Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Coburg High School and the 1919 Spanish influenza epidemic

‘We have been caught up in the whirl of circumstances.’  

(Editorial, The Scribe, Vol. IV, No. 1, May 1919)

Coburg High School. 1916. Official opening of the school.

Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

I’ve heard stories about Coburg High School being used as a hospital during the flu epidemic of 1919 and am now in the process of trawling TROVE for newspaper articles that will tell me more.

The school building was closed at the start of the 1919 academic year and the students were relocated to their next-door neighbour, the Coburg State School Infant School , as can be seen from the following editorial by Head Master H.P. Bennett in The Scribe, Vol. IV, No. 1, May 1919. 

In the Argus, 24 January 1919, the Coburg Health Officer, Dr R.A. Wallace, noted a serious case of flu in a ‘young lady, whose father, a returned soldier, was in a military hospital suffering from similar symptoms.’ She was admitted to Melbourne Hospital, but no other details are given.

So serious was the situation that in one day, 28 January 1919, Dr Wallace had innoculated 150 Coburg people. (Argus, 29 January 1919)  By 5 February, the Argus was reporting that ‘a school’ (the Coburg Emergency Hospital was located at Coburg High School) had been converted into a hospital and had space for 25 patients.

It was not until early March that Coburg High returned to its work as an educational institution, the Head Master advertising that he would be at the Infant School on Monday 10 March 1919 in order to enrol pupils. (Argus, Saturday 8 March 1919) On that day, the Argus noted that the Coburg Hospital would be closed within a few days as it had only 12 patients and they were nearly all convalescent. (Argus, 10 March 1919) As the situation improved, more emergency hospitals closed, although on 12 March, the Argus reported that there had been three deaths in Coburg in the past few days and there were several more in the following weeks.

Slowly life came back to normal. Schools reopened. Public transport again worked to regular timetables and workplaces worked regular hours. Theatres opened their doors once more. Horse racing resumed.

But then the situation worsened again and by early April, more hospital accommodation was needed to cater for new cases in Essendon, Preston, Brunswick and Coburg and the hospital buildings at Broadmeadows Camp were set up to cater for 150 patients to cater in particular for Brunswick cases. The Broadmeadows Hospital opened on 9 April, to the considerable relief of the overcrowded Exhibition Building Hospital. (Argus, 8 April 1919)

Even so, Broadmeadows could not cover the demand for hospital beds and during April the situation grew so bad that the  Coburg High School Influenza Hospital  was re-opened. (Argus, 10 April 1919) In the Argus on 28 April, it was reported that there were 18 patients in hospital at Coburg. By the 1 May issue of the paper, this had risen to 34 patients. By the end of May, Walter Mitchell, Town Clerk, was putting out a call for children’s cots for the juvenile ward of the Coburg Influenza Hospital. (Argus, 30 May 1919)

Finally, in early August, the decision was made to close the hospital and the High School was able to move back in by the end of the month. (Argus, 7 August 1919) All future cases would be dealt with at Broadmeadows.

I’ve now located details of three patients who died at the hospital: 

Gertie Ray, wife of a returned soldier, 14413 Clifford Lawler Ray, an electrician who had served with the Wireless Squadron. They had married in 1918 and now, less than a year later, Gertie was dead.

Michael O’Farrell, brother of 6273 Private James Patrick O’Farrell, 22nd Infantry Battalion, who was a warder at Pentridge Prison and a cyclist who competed in the 1922 Tour de France.

23 year old Doris Ogle, sister of  9130 Gunner Joseph Bernard Ogle of O'Heas St., Coburg, who appears on the Coburg Town Hall Honour Board and was a member of the Coburg Rifle Club. 

If you can tell me any more about these three influenza victims, or about anyone else treated in the hospital at Coburg High School, please contact me.

And if you can tell me any more about Coburg High School’s use as an influenza hospital, I would be very interested in hearing from you.


  1. A fascinating account Cheryl. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Jenny. It took quite a long time to piece the sequence of events together, but it was worth it and thank goodness for TROVE, I say!

  3. I think that the sharing part is what makes this sort of research so exciting. By the way, I found a reference in the Coburg Historical Society collection the other day to the caretaker's room at Coburg High School having been used as the morgue during the influenza epidemic. I don't know why I was surprised that they had a morgue on the premises, but it's not the usual thing you think of when you think of a school!

  4. Thought id written on here but musnt have. My Nan (now deceased) always told of being a patient in Coburg High School Hospital during the influenza outbreak, and standing with her mum watching the funeral carriage of her father who died presumably from the flu pass by. We didnt put much store in what she said, until I found a postcard online that showed the High School with writing on the back re it being a hospital. The pic seems to have disappeared from my grasp, but i will try and find it and post it, if you'd want to see it.

    1. Thanks, Cate. If you do find the pic, I'd be really interested! You're the first person who has a family story to add. Much appreciated!