Sunday, 9 March 2014

The influenza epidemic in Coburg

No cause for a scare

(Dr R.A. Wallace, Coburg Health Officer, January 1919)

The Brunswick and Coburg Leader first mentioned the influenza epidemic on 24 January 1919 and it was the family of a yet-to-return soldier, 999 Gunner Henry Henry Grainge Biggs, 5th Field Artillery Brigade, who were the focus of the paper’s attention.

Henry Grainge Biggs. Image courtesy AWM.
Image DA10605.

Among the first ‘suspected cases’ of flu in Coburg were the Biggs family, farmers of ‘Juan Lea’, Elizabeth Street, Coburg. It may seem strange now to think of anyone carrying on a business as a farmer in what is now considered an inner city suburb, but of course this land was near the Merri Creek and there were many farms, especially dairy farms, in the area and especially in the area we now know as Newlands.

The first flu victim in the family was 15 year old Roy Biggs, an employee at Houghton’s Wool Store in Little Collins Street. The newspaper report tells us that he was ‘treated in the usual manner, being isolated, and the services of his sister, a trained nurse, obtained.’ Soon the parents, Henry Grainge Biggs and his wife Harriet became ill, as did their 21 year old son Alan and two others living in the house. In the end, their daughter, Ida, the nurse who had been caring for them, became ill too, with a temperature of 105 degrees. The doctor came and innoculated the family, but ‘not with very successful results.’

Nevertheless, when their soldier son Henry returned home in late September 1922, he found that all his family had survived the epidemic. His father Henry died in 1926 aged 63 and mother Harriet died in 1931 aged 59. They are buried in the Methodist section of Coburg Cemetery. Roy, the first to become ill, lived until 1979 when he died aged 75. Alan died in 1972 aged 73.  The nursing sister, Ida, became a well known identity in the Moreland area, establishing Vaucluse Hospital (now Brunswick Private Hospital) in Moreland Road and later married Dr Leslie Edmunds, who was elected Mayor of Coburg in 1958.

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