Rouse Hill Estate and the Spanish flu of 1919: A year of contradictions

Newspaper column.

Order by Premier William Holman for the public to wear masks. The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February 1919, p5

In 1919, Spanish flu gripped the world. In 2020, as we confront COVID-19, the media headlines and reports from the earlier pandemic are all too familiar: closed borders, overstretched medical staff, travellers sent into quarantine, face masks made mandatory, and the formulation and enactment of emergency plans. The concerns we face today are almost exactly those faced by the residents of Rouse Hill and nearby Riverstone in north-west Sydney a century ago. 

For the residents of Rouse Hill, Riverstone, Kellyville, the ‘Macquarie towns’ of Richmond and Windsor, and the surrounding Hawkesbury district, 1919 was a year of intense and conflicting emotions. The war in Europe was over, and soldiers and volunteers were gradually returning. Yet amid the joy of homecomings came renewed fear, as a new and virulent influenza pandemic began spreading and claiming lives. In July it brought death to the estate at Rouse Hill.

Wreaking havoc across Europe and then the world, pneumonic influenza – better known to history as ‘Spanish flu’ – came to Australia with servicemen returning from World War I.1 It arrived in Sydney on 20 January, and by the time it was diagnosed, only a few days later, it had already spread into the wider population. Acting upon a plan formulated the previous November, the metropolitan area of Sydney was immediately placed in lockdown, with ‘all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor resort for public entertainment in the metropolitan police district forthwith to close’.2

While the virus spread quickly in the first weeks, it did not reach the Hawkesbury for some time – perhaps surprising given that train commuters were travelling to and from Sydney each day. A fortnight later, the council of the Hawkesbury Benevolent Society & Hospital discussed emergency plans: the public school could become an emergency hospital; and a centre for administering what was – erroneously – thought to be an inoculation would be set up. Various committees were coordinating responses between the shire council and hospital. The mayor informed the council that ‘he had received a telegram from the Minister for Health requesting that a vigilance committee be appointed to be in readiness for any emergency’.3

Bodies charged with looking after the health of a shire or municipality will have a lot on their conscience in case of a sudden outbreak of pneumonic influenza through their criminal indifference. If there is any of the plague in our midst isolation methods should be adopted at once, and all contacts should be interned. The responsibility is a serious one and those concerned should do the right thing at once, or allay the fear of the public.

Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 28 February 1919

The first cases 

On 28 February, the first suspected – albeit misdiagnosed – case was reported in Freemans Reach, just north of Windsor. Over the following months, the Windsor and Richmond Gazette’s headlines and reports read as though written in 2020: state borders were closed; the provision of medical equipment – a ventilator – for the hospital was discussed; personal hygiene was critical; and the local agricultural show was cancelled. Again mirroring 2020, the economic impact of cancelling the show on a region already suffering from a prolonged drought was hotly debated, but it was decided that going ahead was too risky, given how many people would usually travel by train from Sydney to attend. Schoolchildren could not access books as the library was closed; a pharmacist even urged stocking up before panic buying began. The numbers of new cases and fatalities in the various states were reported, and locally affected households and individuals were named, with wishes for a speedy recovery. By April, however, the obituaries began; on 4 April the body of a young man from Pitt Town, near Windsor, who had died in Sydney was even stopped from being returned home for burial – with his grave already prepared.

The epidemic of pneumonic-influenza is spreading at an alarming extent in Sydney, and is getting into the country. People whose business take them to the city should exercise every care, and take advantage of the spraying depots established there.

Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 4 April 1919

A reprieve?

By early May the Red Cross was expressing hope that overall infection rates were dropping. Later that month, however, the pandemic hit what we now refer to as the ‘bounce’, a wider resurgence of the virus. Matching the international experience, after its initial phase the pandemic returned: 

The epidemic developed two waves, the first of which reached its height in the middle of April, and was the most severe in type; but inasmuch as it affected very much fewer people than the second wave, was not accompanied by so many deaths. The peak of the second wave was attained about the 20th or 21st of June. After this there was a rapid decline in the admission of cases in the hospital, and the epidemic finally came to an end in the closing days of September4.

As autumn progressed, the infection – along with ‘regular’ seasonal influenza, which confused diagnoses – spread across the Hawkesbury region. As May opened, the Gazette reported from Riverstone (the village abutting the south-west of the Rouse estate), where there was what we now term a ‘cluster’, with an estimated 20 new cases of influenza – including the death of Stanley Britton, aged only three. The paper stressed how overstretched the local medical staff were, and the desperate need for volunteers – a reminder of how many doctors and nurses were still on active duty overseas, and the importance of the Red Cross. The description parallels the exhaustion of medical staff dealing with COVID-19:  

Dr. Johnstone [the local GP] is doing good work in connection with the ’flu outbreak. If he is not given some relief he will break down. He is going hard all day and half the night, treating cases, and seeing that they get proper attention ... Unfortunately there are many cases of the scourge in the district, and if proper nursing and proper feeding is not forthcoming there will be disaster in Riverstone. Difficulty is being experienced in getting persons to nurse the pneumonic influenza cases … Mesdames Crisp, Wallace, Symonds, and Miss Shepherd are doing noble work, but they want help.

Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 2 May 1919

The Gazette then noted a new twist on the wartime ‘white feather of cowardice’, suggesting the existence of a longstanding grudge in the area: ‘The chaps who were dubbed “slackers” while the war was on, and many of whom received white feathers from lady friends … have been getting a bit of their own back. Many of these girls have proved “slackers” in the call for nurses in connection with the ’flu outbreak in the metropolitan area — and the chaps have not been slow in giving them a reminder’. 

In December, one volunteer, a Miss Vera Shepherd – ‘the most prominent worker among the influenza patients’ – would be awarded a silver hairbrush and comb in thanks for her efforts. She declined the gift: ‘in her modesty, [she] does not think her work is worthy of recognition in a public way’.5 

  • 4. Report on the influenza epidemic in New South Wales in 1919: part 1, epidemiology and administration, NSW Department of Health, 1920, p145.
  • 5. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 19 December 1919.
Sepia toned photo of buildings.
View of Christ Church, Rouse Hill, with parsonage to left. Hamilton Rouse collection

The Sherwood family at Rouse Hill

On my desk at Rouse Hill House is a cricket ball, a reminder of a man named Arthur Sherwood (b 1877), who, with his wife and young family, was living at the Rouses’ estate in 1919. Arthur had married Clara Sargent in 1901 at nearby Christ Church, whose chancel and altar equipment the Rouse family had donated. The list of wedding gifts and givers, published in the Gazette, reads as a who’s who of the close-knit and intermarried community of Rouse Hill and Riverstone: the Moulds, Sherwoods, Sargents, Cornwalls and Walkers. Arthur worked as a timbercutter supplying local bakeries, and the couple then lived in the parsonage, which was located just behind the church. They had two daughters, Ena (b 1908) and Annie (b 1910). Arthur was an active man, and a notable local cricketer. In a 1994 oral history, Annie recollected a trophy he’d won for horseriding: 

They used to have picnic races. My father had a horse he used to ride that he called ‘Vanity’ and one they called ‘Becky Sharp’. And he won some very nice prizes. He won a little jam dish, it was amber coloured and it was the shape of an apple, and the lid was the top of an apple and it was all dipped in silver.6

In around 1911 the family moved to the Rouse estate, where Clara was employed as a domestic servant and Arthur as a farm labourer. They lived in the Overseer’s Cottage, a still-extant timber slab building that was extended for their use. In 1914 a son was born, named for his father. All three children would attend the Rouse Hill school.

  • 6. Rouse Hill oral histories: Annie Shaw (nee Sherwood) interviewed by Scott Carlin, 9 April 1994.
Sepia toned photo of group of children outside front fence of school building.
Sisters Ena (then aged 10) and Annie (8) Sherwood were enrolled at Rouse Hill school when this photograph of the students was taken in 1918. Photo © The Gerald Terry collection
Sepia toned photo of man in uniform.
Geoffrey Rouse Terry in his uniform, platinum print portrait, Ebenezer Pannell, England, 1915. Sydney Living Museums

Return from war

Throughout 1919 a steady trickle of soldiers freed from quarantine returned to the Hawkesbury. Alongside reports of illness and death, grief and obituaries, the Gazette recorded Riverstone station joyously bedecked with flags, with bands and speeches, and receptions to celebrate homecomings. Kathleen Rouse, who had travelled to Britain as a volunteer aid worker, would not return till October, while her nephew Geoffrey Terry stayed in the military in Britain until late 1922.

In May, William Dunlop Lamont, the first of that family’s sons to return from service and still suffering the effects of malaria, had arrived back at Rouse Hill village. Living at nearby Aberdour house, the Scottish-born Lamonts had relocated from Gunbar, near Griffith, and purchased the local store in 1917. Arthur Sherwood, who had not gone to war as he intended due to a broken leg suffered in a motorcycle accident, would visit the Lamonts to play cards after work. Annie remembers being babysat by the Rouses’ old cook, Kate Joyce, in Kate’s room at the main house while her father was out, her mother being busy at her duties. 

Less than a few weeks later, on Sunday 6 July, her father was dead. 

“A man of apparently strong constitution and in the prime of life, Arthur Sherwood, of Rouse Hill, fell a victim to the influenza scourge and died on Sunday. He was 42 years of age, and leaves a sorrowing wife (who was Miss Clara Sargent, daughter of the late Henry Sargent) and three young children…. The late Arthur Sherwood … was born and lived all his life at Rouse Hill. He was an industrious and hard-working man, and was greatly esteemed by all who knew him. He will be remembered as a cricketer. Some ten years ago or more, ‘Kel.’ Sherwood (as he was familiarly known) was the terror of the Hawkesbury district as a bowler, and was also a very fine batsman. He was a real good ‘sport’ all round, and his untimely death is greatly deplored. The funeral took place on Monday, the remains being interred in the C.E. cemetery at Rouse Hill. Rev. W. J. Roberts performed the last sad rites.”

Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 11 July 1919

Closeup of inscription on gravestone. "In loving memory. Arthur Sherwood. Died July 6 1919. Aged 42 years. Forever with the Lord."
Arthur Sherwood’s gravestone, Rouse Hill cemetery. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Spanish flu’s incubation period was rapid, ‘rarely more than 48 hours’, and reportedly faster in men than women; by comparison, that of COVID-19 is on average five to six days, though possibly as long as two weeks from exposure.7  A 1920 Department of Health report stated that ‘instances occurred in which individuals were suddenly attacked by fatigue, muscular weakness, and severe headache while walking in the street, and frequently patients stated that they had gone to bed feeling perfectly well, and a few hours later had awakened in a state of miserable illness’.8  It was especially dangerous to those aged 20 to 40 – Arthur was then 42. 

Concurrent with the cluster in Riverstone, the first case reported in Windsor had been recorded on 26 April, and in adjacent Richmond, surprisingly, a full two months later, on 28 June. The pandemic was officially recorded as ending in those towns not long after, on 9 August and 12 July respectively. In his submission to an inquiry the following year, Dr Joseph Callaghan of Windsor wrote that the ‘district [was] extraordinarily favoured in being free from pneumonic cases’, that being the most severe form of the illness.9 

It is likely that Arthur contracted the virus in Riverstone, where he had numerous relations and friends. The local constable, who was based at the watchhouse across the road from the Rouse estate and had only just relocated from Lidcombe10, was also ill at this time. Not long after, the entire Lamont family was stricken: ‘We are sorry to hear that Mr. and Mrs. Lamont and family, of Rouse Hill, are down with influenza. Their soldier son returned from the front not so long ago. The local police officer, Constable Murphy, has had a bad time, also, but is now, we are pleased to hear, well on the way to recovery’.11 The time between infections indicates that the virus cannot have passed from newly returned William Lamont – who had also passed through quarantine – to Arthur, though it is not inconceivable that it passed from Arthur Sherwood to the Lamont family. 

  • 7. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report no 73, World Health Organisation, 22 April 2020.
  • 8. Report of the influenza outbreak in New South Wales in 1919: part 1, Epidemiology and administration, Department of Health, 1920, p145.
  • 9. Ibid, pp166–7, 170.
  • 10. Reported in The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, 3 May 1919, p12.
  • 11. ‘Week to Week’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 25 July 1919, p4.
Rusty roofed farm building with green vine growing on front verandah posts.
View of the cottage at Rouse Hill Estate. Photo © Patrick Bingham-Hall for Sydney Living Museums

‘By their deeds ye shall know them’

A week after her husband’s burial, Clara and her children were at least under a secure roof:  ‘We hear of a kindly Christian act at Rouse Hill’, reported the Gazette. The Rouses had ‘given Mrs. Sherwood, widow of the late Arthur Sherwood, a home to live in as long as she likes, free of rent. “By their deeds ye shall know them.”’12 

Two fundraisers were held for the family, raising almost £31 – which for Clara was around 18 months’ salary.13  She couldn’t attend the first as she was herself in Parramatta hospital (for an unnamed operation) – her children, all under 11, must have been terrified that they were to lose a second parent. The family stayed on at the cottage until 1932 – very shortly after their benefactor Edwin Stephen Rouse’s death – then relocated to Riverstone. Clara lived until 1953, dying at the age of 74. Her obituary described her as ‘widely known and esteemed’.14

Arthur died during the decline of the pandemic. By the end of September, in NSW at least, it was considered over. Officially, 6387 people died in the state, around half the national toll. Internationally, the death toll would reach some 50 million, with the infection rate ten times that. For the final toll of the COVID-19 virus, we shall have to wait.

  • 12. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 18 July 1919, p9.
  • 13. Annie recorded her mother receiving a wage of 7s 6p.
  • 14. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 10 June 1953.

Footnotes

About the author

Dr Scott Hill

Curator

As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.