1919 Spanish Flu disrupts food supplies

Red Cross kitchen at Balmain. Image State Library of NSW

In the wake of World War I, returning soldiers brought the so-called “Spanish” influenza to Australia. Around 40 per cent of Australians caught the virus. Many, confined to their homes, depended on charity kitchens to make food deliveries, while Spanish flu disrupted transport networks and caused food shortages in Western Australia and North Queensland.

The Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain but got its name from one of its earliest victims, the King of Spain.  By late 1918, it had spread throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, arriving in Australia in January 1919 with returning soldiers. Despite control measures, including banning large gatherings and closing some interstate borders, it eventually spread throughout the nation.

Often whole families were infected, meaning there was no one to cook or shop for the household. Various charity groups, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, established charity kitchens and meals were delivered to the homes of those affected, initially often by Boy Scouts and later by volunteers with motor vehicles.

In the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, in the four weeks prior to 14 June 1919, 305 people were supplied with food. The local Richmond Guardian reported on the food and its preparation:

Mostly it consists of broths, jellies and farinaceous puddings, also light stews of tripe and rabbit There are three gas stoves and a gas range, also two fullsized gas coppers for the preparation of broth. A well-lit pantry extends the entire width of the kitchen, complete with meat safe. Ice-chest etc.  Eggs for the milk puddings are contributed by the pupils of the Burnley State School School (per Mrs. Johnston); North Richmond (per Mrs Dunlop), and Central (per Mrs. Bradshaw). Meat and bones for soup are sent in by Mesrs. Pope, Palmer, Evans, Say, Hart  and Varley.

The committee of ladies, headed by Mrs. H. J. Barcelo (the Mayoress) take it in turns to be on duty at the kitchen, which is open dally from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

Much of the relief work fell to women and followed on from “home front” duties they had assumed during the war.  The food they provided was regarded as “invalid food” – designed to be light and easily digestible.

Sir James Crichton-Browne

The Spanish Flu epidemic also encouraged both legitimate and dubious manufacturers to tout the value of their products to combat the ‘germ’. As Humphrey McQueen writes in his paper The ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic in Australia, 1912-19, “Not all quack cures came from doctors or from the proprietors of patent medicines. Almost every advertiser discovered preventive powers in his product so that maximum protection was available only to pipe-smoking, motorcyclists with false teeth.”

Even the medical establishment had dubious recommendations. Famous British physician and President of the Sanitary Inspectors’ Association, Sir James Chrichton-Browne, in an interview with the London Observer, advocated whisky. “The treatment of influenza today,”  he remarked, “consists of rest in bed, skilled nursing, and anti-pyretics, with liberal allowances of alcohol. I have no doubt many lives have been lost, owing to the inaccessibility of brandy and whisky under present regulations….”

During the epidemic, restaurants were allowed to remain open but were subject to strict regulations regarding the boiling of cutlery, the cleaning of glasses, the provision of fresh napkins and the amount of space to be allowed for each customer (250 cubic feet per person).

Food shortages occurred in Western Australia when the transcontinental railway was stopped and ports quarantined. North Queensland, in particular, suffered shortages of wheat and other supplies, a situation aggravated by a long-running seamen’s strike in 1919.

Food delivery during the epidemic. Image: State Library NSW

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