September 6, 2023
by Sonia Jennings
Comments Off on ‘YES’ to the Voice to Parliament

‘YES’ to the Voice to Parliament

The 2023 referendum is history in the making and a rare opportunity for Australian people to vote yes to recognise First Peoples by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Constitution.

We consider it highly appropriate that an advisory body, known as ‘The Voice to Parliament’ comprised of First Nations people be formed and consulted in relation to all affairs pertinent to Indigenous Australians.

We believe this should be enshrined in the Australian constitution.

We view with hope and optimism the idea that historians and members of the Australian community will one day, through reforms such as the Voice to Parliament, listen, hear and tell the truths of both colonial and post-colonial Australian history, particularly the extraordinary suffering, disenfranchisement, and systemic racist policies enacted against the First Peoples of this land.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart invites all Australians to undertake the journey of reformation and is a heartfelt appeal for reconciliation.

Voting ‘yes’ [on 14 October 2023] is personally endorsed by the partners of Living Histories – Jill Barnard, Sonia Jennings, Mary Sheehan and Dr Karen Twigg.



July 21, 2023
by Sonia Jennings
Comments Off on Mary Sheehan wins RHSV John Adam prize

Mary Sheehan wins RHSV John Adam prize

Mary Sheehan

The John Adam prize is awarded by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria for the best article or historical note on Victorian history in the four VHJ issues over two calendar years. The prize is awarded for an article or historical note that illuminates a significant element of Victoria’s history, is clearly and succinctly written, and is researched from original material.

Prize winner for 2020-2022 – Mary Sheehan
A Grassroots View of Spanish Influenza in Melbourne by Mary Sheehan, Victorian Historical Journal, vol 93, no 2, December 2022, pp 349-372.

Judges’ Citation:

The Covid 19 pandemic has sparked renewed interest in its predecessor, the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919. This well-researched and lucid account of the three phases of the pandemic in Melbourne demonstrates how divisions between medical and public, central and local authorities affected the provision of emergency hospital care, especially in impoverished districts. While the First World War heightened vulnerability to the epidemic, it also stimulated the formation of Voluntary Aid Detachments and patriotic groups that could be mobilised in the response to the disease. The article blends exploration of public policy with case studies of the disease’s impact on stricken families in North Melbourne and Cremorne. The author’s perspective as a one-time nurse heightens her insightful contribution to the history of epidemics in Australia.

Judges: Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison AO, FAHA, FASSA, FFAHS, FRHSV and Carole Woods OAM, FRHSV






December 3, 2021
by Sonia Jennings
Comments Off on Women & the Plague: The 1919 Spanish Influenza Pandemic in Melbourne

Women & the Plague: The 1919 Spanish Influenza Pandemic in Melbourne

An online talk by Mary Sheehan (hosted by SHAPS, University of Melbourne), November 2021

Members of the Yarraville Women’s Influenza Relief Committee, c1919. Footscray Historical Society

Pandemics have always been more than just a medical problem, for they also highlight societal inequalities. Socioeconomic status and ethnic backgrounds have a profound effect on who gets sick, who dies, and who survives – often with long-term health consequences.

The impact of the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic globally is often told in statistical terms, with an emphasis placed on the high levels of mortality among young males – a tragedy heightened by the deaths of so many combatants during World War One. But what effect did the pandemic have on women, especially those who survived? How did women in the poorer working class suburbs eke out a living and, for the more fortunate, manage to survive?

This paper considers the effects of Spanish influenza in Melbourne. It is the result of burrowing down multiple rabbit holes to catch a glimpse of the effects the event had on women, in particular those in the working class suburbs of Melbourne.

Mary Sheehan is a doctoral candidate in the History Program at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis focuses on the social history of the Spanish influenza pandemic and its effects on Melbourne society in 1919.

June 20, 2020
by Sonia Jennings
Comments Off on Congratulations to Karen Twigg

Congratulations to Karen Twigg

Dr Karen Twigg

Living Histories is extremely proud to announce that our partner, colleague, friend and all-round great historian Karen Twigg, is now the newly anointed ‘Dr’ Karen Twigg.

Karen recently completed her PhD at La Trobe University with her thesis: ‘Along Tyrrell Creek: An Environmental History of a Mallee Community’. Karen’s doctoral research focussed on environmental history and in particular on the farming community of Berriwillock in the Mallee region of Victoria. Karen was part of a larger Australian Research Council funded project: ‘Changing Landscapes, Changing People – Australia’s Southern Mallee Lands 1830-2012.’

Karen’s thesis not only completed all the PhD requirements it also earned her the Nancy Millis medal. The award is named after Professor Nancy Millis, who served as Chancellor of La Trobe University from 1992-2006. The medal is awarded to the authors of outstanding doctoral theses. Examiners are asked to consider if the thesis is in the top five per cent of theses they have examined. Nominated theses are then assessed following the examination process and are considered for the award through a selection process that involves the university’s Director of Graduate Research with final recommendations approved by the Board of Graduate Research. So, in essence, a rigorous process!

The Nancy Millis medal

Karen told us that she was ‘very chuffed’ to receive the award and also very grateful to the Berriwillock community (in the Mallee) and the interviewees who assisted in her research. Karen was convinced that her public history work with Living Histories had stood her in good stead for doctoral research. ‘We’ve had years of practice in communicating complex concepts in an accessible way.’

When asked by her colleagues if she’ll be wearing the medal the next time we see her, she replied:

Yes, I’ve been joking with the kids about it. They parade around the house at the end of every soccer season wearing the medals the team awards to each player, so now I can also parade around wearing my medal!

But, as if that was not enough, we’ve now heard that Karen has won the prestigious Mike Smith prize! The prize for an unpublished essay is awarded by the Australian Academy of Science in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia. Karen’s essay (described as ‘outstanding’) was ‘The Green Years: the role of abundant water in shaping rural women’s experience in the 1950s.’

What an excellent scholar we have as a colleague – well done Dr Karen Twigg, we salute you.

Sonia Jennings, Jill Barnard and Mary Sheehan
June 2020

March 12, 2020
by Mary Sheehan
Comments Off on Were these the good old days?

Were these the good old days?

Watching the rapid spread of the Coronavirus today seems like a re-enactment of events a century ago. But then too, many things were very different in 1919 when the ‘Spanish’ influenza virus arrived in Australia. The nation was recovering from war, nothing was known about viruses, no central health authority existed to co-ordinate a response, authority was divided between the government and local councils at State level, and antibiotics had yet to be developed. Harder still, no international bodies existed to offer global warnings or provide advice, for those in Versailles were still nutting out plans for a League of Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) was years away from being formed.

When ‘Spanish’ flu arrived in Melbourne a little more than 100 years ago in January 1919, there were not enough hospital beds to accommodate the sick so emergency hospitals had to be created. The largest emergency accommodation was set up in Carlton’s Exhibition Building in early February 1919 (see image above) and operated until September. More than 4,000 patients were treated there and, a credit to the medical and nursing staff, the mortality rate was around ten percent and less than some of the major hospitals.

Staff and ambulance outside Richmond State School emergency hospital

Because schools had been closed, other emergency hospitals were created in these buildings in suburbs like Richmond, Collingwood, and Armadale. The Williamstown Naval Depot, army base hospitals in St Kilda Road and at Broadmeadows were also used, as was the recently opened Footscray Technical College. Thirty-four emergency hospitals were created in addition to the established public hospitals and the infectious diseases hospital at Fairfield admitting the sick.

Herald, 29 January 1919

Advertisements without official approval from health authorities (see right) were banned after false claims and promises had been made about the efficacy of products. Although panic arose as people rushed vaccination centers, erroneously believing injections would afford protection from the virus, no evidence has been found of panic buying, since limited reserves prevented individuals from stockpiling goods. Yet, despite their limited means, there was much altruism evident in this tinier post-war society as local suburban women’s groups formed and developed rosters to prepare food and visit the sick – households would put an SOS sign in their window to show help was needed.

Borders were closed and people quarantined in tents where they waited out their time (between 4 -7 days) before gaining permission to cross. Others were stranded in Melbourne without transport when trains were unable to travel interstate and shipping agents required evidence of quarantine. Many had run out of funds and were destitute. Picture theaters were also banned from opening, hotels were only allowed a maximum of 20 patrons at a time, and race meetings were called off. As a result, thousands were thrown out of work and had to seek relief from their local council.

Masked Commonwealth Bank tellers in Melbourne, Sydney Mail, 5 February 1919

By September the virus had run its course. Although the memory of those who did not survive lived on in the hearts of their loved ones, public memory soon forgot the episode as attention was turned to honoring the war dead and the process of recovery.

Still, Melbourne and the nation were more fortunate than other places in the world where mortality was extraordinarily high for an estimated 15,000 died in Australia – the death rate globally was more than 50 million. That the nation experienced lower mortality rates was the result of strict maritime quarantine controls implemented the previous year in October 1918. This delayed and reduced the impact of the disease. Nevertheless, as occurred throughout the world, deaths from the virus were mainly among those aged 20 to 40 years, and mostly males, a loss the nation could ill-afford to bear on the heels of war losses.

Mary Sheehan is a professional historian who is currently undertaking a Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne on the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic in Melbourne. She has worked in heritage, undertaken oral history projects, and completed multiple commissioned histories. She also has a nursing background.

August 30, 2017
by Mary Sheehan
Comments Off on Celebrating nationhood

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.

             Valda 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
Comments Off on Just finished

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
Comments Off on Reflections on the Working History conference

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
Comments Off on Cambridge Summer School

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?