DEJA VU: Today’s coronavirus is yesterday’s Spanish Influenza and many of the issues are the same, although separated by more than 100 years as Ouyen and District History and Genealogy Centre secretary Sue Willox can attest.


THE local school has closed, the race meeting postponed and workers placed in quarantine … topics of daily conversation across the region over the past six months as COVID-19 has often abruptly disrupted the pace of life.

These conversations are not from 2020 but just over a century earlier when the Mallee town of Ouyen was responding to spread of Spanish Influenza as Australians in their thousands returned from the Western Front trenches of World War One.

The fledgling town, along with Red Cliffs and Mildura, had welcomed the arrival of the railways in the first years of Federation. The school had opened, commerce was strong and the community came together at churches, hotels and social gatherings.

But the nearest public hospital was in Mildura – a concern for residents when firstly, there were reported outbreaks of diptheria in in early 1918 and then a year later, the Spanish Flu.

Ouyen and District History and Genealogy Centre has put together a window display in the town’s main street telling the story of how local people responded to the pandemic of 1919-1920.

Centre president Merle Pole said “When we put together the display, it struck me that the school was closed and in so many ways, COVID-19 has seen history repeating itself.

“We know that a century ago, Ouyen people had already become used to looking after themselves and that’s a bit like today,” Merle said.

Research for the display drew on articles in the Ouyen Mail newspaper and the centenary book Mallee Rats to Vanilla Slices by Hugh Carroll.

In February 1919 it had been reported: “Should we be so unfortunate as to get the big flu in Ouyen – and it is rather too much to hope to dodge it – arrangements have been made by the shire council to establish an solation camp on the showground.’’

Within a month, local efforts had started to open a temporary hospital and permission was granted to access the school if it was required to treat residents.

In the May, there was a second outbreak in Victoria and this time there were cases in Ouyen. People with Spanish Flu were brought to Ouyen but still without a public hospital one patient was taken further south to St Arnaud.

Soon an emergency hospital had been opened Ouyen – tin sheds and tents and treated a number of district residents over the next five months, including one who had returned from a trip to Melbourne with the Spanish Flu.

By the October, a clearing sale was conducted by auctioneers R.A. Caldow and A.E. Lord and Co after Walpeup Shire closed the temporary hospital. 

The lots included four tents, six bedsteads, stretchers and mattresses, blankets, pillowslips, a copper and furnace.

Hugh Carroll wrote: “By September the pandemic seems to have run its course. In mid-August two more elderly died and many indoor celebratory events had to be cancelled or postponed as a precaution against spreading the flu virus. 

By early September though, the last patient was released from the temporary hospital. The materials used to build it were sold off and locally, the matter was consigned to the rubbish bin of history.”

Merle says: “No sooner had the temporary hospital finished and it was sold off.”

One local pharmacist bottled his own O-yen cough cure and this forms part of the centre’s window display.

Centre secretary Sue Willox, who assisted Merle in preparing the display, said there had been local indignation at the level of restrictions during the height of the Spanish Flu.

She says that while the centre’s museum and resource centre was closed to the public during the current COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers were still receiving inquiries from researchers of family history.

“We are still being contacted through the centre’s website and facebook page from people keen to discover more about their ancestors.”

Merle says Ouyen’s response to the Spanish Flu pandemic, coming at the end of World War One, had been “just another thing” to challenge residents.

The centre’s current Spanish Flu display tells the story of a young town meeting those challenges.         – CHRIS EARL