


The Troop undertook the task of delivering some 8,000 handbills issued by the Essendon City Council to the local residents concerning the pneumonic influenza epidemic".

Events from August 1915 to 1940 for 1st Moonee Ponds Scout Group.   Compiled by  Lindsay White, former Gordon Rover and Group Leader of 1st Moonee Ponds Scout Group, 2000.


By 1 March the newspapers were announcing an easing of restrictions.   The Victorian Minister for Education, Mr Hutchinson, announced that schools would re-open on Monday 10th March, with the exception of those schools being used as emergency hospitals.  Restrictions were also eased for hotels, picture theatres and churches.  


However, while schools did re-open, the emergency hospital at Essendon still had patients, and the non-reopening of the school caused a great deal of complaint from parents of the pupils from Essendon High School. 



To the Editor of The Age

Sir, -ln connection with the above, a peculiar state of affairs has arisen at

Essendon. The Minister of Education granted the local council the use of the

high school as an emergency hospital. I understand that there is no medical

officer in charge. The local doctors send patients there, and each attends his

own cases. Whether a fee is charged by the doctor I don t know; probably not.


Last week — on 25th ult., to be exact— the Advisory Medical Board appointed

by the Cabinet recommended "that, to enable education to be resumed as soon

as possible, steps should be taken to transfer patients from State schools used

as hospitals." Since then, I am told, the head master, the school council and the

Education department have asked the Essendon council, which is nominally in

charge of the hospital, that even if patients cannot be transferred, at least no

new cases should be taken. All without result. On the advice of "a largely

attended meeting of the local medical practitioners" (I quote from the local

paper) "it was resolved on Tuesday last to carry on as heretofore".


But did these simple councillors expect these doctors to recommend anything

else? So, not only are convalescent patients not to be transferred (which

possibly may be wise), but new cases are still to be sent and at tended by

these doctors— an average of one or two cases per day— to this now

unnecessary hospital, equipped and maintained at the ratepayers' expense.


Meanwhile the 400 odd pupils may wait still longer for their interrupted

education to be resumed.—RATEPAYER

TOO MANY HOSPITALS. (1919, March 8). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954), p. 13.



Early in April it was evident that a second wave of infections had occurred, and again the patients requiring admission to hospital overwhelmed the hospital system, and the Emergency Hospitals had to be re-opened.



The lack of nursing staffs for hospitals continues to be acute. Last night 130

sufferers were denied hospital accommodation owing to the fact that sufficient

volunteers were not forthcoming to provide nursing attention for an increased

number of beds if such were made available. The disease itself is still of a mild

character, though the number of cases demanding hospital treatment is large.

On Saturday 279 fresh cases were notified, 243 from the metropolitan area and

36 from the country. Owing to the holiday interruptions of mails, these are

partial returns only. 

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC. (1919, April 21). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954), p. 6.



The pupils from Essendon High School were re-located to the newly completed Moonee Ponds Central School and the Essendon Emergency Hospital re-opened.


John Vosti mentioned on 24 April that there was much influenza about Ascot Vale, and again on 29 April that the epidemic showed no sign of abating. Despite this, the family continued visits with family and friends, and the band rehearsed as usual (Frost, p114).    On 6 May the family got word that their son's ship, the Khyber, was said to have had smallpox and pneumonic flu on board. (Frost p 115)  Les Vosti was returning from the war, after a three year absence.  The Khyber was due to arrive in Melbourne on 11 May, and would be quarantined until 21 May - longer if further cases of smallpox developed. (Frost, p 115).


It should be remembered that all throughout the time of the Influenza epidemic troopships were arriving from Britain, with accompanying parades, welcome homes and family parties.  All of these appear to have continued unabated despite the risk accompanying the gathering of crowds. 


According to The Stopover that Stayed, by Grant Aldous, "Within four weeks of the council [sic, Victorian Government] declaring a state of emergency, on 24 January 1919, 20 patients were occupying the quadrangle rooms at the school.  For a fortnight carpenters, plumbers, and electricians transformed classrooms into wards.  About six tents were pitched in the girls' yard and in one corner of the grounds stood a fibro-cement shed - the mortuary.  By 14 March there had been three deaths,75 people had been admitted to the emergency Hospital..... On 28 August the last patient was discharged from the emergency hospital."  (p 127).


MAINTAINING PATIENTS (1919, April 30). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 - 1954), p. 10.



The second wave proved to be more serious and intractable than the first, however, I have not been able to lay my eyes on an online graph or chart, or even raw numbers, of patients who used the Essendon Emergency Hospital after the table given above.  That will have to be left until more library friendly times. 


John Vosti noted on 12 June 1919 that one of his comrades from the Factory had died the previous night at the Essendon Emergency Hospital. (Frost, p 120) The inoculation back in January appears to have been ineffectual.


In July the inevitable happened - the Vosti family began succumbing to the influenza, with John himself, and children Haydn, Bea and Nita in bed with it on 7 July.  Doctor Newing came in the following day  to see the family and by this time found five of them in bed - Bea, Nita Haydn, Jack and John - though it turned out Haydn had tonsilitis.  By the next day, the two youngest, Molly and Allan were laid up, and later in the day his wife Nance took to her bed.  At this stage only Nannie, aged 7, was free from illness.    Haydn and Nita had to get up and attend to the others. The next day Nance's mother came to assist, and Dr Newing called again later in the day.  By Friday 12 July, Nannie, the last Vosti standing, was put to bed ill.   (Frost, p125).


Les Vosti in the meantime had been staying with relatives at Guildford. He returned on the Saturday morning to attend a family wedding as best man.  Although John mentions a large crowd being present, probably neither he nor Nance attended the wedding, though Haydn, Jack and Nita went, while four others were still home sick in bed.  On Wednesday 16 July Dr Newing called and gave John and Haydn certificates to return to work on the Thursday. Nance was told to stay in bed for a few more days. (Frost, p125-126).  


The Vosti family and relatives circa Christmas 1915, before Les's departure for the war.  Nance is standing in the back row, centre, John is in the second row, second from the left.  In the front row are Jack (with the dog), Les with Molly between his knees, and Nita. At their home at 73 Epsom Rd, Ascot Vale.  Courtesy of Juliette Harland and Shirley Stevens.


In August the influenza began abating in the community.  


Schools to be Vacated

In view of the decline in the influenza epidemic in Victoria, the Acting Minister

for Health (Mr McWhae) has decided that all schools converted into emergency

Hospitals shall be vacated as soon as possible. He his communicated with the

various municipal authorities asking that no more patients be admitted into

hospitals of this type and it is hoped that before long the buildings will again

be available tor teaching. During the period of the epidemic children in many

districts have been accommodated in temporary premises, overcrowding has

been more or less chronic, and bothvthe health and education of the pupils have suffered.

INFLUENZA. (1919, August 20). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 10. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4703028


One of the last patients to die at the Essendon Emergency Hospital, possibly the last, was Captain Frank Morris, AIF, who death was reported on 2 August 1919.


Captain Frank Morris, who died on Wednesday at the Essendon emergency

hospital, was invalided from Gallipoli in February, 1916. He was captain in

the 23rd Battalion, A.I.F. Before the war he had had a long military experience.

He was for 11½ years in the Garrison Artillery, and was a lieutenant with the

61st Battalion Senior Cadets. He commanded "A" sub-command guard at

Queenscliff in 1915 before embarkation for the front. Since his return he had 

been area officer at North Melbourne, and CO. 58th Battalion, Senior Cadets.

At the time of his death he was an inspector under the Width of Tyres Act for

the Country Roads Board.

PERSONAL. (1919, August 2). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 18. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4709862


Despite the complaints of parents of the Essendon High School pupils, the students probably managed rather better in a purpose built school than other children from other schools who had to cope with church halls and or  sharing overcrowded classrooms and playgrounds.    Suburban emergency hospitals played a significant role in the care and treatment of the overflow of patients from the major metropolitan hospitals during the 1919 epidemic. 


As soon as I can locate any further figures from the later part of the influenza epidemic after the current emergency, I will get back to you. 




1st Moonee Ponds Group Boy Scouts: 50 years of scouting, 1916-1965.

Bandsman Vosti's Diaries: war and peace in Essendon, 1917-1920.  By Lenore Frost (ed)

Moonee Ponds Central: 75 years, 1919-1994.  By Christine Angus.

Stopover that Stayed: a history of Essendon. By Grant Aldous.

Trove Newspapers, NLA.


See Also

Troopship Boonah The 1919 Influenza Epidemic &  Essendon  ;   

HMT Boonah quarantined at Torrens Island, 1919   


Here is an account of a nurse who succumbed to the same disease from patients she was nursing.  It provides an insight into the course and symptoms of the disease.




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