Vera Giles' memories of nursing dying patients during the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic reveal how Warrnambool coped with the outbreak. KATRINA LOVELL spoke to her daughter Aurelin.
It was just over a century ago that Warrnambool was in the grip of a deadly flu that sent the town into lockdown.
The Spanish flu killed millions worldwide, and Warrnambool was not immune.
The number of deaths in Warrnambool are unknown but at the height of the pandemic in May 1919, nine people died in one month.
While there are no precise figures, it has been reported that at a guess by the time the virus had waned mid-year, it may have claimed the lives of 30 to 40 people.
The Spanish flu had arrived in Melbourne in January 1919, and by the time it was under control about 12,000 Australians had died.
As Warrnambool prepared itself, Vera Giles (nee King) was one of the first to volunteer to help.
Her daughter Aurelin Giles, 92, still lives in Warrnambool and remembers her mum talking about the three months she'd spent nursing dying flu patients at the isolation facility set up at the Koroit Street hospital site.
Despite having being exposed to the deadly Spanish flu while she nursed those who were infected in 1919, Vera, unlike other nurses, never got it and lived to the impressive age of 105.
However, Aurelin said it was "ironic" that when Vera passed away in 2004 it was because she'd succumbed to a flu virus.
But before Vera passed away, Aurelin sat down with her mum and wrote down her memories of nursing patients during Warrnambool's Spanish Flu outbreak.
"She felt sorry for the parents and the kids that weren't allowed to have any of their family there when they were dying," Aurelin said.
When the call went out in Warrnambool for people to work at the hospital to look after Spanish flu patients, Vera volunteered.
Vera had had some experience working as a teenage nurses' aide at Sister Ingpen's nursing home at what is now Alveston on Banyan Street.
As a teen, Vera had also worked as a nurses' aide for the manager of the State Savings Bank which was located at what is now the Archie Graham Centre in Timor Street.
It was there she met Robert Giles, a bank clerk, and the pair became engaged but before they could marry he was sent to the battlefields of France in 1916.
"He wasn't there very long when he got pneumonia and they shipped him back over the England, and he was there for a good while getting over it," Aurelin said.
When he recovered he was sent back to the Somme.
"That's how I get my name, Aurelin, because he heard a name like that when he was in France," she said.
Robert returned from the war in 1919.
But the troopships that brought home not just loved ones from the battlefield, also brought a germ that had already caused heartbreak and loss across Europe and the US.
The Spanish flu, which was originally thought to have originated in that country, emerged in Europe in mid to late 1918.
But unlike what seems to be the case so far with the coronavirus that has sent most of the world into lockdown, the Spanish flu struck young adults hard.
Chalets and buildings were brought in to create an isolation ward for flu patients at Warrnambool's hospital, which was surrounded by a large stone wall.
"There were children in some of the chalets and mostly the womenfolk were in some of isolation wards," Vera told her Aurelin who recorded the information in an article which has been published in the historical society's newsletter.
"We took temperatures, washed the patients, fed them and poulticed them with poultices we made up ourselves. I can remember only mustard plasters."
Vera spent about three months working and living at the isolation ward. "The nurses weren't allowed to go home or anyone else's place. They just lived there at the hospital," Aurelin said.
Although, she said they must have gone out at various times because she remembers her mum telling her how one night she went to see some of her siblings at home but was only able to wave and talk to them from across the street.
Nurses slept in the dispensary which was part of the nurses' accommodation in isolation. "We worked and lived in primitive conditions," Vera had said.
"We were paid by the council, not the hospital. I think it was about four shillings a week, or something like that, plus our keep. It wasn't very much."
Vera would start her eight-hour shifts at 6am each day with just a piece of toast and a cup of tea to stave off hunger until breakfast, which they got after all the patients were fed.
While the nurses were supposed to wear masks, Vera recalled that quite a lot didn't.
So it comes as no surprise that some of the nurses caught the flu and became patients themselves.
"There were some very sad moments but you had to carry on," Vera said. "A little boy developed meningitis and passed away. Poor kid. He was a lovely little boy."
There were some very sad moments...I sat with him until he passed away.Vera Giles
His little sister was also in the isolation ward, and she became attached to Vera and wouldn't go to sleep unless she went in to say goodnight.
Another teenage boy who had the flu ended up developing peritonitis, and in the middle of the night called for Vera. "I sat with him until he passed away," she said.
"None of them had mothers or fathers or any visitors to see them. They depended on the nurses to give them special care and love and affection. You'd feel sorry for them, not even a mother or father being allowed to see them.
"A good number of people died here in Warrnambool and millions died worldwide."
Vera had also recounted a story of a soldier who was on his way home from the front to see his wife and daughter in Warrnambool. "He got as far as Western Australia by boat when they both took the flu and mother and daughter died. He didn't have a very happy homecoming," she said.
The pages of The Standard from 1919 give an insight into how Warrnambool and the state reacted to the arrival of the flu.
The roads between Victoria and New South Wales were closed, events were cancelled and people wearing masks in the street was a common sight.
Horse races were temporarily cancelled, school holidays extended, only those involved in court cases were allowed into courtrooms, and there were restrictions on the number of people in pubs.
People steered clear of large gatherings such as church services, which were held outside, and kissing was declared dangerous.
Quarantine measures were quickly put in place to reduce the spread of the disease while three million vaccines were handed out. Australia's death rate of 2.7 per 1000 was the lowest of any country during the pandemic which was over by the end of 1919.
Have you signed up to The Standard's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in the south-west.