Some effects of COVID-19 on diocese 'already greater' than 1919 flu epidemic: research

Social and economic impacts worse, but health likely to be less, research suggests

Melbourne's Great Hall during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.

PHOTO: Museums Victoria

By Mark Brolly

June 6 2020 

The social and economic effect of coronavirus on the Diocese of Melbourne is probably already greater than the 1919 influenza epidemic but on present indications the health impact is likely to be considerably less, according to a paper prepared by leading Anglican layman and researcher Mr Colin Reilly.

Mr Reilly’s paper, The 1919 flu pandemic and the Diocese of Melbourne, found that there were at least eight clergy deaths attributed to influenza in the Anglican Church nationally in 1919 – a death rate of about 0.6 per cent in a population of about 1400 Anglican clergy compared with 0.3 per cent for the whole population – but that in Melbourne, the clerical death rate was 0.9 per cent.

“Some indicators of church life suggest the flu epidemic may have had a deleterious effect,” Mr Reilly wrote. “The number of baptisms and confirmations fell while funerals increased. On the other hand, marriages continued their post-war recovery.

“Parish finances also suffered slightly, but quickly recovered ... Nor did the epidemic seem to affect some other indicators of ecclesiastical health. The number of deacons ordained ... was the highest since 1914 as recovery from the First World War began.”

The paper says the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, popularly known as the Spanish flu epidemic, resulted in up to 16,000 deaths in an Australian population of 5.4 million – a mortality rate of close to three deaths per thousand. If the death rate was uniform across the population, probably 6000 to 7000 Anglicans died. 

Mr Reilly wrote that the effects of the 1919 influenza epidemic in Australia, while severe, were nowhere near as damaging as in the rest of the world.

“For this our situation as a relatively remote island nation was the chief reason. Australia appears to be similarly advantaged with respect to COVID-19 in 2020. In both cases government intervention has been early, invasive of personal freedoms and apparently received with little complaint, but in 1919 for shorter periods and with less interference with the general economy. 

“In neither case were effective medical antidotes available, quarantine and social distancing being the chief remedies to prevent the spread of infection. It is too early to tell at the time of writing (16 April 2020) the outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia, let alone the Diocese of Melbourne, but in social and economic terms it is probably already greater for the church than the 1919 pandemic. It is possible, though, that on present indications the health impact will be considerably less.”

Mr Reilly outlined some of the specific events and responses that occurred in the diocese in 1919.

The new parish of St Agnes’ Black Rock was stricken by the death of its 32-year-old vicar, the Revd Wilford James, on 5 May from pneumonic influenza.

Another young Melbourne priest, the Revd George Benjamin Rogers, had on 13 June “succumbed to the influenza, and left a widow and four children wholly unprovided for”. “His work was admirable, he was a member of our Clergy Provident Fund, but being young his widow receives no permanent benefits”, so Archbishop Henry Lowther Clarke petitioned the Walter & Eliza Hall Trust on her behalf. The parish of Melton raised £300 to purchase a house for her, and the Archbishop made a further request for support from the Queen’s Fund.

In his Presidential Address to the October 1919 Synod (his last before retiring in 1920), Archbishop Clarke spoke of how the Church must find “a new spirit of religion in ourselves” to address a post-war world and focused on a number of organisational issues without mentioning the flu epidemic. No motion before the Synod referred to the epidemic. 

Mr Reilly acknowledged his debt to Hazel Nsair and Leonie Duncan of the Melbourne Diocesan Archives, who pointed him to most of the contemporary records cited in the paper.