Spanish Flu expert Dr Peter Hobbins entertains Tenterfield Family Research Group

Dr Peter Hobbins addressed an enthusiastic gathering of researchers at the Tenterfield Theatre on exploring medical records to piece together family history.
Dr Peter Hobbins addressed an enthusiastic gathering of researchers at the Tenterfield Theatre on exploring medical records to piece together family history.

Tenterfield’s history as a border community attempting to contain the ravages of the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic drew historian Dr Peter Hobbins to town, and local family researchers were the beneficiaries.

Dr Hobbins is from the University of Sydney’s history department, but received a grant from the Australian Historical Association to create a resource guide on the Spanish Flu and then use it to encourage local and family history groups around NSW to explore the impact of the flu on local communities.

Tenterfield’s geographic location included it on his limited number of four strategic stopovers. Others were Port Macquarie as a coastal entry point, Bathurst for reference as an inland location, and Tenterfield’s southern border counterpart Albury.

“Tenterfield was a very interesting place in 1919,” he said.

The state border was closed earlier in that year in an effort to curb the spread of the disease, but it was then several weeks before NSW and Queensland could agree to co-fund a quarantine station, which was eventually established at the Tenterfield Showground. 

Dr Hobbins said northbound travellers caught in the process had to throw themselves on the charity of the Tenterfield community as they were often nearing home at the end of a long journey with little in the way of remaining funds. Even after having lived in the community for several weeks, they were still required to spend seven days in the quarantine camp before crossing the border into Queensland.

“The borders came down and people were pushed off the train (at Tenterfield Railway Station),” he said. “In late January 1919 they were stuck in Tenterfield, but it was July before the flu got here.”

As it passed through the Tenterfield community 80 people were affected, 35 severely, with 11 losing their lives.

Dr Hobbins said it was interesting to contrast the Queensland perspective on the ordeal (‘how mean NSW was, doling out rough treatment’) with the NSW perspective (‘looking after the stranded travellers with nothing in the way of financial support’).

Isolation ward restoration champion Dr Ian Unsworth had a lot to talk about with presenter Dr Peter Hobbins.

Isolation ward restoration champion Dr Ian Unsworth had a lot to talk about with presenter Dr Peter Hobbins.

Of course the flu epidemic was a global phenomenon, and the records left in its wake can be a valuable boon to researchers. As such, the Tenterfield Family History Group was very pleased to host Dr Hobbins’ visit.

He told the members that many unexpected sources such as milk supplies, school attendance, claims for lost wages and even sewage records were kept and can help track the spread of contagious diseases, and gain some insights into where family ancestors were at points in time and their state of health.

A favourite resource of his is old prescription books which can sometimes be found in second-hand book shops.

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