Jenolan Caves

1919 - Spanish Flu was an Unwelcome Visitor at Jenolan Caves

August 14, 2020

As most know, a century ago, the world endured a catastrophic flu pandemic.  So far, in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has not reached Jenolan Caves, where we are taking precautions to ensure that it doesn’t.  However, back in 1919, while the ‘Spanish Flu’ raged, one of Jenolan’s cottages was used as a hospital, and Caves House was used as a convalescent home for nurses recovering from Spanish Flu. 

New South Wales was the first state to officially proclaim an outbreak of pneumonic influenza on 27 January 1919[i]. In February 1919, rumours were circulating that Jenolan Caves was closed due to the epidemic, but in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, February 24, the NSW Government Tourist Bureau denied the rumours, stressing that Caves House was still taking accommodation and cave tour bookings, “the only restriction being that all persons wishing to make inspections shall wear masks whilst in the caves.”[ii]

On February 26, 1919 a massive flood tore through Jenolan, causing great damage.  To clean up, “a large number of men” were brought into Jenolan. They were tasked with clearing away “about three thousand tons of mud, rubble and drift”[iii].  It was hard work. After a month of double shifts, “wet-footed”, the men were weakened by exhaustion and cold. Then in March, some of them attended the Oberon Show, a bad decision in hindsight, as they carried influenza back to Jenolan.

Mr E.H. Palmer, Director of NSW Govt Tourist Bureau in 1919.The full story was in the Lithgow Mercury on Friday, 25 April 1919, in a letter to the editor from Mr E.H. Palmer. Mr Palmer, Director of the NSW Government Tourist Bureau, lived in ‘the Bungalow’ at Jenolan Caves, and, to his great credit, he coordinated the response to the arrival of the deadly flu.  

First, on April 2, Mr Palmer converted the Bungalow to a hospital for 14 patients. The Bungalow was located a mile from Caves House. He organised for 2 doctors, to tend the sick day and night. Miss Batchelor, the Jenolan schoolteacher, whose father and uncle were among the infected patients, assumed charge of the hospital, until Matron Ward and Miss Hoad, manageress, arrived from Sydney to take over.

Dr Griffiths and the shire clerk from Oberon inoculated about fifty Jenolan residents. “Every employee was carefully watched and immediately isolated on developing a temperature.  Efforts were made to obtain certificated nurses.”[iv]  Mr Palmer installed “an inhaling chamber”. Some Caves House staff volunteered to help tend the sick.

Unfortunately, on April 9, “a negro workman died at the Bungalow and certain of the maids went down with influenza”[v]. His name was Richard Marrow, of Gingkin, 38 years old and single.  Originally from Wellington, he had lived in the district for 8 or 9 years[vi].

Miss Hoad and the volunteers then became sick, and the epidemic spread to some of the homes on the Jenolan Reserve.  Finally, 4 of the sick men started to recover.

An item in the Lithgow Mercury 9 April 1919[vii] suggested that the sickness was diagnosed as ordinary flu, at first.  So perhaps that is why it was not until April 16 that the Bungalow and some of the staff houses were officially quarantined, and Caves House and the caves were closed.  

Cave House staff began to fall sick, and on April 19, a young Swiss Caves House employee died at the Bungalow and was buried at Oberon.  By April 22, all the patients were on the mend, except for one, a Mr Pritchard, whose pleurisy required surgery at Bathurst Hospital.

By April 25, only 5 remained on the sick list, but Mr Palmer’s had plans for how Jenolan could help until the epidemic was over.  The government approved of his suggestion that, “until the general restrictions are lifted, Caves House be made available to nurses, professional or voluntary, who while combating the influenza themselves contracted it but are now convalescent”[viii].

Another Lithgow Mercury article from 2 May 1919, announced that Jenolan was declared free of influenza and that there were no new cases within 12 miles of the caves.  Jenolan awaited permission from the Health Department, to reopen. [ix]

By May 23, 1919, Jenolan had not yet reopened.  However, the convalescent nurses had arrived. “At the palatial Caves House, the guest-rooms have been tastefully redecorated. These conditions have been greatly appreciated by some 40 nurses, who have been resting at Jenolan as the guests of the Government.  These in the course of the regular duty, contracted influenza, and on becoming convalescent, availed themselves of the special facilities afforded them by the Chief Secretary of spending a week or 10 days at Jenolan. Further batches of nurses are expected to leave for the caves at brief intervals the next two or three weeks.”[x] There were no deaths in Caves House.

Jenolan Caves newspaper adAn advertisement for Jenolan Caves appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 28, 1919, indicating that Jenolan was once again open for “delectable holidays”.[xi] On May 31, the Maitland Weekly Mercury mentioned that face masks were no longer compulsory on cave tours,[xii] and people started visiting Jenolan once again.

We believe that the cottage once known as ‘The Bungalow’, in which 2 flu victims died, was demolished in the 1920s.

Currently at Jenolan, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our cave tours are still temporarily closed.  But our historic hotel, magnificent Chisolm’s Restaurant and Cave Café are open, and we are using COVID-Safe practices. We are even serving decadent High Tea every day. 

Some of our lovely bushwalks are open: the Carlotta Arch Walk, the steep walk up to the Devil’s Coach House Lookdown, and the McKeown’s Valley Track.  For fit and experienced walkers, the Six Foot Track is also open.  What could be healthier than walking in fresh mountain air, on a Winter’s day, spotting birds and wildlife, in the pristine Blue Mountains World Heritage Area?

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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