Love and Life in a Pandemic

From Rose 26 July 2020

During this isolation time in 2020 I’ve been curious to find out how my Mother and Father, Queenie Nicholas and Norman Devenish experienced the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic. I opened one of their little secret notebooks, “News from the Back.” Mother’s entry on 2nd April 1919 flashed in sight so I paused to read about them as energetic nineteen-year-olds in love and savour again the quirky words she wrote:

Easter is coming soon! Say, I haven’t been to Hyde Park – how abt going with me? Ah think impromptu flights are best… but it wdn’t be bad to spin round on the bikes exploring our extensive (?) city…

This blithe invitation to “impromptu flights” would have been irresistible to her best friend, Norman. They had known each other at the Church for many years. Queenie writes that at last she told him that she loved him, that they “both knew the fact ages ago… but telling it made life gladder” and she found it “a relief just to lean there and tell him.” While true love blossomed, they were not yet ready to share their news with others. There was no fanfare, no engagement, just a perfect joy to be secretly in love and dream of life together. A few weeks later however, she shared with Norman a trick she played on her Mum when Hilda next door got engaged:

Hilda called me over the fence abt 5.30 & said she could come in after tea … She also lent me her ring to show Mum. I put it on and marched in- “Mum! You didn’t know I was engaged? Did you?” ses I. – Ses she, she ses with a horror struck countenance “Wha – what-t!!!” She thought I meant it … Hilda came in – and she asked me what kind of a ring I was going to have. – everyone’s got the blessed subject on the brain I think. I can’t move for engagements and marriages and all the other-ments and “ages”, I hope there won’t be any break-“ages”.

Queenie on the weighing machine, Norman with camera, c. 1920.
Queenie on the weighing machine, Norman with camera, c. 1920.
Norman holds bikes for photo at beach, c.1919.
Norman holds bikes for photo at beach, c.1919.

I turn back a few pages to January 30th. At first the pandemic was far away in Sydney and Melbourne. It seemed a small matter compared to the War and the long wait for soldiers to come home. Queenie took a moment out of sight of workmates, to write for Norman in their notebook:

I’m told by one who ought to know – that 200 “Flu-masks” are ordered for us [Commonwealth Bank employees] to be ready in abt 2 days – Bank officers a la Moorish.

Then in February, the Commonwealth Bank sent out a Circular instructing everyone to make masks for themselves. Queenie sewed some on Saturday afternoon, then had a light-hearted ‘dig’ at colleagues:

I made 3 Flu masks this after[noon]. One for myself & two for two helpless male clerks !! Manager’s instructions.

Queenie’s Dad, John Nicholas, was Accountant at the General Post Office in Perth The GPO with its overland telegraph facility was the quickest way to receive information from the Eastern States. The Spanish ‘Flu may have concerned her Dad but Queenie seems quite nonchalant: it was happening so far away from this little outpost of the British Empire. What’s more, she’s in Love! In April she wrote her flippant opinion of the new instructions from the East:

The (smell) on this book is not to be taken internally, it’s a scent for preventing Spanish Flu (G.P.O. approved). Dad brought home a circular from P.O with a prescription on it. The mixture contains Eucalyptus camphor etc and other smelly things – has a soothing effect on me cold – a few drops on hdkf does the trick.

I pictured my Grandpa John coming home and parking his bicycle in the shed.  He would hand the official Circular to his wife Mary Maude (who had a science degree) and ask her opinion of the chemistry. The recipe included things we still use but what’s the “etc?” Possibly formalin as Queenie describes later (see 11 June below)? The idea of using a hdkf (handkerchief) seems abhorrent to us with our luxury of tissues. There’s little change otherwise from what we do today as we keep searching for a virus vaccine.

In 1919 the importance of the pandemic seemed slight in comparison to the War tally of 60,000 dead from tetanus, typhoid, trench fever, parasites, famine and mud. The Government provided Australians with vaccinations for infections in anticipation of the “boys coming home.”  However, for the so-called Spanish ‘Flu there was little but masks, isolation and sanitiser, same as today. Governments also had the dilemma whether to let it run through communities or to enforce isolation. Guessing how the virus might, or might not affect the population took courage just as we have found in these days, with the same issue of massive and multiple problems. Responses by us to Corona virus in 2020 have been confounded by drought and catastrophic fires that overwhelmed communities putting millions out of work and causing looming economic collapse.

I turned back to the notebooks and read more about my Dad. In April 1919 Norman seems a little uncertain about the ‘Flu and his Pa’s orders:

Well queen it’s just by chance Luck that I have the opportunity to write anything tonight. At the eleventh Hour I decided I would not go to School (Drawing). I have not felt right since Sunday night. Went half heartedly to work on Monday and was Glad I had arranged to have blacksmithing [night class] another night (It would have just about killed me).

It’s not often I get crook, but I feel bad I worked it off today because I had to. I spose its run down slightly. I’m good eh! Attributing it to me own hard laborious work. anyone would think I really meant it. Pa has been trying to dose me up but I have evaded the Law and not had the Flu Mix or Coffee. But I spose I’d better take a bit of advice and have some Liquorice Powder. And I’d better be in bed when they come home

The remedies seem similar to offerings today, especially coffee! 

Grandpa (‘Pa’ Herbert Alfred Devenish) – ‘the Law.’

I looked again at the family photo of my Grandpa (‘Pa’ Herbert Alfred Devenish) – ‘the Law.’ The authority from his penetrating eyes seemed to reach deep into my very core. 

His substantial white beard, trimmed to a neat point, enhances the impression of a true Victorian father who demands and expects obedience. My Aunt said that even little children were in awe of him.

But soon there was urgency about the ‘Flu, Norman read the headlines and wrote to tell Queenie:

I am not going to Church this morn unless unforseen circumstances compel me to… So I’ll do as Dr Everitt Atkinson says when you get the flue or no “Stay At Home.” That was the headline of an Article in last night’s Paper. It seems to be quite serious with the flue now. I guess if it comes over here, we’ll have to blame some foolish people who will Travel in Flu time, and not in the least will we have to blame the Comm. Government.

These are such familiar instructions to us as well: stay home, don’t travel! Then uncertainty about rules, changes every day, borders opening and closing; infections serious in Eastern States, but not in Adelaide or Perth, should we use masks, or not? I find it odd that there’s no mention of hand washing in the notebooks. There’s plenty about sanitiser as Queenie wrote with wry humour on 11 June, of what it’s like as Teller in the Commonwealth Bank:

“… You ought to be in front of our wdl. [Withdrawals] counter now & get the smells! Eucalyptus, Formalin etc. etc. ! Mr Randell [the Manager] upset a small bottle of 5 parts Eu-de-Cologne & 1 part Formalin in his pocket so when we feel full of foul flu odours – we call him nigh.

Norman returns the notebook to her with his comments on 17 June:

I have some of that formalin mixture on my handkfs and it simply stinks. When I cough I cn just pull me handk out and take a sniff. Two of the fellows have got flu masks in readiness at G.Ds (Goode Durrant & Co. suppliers, his employers) this shape– [he has drawn tiny faces with diamond shaped masks].

They have sanitiser: formalin! I looked up the list of dire side effects of its pungent odours, they include itching, watery eyes, eczema and bronchial asthma. Nowadays our hand sanitiser options seem benign and sophisticated by comparison, conveniently sold in plastic dispensers. How much we have today, beyond anything dreamed of by past generations!

On June 30th Queenie heard the gun salute celebrating the signing of Peace:

“8am Germany has signed the Peace terms – 101 guns are being fired now to celebrate the event – they’ve about reached number 80 now. I was counting till Mont (her brother) came in and I lost count.”

And wrote of the long awaited homecomings, when frustration broke all bounds:

Charlie came home … per Somali – 1360 troops on board and the vessel was declared clean, then unclean & then clean and finally unclean – but by that time the waiting friends and relatives had reached the wharf and when the soldiers were disembarked and began marching to the oval for examination, the crowds broke all restrictions and embraced the various soldiers so that they were inextricably mixed.

Their response may have been sharpened by the memory of a tragedy seven months before. Queenie recorded in December 1918:

I see one of the Soldiers on Woodmans Point [Quarantine Station] was the son of A.S. Wilson of the Perth Y.M.C.A. (a big bug) (as you might say) and his death is announced in tonight’s Paper. It’s terrible hard on those who lose the boys at this stage (so near and yet so far). We were expecting George home by this time and he’s not arrived, he was fortunate not to be on the ill fated boat.

We too, have witnessed the pain of death in isolation. Even with all our advanced care and comforts that our parents never could have imagined, human suffering continues. I turned back to the July entry where Queenie wrote of Norman’s eldest brother George, coming home after rehabilitation:

… I went up to see Norman … and they said he’d gone down to meet his brother! … George.  … Norman & Flo (his sister) & Mr D (their father) were waiting at the [tram]car when I was going home. How happy that home must be. I went as far as VPPO (local Post Office) with them and the rest of the family met him. Mrs Devenish (mother) looked as if she couldn’t reach him quickly enough and when she did she couldn’t let him go. He looks well enough but his leg is troublesome and he walks stiffly, using crutches when tired, which soon takes place.

Of course each of their three sons had suffered more than physical wounds. For a time they were lost for words to talk of the privation, pain, obscenity and death they had seen up close. Would their father Herbert ever understand why they no longer obeyed him and rejected his call to Church? How could Pa ever see that their view of the world that had so drastically changed?  

Well he did see. And he despaired. Would they leave the God of their fathers, be ruined by drink and violence? Pa Devenish had seen sodden, lost souls lying in dark corners, their wives weeping at home, forsaken.

Meanwhile, celebrations continued. In August Major Brearley was showing off the aircraft that sealed the Victory, flying little planes from the Maylands aerodrome, looping the loop over the Cricket grounds and landing beside the Swan River at Langley Park, still today believed to be the oldest non-commercial airstrip.

On Saturday Major Norman Brearley, M.C. DSO held a flying exhibition over on the WACA grounds. Norman came up for me about 2 oclock. I’d scarcely got home – so he went home for a while. Came back and we went in the [tram]car over there. We stood in mud trying to get in …

Those were welcome distractions from the ongoing grief. No-one could avoid feeling the pain and distress from the twin disasters of War and ‘Flu. Everyone was trying to adjust and make allowances for returning servicemen. On 15 August Queenie wrote:

The first thing I heard when I got to work was – “Have you heard that Guy Glyde died at 6.30 last night?”

I can’t realise that – it’s beyond me. I told you, I think, that he went to the Base with a shoulder wound reopening? He caught the flu down there and died yesterday. It set me thinking all day about “life after death”. When you work with a chap as I did, you get to know him rather well. He used to nearly sprawl all over me every time he squeezed past, and of late was one continuous grumble from morn to night – but of course he must have had something to grumble at – and we did make allowances. He was engaged to a Claremont girl & has been arranging plans of houses for 3 months. The staff are sending a five-guinea wreath to the funeral tomorrow at 10.

Dad was sick this morn. He stayed in bed till 10 & then went to work but he’s not well yet.

Would the ‘Flu bring down her Dad as well? Queenie’s concern seems to hover over her words. Even in the tiny, remote city of Perth, so far from the original source, events in Europe had reached deep into the lives of ordinary people. The whole community had to make big adjustments in those times, just as we do now. Back then, work place tensions ran high, nobody really understood the meaning of “shell shocked,” and a “mental breakdown” was a whispered disgrace. Norman wrote:

At present G.D’s staff is flooded with employees. In some departments there are six and eight hand where only four are needed, etc. Even our dept is very slack. The trouble is these returned soldiers at least one started this week, no 2 this week & goodness only knows where the others are going when they return. I spose someone will have to shift out to give us room soon. I have not the slightest idea who will be leaving… I think they are keeping too many on because they don’t like to tell them off.

Norman recorded one of those angry outbursts:

Yesterday a fellow at work couldn’t pull up a window so he gave the sash that is the frame, a kick but Alas! His foot slipped and slipped through the window. He ought to feel congratulated that he didn’t have to pay for it. But a new glass was in its place by 11 oclock. Some Speed. Strange to say it’s the 3rd window broken in G.D.s this week… This week has been Panefull.

In this turbulent time the returning soldiers were given preference for jobs. Norman could not rely on steady work and often joined the lines of job seekers. He could not honourably ask Queenie’s father for her “hand in marriage.” His brother Charlie had the advantage of the re-training program for returned soldiers, and chose plastering. It was years before this brother could offer Norman partnership. There was some advantage in that waiting time. It gave Norman and Queenie time to grow together and become a real team.  I believe we, their children, benefitted from their rock solid partnership.

Grandpa Devenish and Family c.1920.
Grandpa Devenish and Family c.1920. [Standing] Walter (WWI), his best girl Grace, Herbert Jnr, Ada (best girl to:) Charlie (WWI). [Seated] Ruth (eldest child), H A Devenish & Bertha, George (wounded leg, WWI). [Centre front] Florence.

Although decades of difficulties lay ahead, in August 1919 life regained some normality. At the Nicholas’ hilltop home in Leonard Street, the family was well and life was full. Their mini farm was a cornucopia of fresh food. On Sunday 17th, the sun rose as usual over the Darling Scarp to the east. To westward the Swan River could be seen from their hill, flowing strong and full with winter rain swirling through Crawley bay on its way to Fremantle. 

That Sunday, Queenie was dressed ready to walk with family to the 11am service at the Congregational Church in McMaster Street.

Retiling the roof of Victoria Park Congregational Church, c.1920.
Re-tiling the roof of Victoria Park Congregational Church, c.1920.

Her pen flew across pages in the tiny notebook, propelled by her elation:

What a glorious day! Just like spring. You should just hear our farmyard in the middle of the day. The kids are separated from their ma and call them every now & then in such woeful lament, and the mother answers with a deep Ba-a-a-. Then every time a fowl lays the whole of the fowl community commences rejoicings, prolonged & penetrating. 

Nicholas family goat & chickens, probably 1919.

Abt ½ hr before milking time last night Mont let Darkey go for a stroll alone. He thought she wouldn’t go far, & when he required her presence at the operation of milking, he clambered onto the highest vantage (ie. Cowshed roof) and eagerly scanned the horizon. He began gently breathing her name when he saw her, gradually increasing until she turned her kind eyes toward him, then, putting all his powers of persuasion to work (rattling her tub handle etc) she slowly wander’d homeward impelled by the needs of the inner cow.

Mont Nicholas feeding their cow c.1918.
Mont Nicholas feeding their cow c.1918.

I imagine Norman about the same time, setting out with his family from the Devenish home in Shepparton Road. During the service the sight of Queenie would bring vibrancy to his tenor voice while his father, the Choirmaster, kept everyone up to time and his mother Bertha drew strong, sweet sounds from the harmonium. This Church echoed with the love built into it from the ground up and served as a place of worship for our parents and generations following.

During that year of difficulty Queenie also wrote:

… and as they sang that glorious hymn “Thy touch has still it’s ancient power”, His works seemed to picture themselves before me, I saw the sick and suffering ones being healed.


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