August 30, 2017
by Mary Sheehan
1 Comment

Celebrating nationhood

Friday 1 September is Wattle Day. Celebrated for more than a century on this date, Wattle Day has encouraged generations to identify with the unique aspects of Australia that sets the nation apart from other nations, especially the Mother Country.

The symbol was first used in 1899 when Victorian field naturalist Archibald Campbell formed the Wattle Club. Campbell went on to advocate that Wattle Day be declared an annual event. Melbourne first celebrated Wattle Day on 1 September 1908, and by 1910 Wattle Day was also celebrated in Sydney and Adelaide.

Soon after wattle was officially introduced to representations of the Commonwealth coat-of-arms, and in 1913 the first wattle blossom stamp was issued.

On 19 August 1988, the wattle was officially proclaimed as Australia’s national floral emblem, and four years later on 23 June 1992 the (then) Governor-General of Australia Bill Hayden declared that 1 September in each year would, ‘be observed as National Wattle Day throughout Australia and in the external Territories of Australia.’

Wattle Day is still observed throughout Australia, albeit without as much fanfare as in the past.

The observance of Australia Day on 26 January, however, is much more recent.

For many decades it was Foundation Day that was celebrated on 26 January, indeed in 1915 Australia Day was observed on 30 July, in order to promote patriotism and raise funds for the war effort.

Empire Day was introduced nationally in 1905 to provide an occasion to demonstrate patriotic zeal. It was observed on Queen Victoria’s birthday 24 May.

Not until 1935 did all Australian states and territories begin to use the name Australia Day, albeit observing the occasion on different dates.

By the mid-twentieth century the public holiday officially declared to observe Australia Day was movable, usually observed on the Monday closest to 26 January to provide workers with a long weekend. Not until 1994 did Australia Day begin to be celebrated consistently as a public holiday on 26 January.

Admittedly celebrating Australia Day on 26 January does offer a book-end to summer, as well as a commercial opportunity to market the national flag in many forms, including as stubby holders, caps, sunglasses, etc.

But perhaps it’s timely to start considering the many other days in our history that could be adopted to celebrate who we are as Australians?

One option is Wattle Day.

May 25, 2017
by Mary Sheehan
1 Comment

Spanish flu in Melbourne

Have you ever developed a sense of friendship for someone who doesn’t know you; say, a television or sports star? You feel you really know them, but they’ve never heard of you. You might pass them on a busy street or at a crowded airport, and wonder why they don’t respond to your smile and nod of greeting. Historians develop similar friendships which are just as one-sided, but often that feeling of knowing someone well develops with a person long dead.

             Valid Kelly, 1894-1918

One such friendship developed for me in the Archives of St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne while researching the history of nursing. This ‘friends’ name was Valda Kelly. Tragically she died when very young while nursing patients with the Spanish flu.

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was the most devastating epidemic in recorded history. Worldwide it is thought to have killed an estimated 50 million people, although some experts suggest the total might actually have been twice that number. More died during the pandemic than in the course of the entire First World War, some think possibly more that the First and Second World Wars combined.

The virus struck the very young and elderly and, appallingly given the number of young who died in the war, was most deadly for those in the 20 to 40 age bracket. At the time epidemiologists knew little about the behaviour of virus’, and one doctor described the “diffuse anxiety, [and] sensation of some indefinable horror” caused by the pandemic in a community. The outbreak hit Melbourne in December 1918. Local authorities were aware of the devastating effects of the disease in Europe, and took precautions to limit its impact. Strict procedures were in place before the virus attacked. The border between Victoria and New South Wales was closed; public meetings of twenty or more people were prohibited; travel in long distance trains was restricted; loitering ‘under the clocks’ at Flinders Street station was strictly forbidden; and people were encouraged to wear masks in public. In a desperate effort to stave off the virus, the disinfectant phenyl was also poured into ‘two or three carts used for sprinkling [Melbourne] city streets.’

REB image

Hospital beds in Great Hall during the influenza pandemic, Melbourne Exhibition Building Carlton, c.1919

To what degree these precautions controlled the spread is open to conjecture. Still, and probably because it was summer, Australia escaped relatively lightly compared to India, China and Europe. About 12,500 died nationally from the pandemic; around 30 percent of these were Victorians. So great were the number of people taken ill that the Exhibition Building was converted into an emergency hospital between February and August 1919. Around 500 beds were initially set up inside the building, for it was originally intended the temporary hospital would only deal with convalescing patients. But within a few days of opening on 4 February under pressure of demand the scheme broke down and bed numbers quickly increased to 2 000. This is what it was like in Melbourne in early 1919 when, in her final year of training, Valda Kelly began nursing Spanish flu patients.

1911 3-02 Exterior c1911

St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, c.1911. The hospital was virtually unchanged when Valda Kelly commenced her in training 1916

Valda had started her nursing training at St Vincent’s in November 1916 – maybe she was fired by patriotic zeal and an urge to contribute to the war effort, just like the boys her age who were volunteering as soldiers. There were even suggestions Valda was unofficially engaged to one of those soldiers. Hearsay also connects her to a soldier-boyfriend who died at the front, but without his name verification is impossible.

The first wave of the pandemic hit Melbourne in January 1919 and proved to be the most virulent, the number of infected reaching their greatest height in the second week of February. As a trainee nurse Valda was perhaps more susceptible than the average 24 year old living in Melbourne at the time. Typically she worked long hours – usually from 7am-7pm, 6 days week – but during the pandemic her working hours were even longer and the tasks performed more challenging as well as unremitting, for ambulances arrived constantly with two or three patients, sometimes bearing corpses. It was in the early weeks of the pandemic that Valda succumbed to the virus.

2-45 Ward, female c1918 (1)

Female Ward, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne c.1918. Judging by the absence of masks, this was not a Spanish flu ward.

The disease struck with amazing speed, overwhelming her weakened immune system and causing uncontrollable haemorrahging that filled her lungs – she probably eventually drowned. In an attempt to curtail the spread of infection visitors were forbidden. So on the 14 February 1919, Valda died in isolation without anyone permitted to comfort her nor bid a farewell.

Valda was not the only nurse infected at St Vincent’s. At about the same time she took to her hospital bed the hospital’s registrar reported 23 nurses ill from the virus. Over at the Melbourne General Hospital (Royal Melbourne Hospital), the superintendent reported 39 nurses had been infected and, as he added, eight were seriously ill; one died five days before Valda on 9th February.

Valda was the only fatality among the St Vincent Hospital’s health-workers. A section of the 1919 Annual Report was devoted to describing the impact of the pandemic on the hospital; Valda’s death was recorded as an addendum that noted: … one case among the nursing staff was fatal.

Valda’s death devastated many, especially her family. Friends like Carrie O’Grady mourned her passing too. Carrie expressed her grief in the death columns of the Argus, dedicating the notice: In loving memory of my chum, Valda (nurse) Kelly.

Despite still feeling saddened by her early death I also feel a great admiration for Valda and her fellow nurses’ for their bravery during the pandemic. Their efforts and the care provided at the Front during the war by 1000 or more nurses from Victoria resulted in a heightened respect for the selfless role nurses played. As MLA John Percy Jones observed, ‘There is no profession more important to the community … than the nursing profession.’ His comment was made during parliamentary debates prior to passing the Victorian Nurses Registration Act in 1923. The Act recognised the vital role played by nurses such as Valda Kelly.

May 5, 2017
by Sonia Jennings

Just finished

Jill Barnard and Sonia Jennings are off to Sydney tomorrow for the launch of their new book – It Started from Scratch: the first fifty years of the Australasian College of Dermatologists. Here’s a sneak preview.

cover pic

September 27, 2016
by Sonia Jennings

Reflections on the Working History conference


The Living Histories’ team played a major role in the planning and organisation of the recent ‘Working History’ conference for professional historians.


Jill Barnard records her personal highlights:

There were so many highlights of the 2016 Working History conference that it is hard to focus on just a few. Our guest speakers, Tim Sherratt and Lisa Murray, stimulated our senses with keynote addresses to begin each day. Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the first practitioner of public history in Australia, held the room spell-bound with reflections on his own journey as a historian. There were so many stimulating papers, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the work as professional historians and providing ample evidence that, as practitioners of history, we are constantly assessing and reassessing aspects of our professionalism. On reflection, however, the major highlight of the conference for me, was the respect for each other’s work and the sense of collegiality that bathed both the conference room and informal discussions between colleagues during breaks.

August 15, 2016
by Mary Sheehan

Cambridge Summer School

Two weeks have flown. Trite as it may sound, it seems only yesterday that I walked along the tree-lined avenue to Clare College, and stopped on the bridge to watch a family of ducks glide by on the River Cam next to a couple of punts. It was such a peaceful setting with the beautiful Clare Fellows Garden in view on the river bank. It’s so good to be back at Cambridge University again. Once more I’m walking in the footsteps of ‘greats’ such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Hawking … and the list goes on.


Punts on the River Cam

But it’s not just walking in the steps of these ‘giants’ that makes me feel good, nor the fact that 92 Nobel prize winners have been associated with the university, it’s the beauty and the architecture that makes it such a pleasure to be here again.

Stunning architecture is everywhere in Cambridge, and Clare College is no exception. Founded in 1326, Clare is the second oldest of the 32 colleges that make up Cambridge. Old Court, the oldest section, was built over a period of seventy-two years in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and is astonishingly beautiful. The buildings carry a patina of age that makes it easy to image centuries of scholars criss-crossing its paths.


Clare College Old Court

Yet, awe-inspiring as the surroundings are, equal pleasure is also gained in catching up with those I met two years ago at the history summer school – and meeting new students – the majority of whom travelled from all parts of the world including  the Netherlands, Japan, Italy, United States, Jordan, India and, surprisingly, a fair contingent from Australia.


The Granta, an excellent pub to sit and relax with a glass of wine and watch the ducks glide by.

Before arriving in Cambridge I felt apprehensive about the  program I’d joined, Creative Writing, a non-fiction course taught by Midge Gillies who has published multiple histories. I knew participants were expected to produce a writing piece on a nominated topic each day, that were to be critiqued by the class. But it wasn’t so bad after all.

Writing assignments over the first week focused on biography and memoir, and ranged in subject from shoes and cake, to momentous news. Focus in the second week was on people and places, with topics including describing a view from a window, the worst night’s sleep, and home (I became a little too philosophical with the last, so word limit became a great challenge). Except for the latter, tasks were not as daunting as anticipated. Indeed, for a slow writer like myself, the exercises provided confidence that a piece could be produced within two sittings totally about 3 hours. During the course the importance of voice was emphasised, and the value of creating a sense of place or location. There were good hints offered too, including the suggestion that, if having difficulties describing something, try drawing on any of the five senses to help paint a word picture..

We were kept very busy in the course, so busy there was little time to do the many things I’d planned – perhaps another trip back to Cambridge is needed?




Foreign correspondent #2

August 13, 2016 by Sonia Jennings

Mary’s ‘summer school’ trip to Cambridge draws to an end, but she’s sent us more fabulous photos.  Some words to come in the future (we hope).






This gallery contains 11 photos

Foreign correspondent

July 31, 2016 by Sonia Jennings

Mary Sheehan is currently at Cambridge University in the UK doing a creative writing course.  She’s sent us some great photos of her new neighbourhood and we can’t wait to hear about the course when she gets back.


This gallery contains 3 photos

July 22, 2016
by Karen Twigg

Bernard Bailyn Lecture

confed memorialA public lecture that raised questions about race, memory, monuments, and heritage – what a treat! Last Tuesday (12 July) I rode my bike into the wonderful old drill hall occupied by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. My goal was the annual Bernard Bailyn Lecture on North American History, sponsored by La Trobe University. This year the guest speaker was Dr James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

James spoke about the large number of Confederate memorials in the United States – including schools and university named after Confederate generals as well as statues, plaques and monuments. In recent times these have emerged as sites of tension seen by some as symbols of racism that should be removed but viewed by others as representing Southern pride and commemorating military skill and heroism (regardless of the cause). Those wanting to protect and celebrate these memorials, James argued, often evoked a notion of ‘heritage’ that mythologized the past and was impervious to historical evidence.

Question time was an energetic affair, with the seventy people in attendance actively engaging with many of the issues that James had raised. A big thank you to Holly Wilson, a PhD student from La Trobe University, for organising such a thought-provoking event.

July 19, 2016
by Karen Twigg

Mammalian weeds … a report from AHA conference

jane_brown_SP1-croppedMammalian weeds? What could this person be talking about? The speaker, Professor Katie Holmes, was in fact speaking about mice. Delivering a paper at the recent AHA conference, Katie discussed mice plagues in the Victorian Mallee, drawing attention to the sheer numbers of mice that invade farmlands during a plague, infiltrating every crevice of barn and bedroom and confounding perceptions of what is ‘natural’. Such mouse plagues are familiar (at least by repute) to most of us who live in south-eastern Australia but I was surprised to learn that they are rare in the rest of the world. The only other place they occur in such large numbers is in isolated provinces in China.

The AHA 2016 conference was held in Ballarat in the first week of July. After getting lost finding the central Federation University campus in cold, drizzly winter weather, I settled down for four days of stimulating papers. Katie’s paper was just one that took up the conference theme of ‘Boom to Bust’. Stories of rise and fall, progress and collapse, rags to riches are often threaded through the work we do as historians and the many papers on offer certainly did justice to this theme. The conference offered ten separate streams on subjects that ranged from environmental, cultural, industrial, heritage, regional and feminist topics.

With so much richness on offer I faced the daily dilemma of the conference attendee. How could I possibly choose the ‘right’ session to attend? I largely solved this quandary by establishing myself in lecture halls C0001 and C0003. These were the rooms devoted to the environmental history stream, one of the most vigorous and lively of the conference program and attracting around forty-five individual papers and panel discussions.

Katie’s paper was part of one such environmental history panel, exploring agricultural boom and bust through the lens of pests. While Katie focused on mice, Andrea Gaynor investigated locust plagues and the prevalence of military metaphors as well as military equipment and personnel used in the ‘war’ against them. On the same panel Emily O’Gorman showed how the redistribution of water for irrigation purposes in the Murray River system increased mosquito numbers and the threat of mosquito-borne diseases.

For me the highlight of the conference was the launch of Tom Griffiths long-awaited book, The Art of Time Travel, in which he examines the craft of history-writing through the work of fourteen historians. I left the conference with my head buzzing with new ideas, and Tom’s new book in my bag promised to further stretch my thinking. Now I only have to carve out the time to read it…

January 4, 2016
by Living-History-Admin

Professional Historians’ conference

Flinders Street, Melbourne, SLV image



Living Histories’ partners are closely involved with the organisation of a national conference for professional historians.  The conference will be held on 19-20 August 2016 in Melbourne. More details of the conference can be found at