Friday, 6 September 2013

The meningitis epidemic of 1915

I was surprised when I discovered how many volunteers like Sydney Rauert died here in Melbourne, before they ever had the chance to serve their country. Over a hundred such men were given military funerals and are buried at Coburg Cemetery. Their monuments were registered with the Returned Services League but by 1988 they were no longer considered to be official war graves. 
Source: 1988 Coburg Heritage Study: Coburg Cemetery – a historical survey. It’s available in the Local History Room at Coburg Library. 



Coburg Cemetery Gates, c. 1908. 
Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.



Most of these men had no connection to Coburg and it is possible that descendants and local historians are unaware of their place of burial. I’m not sure why the monuments are no longer considered to be war graves. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d be very interested to know.

Until I began researching the servicemen buried at Coburg Cemetery, I was completely unaware of a serious outbreak of meningitis that occurred in 1915. It struck the civilian population, too, but caused havoc in the military camps. Large camps were broken up and the men were redistributed to smaller, newly erected camps in the country, such as Epsom at Bendigo. Recruitment was disrupted for several months and all new recruits were given several weeks leave and sent home.


Thirty-one soldiers who died of meningitis between May and November 1915 were buried at Coburg Cemetery. Most died during August and September, at the height of the epidemic. During the crisis, the Alfred Hospital was requisitioned by the military to deal with the huge number of cases. This occurred in mid-August, at which time the Base Hospital in St Kilda Road was converted back to a general military hospital. By mid-August over 600 cases of meningitis had been reported and the Alfred was putting up tents in its grounds to extend its accommodation and prevent overcrowding.



Melbourne, Victoria. Some patients and staff on the verandah outside the Isolation Ward at No 5 Australian General Hospital, St Kilda Road.
Image courtesy Australian War Memorial. Photographer Melba Studio. Image number H18693A



Treatment of the disease was primitive. There was an anti-meningitis serum that had been developed in the United States, but it was yet to reach Australia. Dr Bull, a bacteriologist at the University, experimented with different disinfectants: eucalyptus oil, creosote and menthol. He found eucalyptus oil the most effective and immediately it was put to use at the Seymour Camp where 10 gallons of the stuff was used to swab the throats of sick men and to spray the throats of every man in the camp. Still, new cases were reported every day and the epidemic continued for some months.

(Sources: Argus, 5 August 1915; 10, 11 and 12 August 1915)


Troops gargling as a preventative against meningitis, HMAT Benalla (A24), c. 1916.
Image courtesy Australian War Memorial. Image number P09534.008.


The servicemen who died of meningitis and are buried at Coburg Cemetery were:

Pte William Ball, died at the Alfred, 1 October aged 22. Of AIF Training Camp, Ascot Vale. Buried CofE D 598.
Pte John Archibald Beaton, died at the Alfred, 10 September. Of AIF Depot. Buried Pres A 686.
Pte John George Butcher, died at the Alfred, 16 August aged 18. Of AIF Depot. Buried Meth A 560.
Pte Henry W. Butler, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road, 14 July. Of AIF 8th Bn Australian Infantry. Buried CofE D 495.
Pte Howard Castle, died at the Alfred, 1 September. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 581.
Pte James Alfred Dewar, died at the Alfred, 15 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 16 August 1915, page 8 reports that he was 21 and came from Drouin. Buried Pres A 690. Argus, 13 August 1915, page 10, reported that his mother died while nursing him.)
Pte Walter Charles Roxburgh Emery, died at the Alfred, 2 August aged 18. Of AIF Depot. Buried Pres A 698.
Pte Aubrey Hampton, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road, on 21 June. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 472.
Pte Richard Hand, died at the Alfred, 13 November. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 679.
Pte Eric John Hanrahan, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road on 11 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 12 August 1915, p. 7, reports that he was 19 and had been in the Seymour Camp. Buried RC E 145.
Pte Albert Morgan Harris, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road on 6 August aged 23. Of AIF 5th Bn Australian Infantry. Buried Meth A 50.
Pte Harry Haysen aged 22 from the Seymour Camp, admitted to Alfred, according to Argus, 27 August 1915, page 7. Pte Henry Hayson of AIF Depot, died on 17 August and was buried CofE D 558.
Pte Leslie Thomas Houston, died Bendigo Hospital, 20 August aged 21. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 547.
Pte Kenneth Keith Ford King, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road on 15 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 16 August 1915, page 8 reports that he was 28 and lived at Carlton Street, Carlton. Buried CofE D 560.
Pte John W. Langdon, died at Melbourne Hospital, 23 May. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 445.
Pte Thomas McCall, died at General Hospital #5, 21 October. Of AIF 5th Bn Australian Infantry. Buried Pres A 678.
Pte Patrick McHugh, died at the Alfred, 24 August aged 25. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 21 August 1915, page 20 reports that he was brought in from the Broadmeadows Camp. He had not died at that stage. Buried RC E 165.
Pte Raymond McLean, died at the Alfred, 22 August aged 19. Of AIF Depot. Argus, Monday 23 August 1915, paged 10 reported that he was of Wandiligong, that he’d been brought in from the Seymour Camp and that he died the previous day.  Buried Pres A 683.
Pte Alfred Mark Neems, died at the Alfred, 15 September. Of AIF 10th Bn Australian Infantry. Buried Pres A 662.
Pte James Vernal Nicholson, died at the Alfred, 22 September aged 23. Of AIF Depot. Buried Pres A 669.
Pte Henry Charles O’Connell, died at the Alfred, 23 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, Monday 23 August 1915, paged 10 reported that he was 19, of Nicholson Street, North Carlton and was in the 79th Coy. Buried CofE D 540.
Sgt Arthur James Polson, died at the Alfred, 3 September aged 26. Of AIF Depot. Buried Pres P 257.
Cpl. William Frederick Roberts, died at the Alfred, 21 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 21 August 1915, page 20 reports that he was 19 years old, that his address was Weston St., Brunswick and that he had been brought in from the Showgrounds Camp. Buried Meth A 569.
Pte Arnold Edward Rodda, died at the Alfred, 3 September. Of AIF Depot. Buried RC B 229.
Pte Albert Severs, died at the Alfred, 14 August 1915. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 16 August 1915, page 8 reports that he was 22 and came from Stock Street, Croxton. Buried CofE D 544.
Pte Cornelius F. Shelton, died at the Alfred, 7 October. Of AIF Depot. Buried RC E 209.
Pte John Morris Sherman, died at Base Hospital, St Kilda Road on 4 August aged 22. Of AIF Depot. Buried Pres A 576.
Pte Ambrose Arthur Smith, died at the Alfred, 18 August. Of AIF 10th/6th Bn Australian Infantry. Buried CofE D 554.
Pte William Frederick Alfred Terry, died at the Alfred, 1 September. Of AIF Depot. Argus, Monday 23 August 1915, paged 10 reported that he was 25, of Drouin West and had been brought in from the Seymour Camp. Buried Meth A 566.
Pte John James Waghorn, died at the Alfred, 23 September. Of AIF Depot. Buried CofE D 599.
Pte David Jeffrey Willis, died at the Alfred, 26 August. Of AIF Depot. Argus, 27 August 1915, page 7 reported that his name was Daniel, he was 28 and came from Rosedale and had been brought in from the Seymour Camp. Buried CofE D 552.
Pte Eric W. Wise, died at the Alfred, 2 September. Of AIF Depot. Buried Meth A 575.
(Source. 1988 Coburg Heritage Study: Coburg Cemetery – a historical survey)

A number of Coburg people were infected with the disease, too:

W.D. Edwards, 54, of Coburg was admitted to the Alfred in October. (Argus, 20 October 1915)
Florence Ellin, 10 months of Coburg. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 16 November 1915)
Samuel Heeley (or Healey), 65, of 84 The Avenue, Coburg. Admitted to Alfred Hospital and died. (Ballarat Courier, 15 September 1915; Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 24 September 1915)
Henry Joseph McDermott, a 6 year old, of 21 Ross Street, Coburg, died at the Children’s Hospital on 19 November 1915. (Argus, 8 November 1915; Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 12 & 19 November 1915)
Sarah Jane Stokes, 49, of 101 The Avenue, Coburg. Died on 19 August at the Alfred. Wife of Leonard and mother of Herbert. (Bendigo Advertiser, 19 August 1915; Argus, 19 August 1915)
Norman Wheeler, of Hatter Street, Coburg, admitted to the Children’s Hospital. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 20 August 1915).
Leonard Windebank, 15 months, of 27 Walsh Street, admitted to the Children’s Hospital. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 20 August 1915)
Alfred Charles Wright, 55, of 38 Moreland Road West, died in the Alfred Hospital on 8 October 1915. (Bendigo Advertiser, 8 October 1915; Ballarat Courier, 11 October 1915)

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who can add to this story of the 1915 meningitis outbreak.




2 comments:

  1. There may have been a policy change relating to whether graves were to be considered war graves. At present I know the criteria is whether their war services contributed to their deaths. As these men had not left Australia, their deaths would probably not be considered to have been caused by war service.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sounds as though the mystery's solved, then. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete