Locked down in 1919

By Yarrawonga Chronicle

The current situation in Australia is reminiscent of the shutdown in 1919, due to the Spanish flu pandemic.

The 30th of January 1919 was a day of high drama for local family the Sloanes of Mulwala and Savernake.

William Sloane, wife Jeanie, three sons Gordon, Howard and Ian, spent a week at a guest house in Marysville, taking the family vehicle, a Hotchkiss. William’s sister Lucy also joined them for their holiday.

On 29th January at about 5pm, they heard that Government authorities were about to close the Mulwala-Yarrawonga traffic bridge, to stop travellers from Victoria spreading the flu to NSW.  This news set the family into a panic.   After some urgent discussions, they decided to hastily pack the car, have a rushed dinner, and head straight for home.

The trip turned into a nightmare.  They became lost a couple of times in the hills north-east of Melbourne, which were poorly signposted and not well made.  The approaching darkness added another hazard.  One signpost was so poorly painted that Gordon had to climb up the post and strike a match to read the writing.

They continued driving all night on the back roads, arriving at the Hume Highway at Benalla, then due north to Yarrawonga.  They arrived at 6:30am, only to be stopped by a policeman at the bridge across the Murray River.  They were half an hour late; the border had been closed at 6am.  

Ian, then a schoolboy of 16, remembered his father getting out of the car and having a chat to the policemen a few yards away, out of earshot.  William explained how they’d left Marysville and had travelled all night without stopping.  The policeman eventually decided to let them drive across the old wooden bridge into NSW.

Within ten minutes they arrived at Mulwala Station homestead, the wider family home.  When the car stopped outside the house, Lucy immediately got out, took her luggage, and was about to go inside when she heard her eldest sister Janet call out, “You can’t stop here, you might have the Spanish flu!”

Lucy immediately burst into tears.  Other members of the family also emerged, and supported Janet’s call for restraint.  But within moments, the matriarch of the family, Annabella Sloane, rushed out, her voluminous dressing gown flowing behind her.  Without hesitation, she gathered the tearful Lucy into her arms and said, “Lucy, this is your home, and we will always have you here, no matter the circumstances.”   Janet and younger sister Anna made a silent withdrawal into the house.

The next few days were painful for Lucy, as her brothers and sisters kept their distance until it was quite obvious that she was totally well.  William and Jeanie and family returned to their own home at Savernake.

It was a memorable journey for them all, a sense of adventure for the young lads, but a distressing homecoming for Lucy.