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What Westpac’s archives tell us about pandemics

07:00am August 11 2020

Makeshift hospital beds in Melbourne’s Great Hall during the 1919 influenza pandemic. (Museums Victoria)

Thankfully, most Australians have never experienced a public health crisis on the scale of COVID-19.

That may be why Australia’s battle with the last great pandemic, the 1918-20 influenza known as the “Spanish flu”, had somewhat faded from our collective national memory.

But historians and economists alike have been busily scouring the public records for any clues from that struggle as to how the coming months may evolve.

Looking into Westpac’s archives, one of only a handful of privately held corporate archival collections in Australia, the bank’s surviving records paint a similarly grim picture about the toll of the virus, but also some differences to what we are seeing today. For example, with the Spanish flu afflicting people in their prime particularly hard as opposed to COVID-19’s more lethal attack on the elderly, a staggering 64 per cent of the bank’s employees aged under 32 were off ill with the virus in 1919.

Hospital staff masked to protect against influenza, Kensington, NSW, 1919. (State Records NSW)

Given the younger staff usually filled customer-facing roles, the impacts on service can only be imagined.

There is one account of a junior in the Winton branch in Central West Queensland gaining “significant experience and responsibility” when he kept the branch open alone for three days until help could reach him, as all other members of the branch were struck down ill. Sadly, other staff members died.

But despite the devastation so soon after the First World War, our archives – which date back to the 1817 formation of the Bank of New South Wales (which became Westpac) – also provide some useful perspective as the nation stares down its contemporary pandemic struggle.

I would even argue it provides a bit of much-needed relief.

City of Sydney staff wearing protective masks during the 1919 pandemic. (City of Sydney Archives, Nora Fisher)

For some context, the Spanish flu reached Australian shores in 1919, almost certainly brought by soldiers returning from the First World War, before infecting an estimated two million Australians out of a population of just five million and, tragically, killing nearly 15,000 Australians over two years. Globally, more than 40 million people are estimated to have died from the virus, dwarfing the number of deaths caused by the Great War it immediately followed.

The most telling information we can glean from the bank’s archives comes from the “Register of Officers”, a set of five large, hand-written books, meticulously kept by the Staff Inspector. A double-page is allocated to every employee hired over the six decades from 1859, capturing the date they “entered the service” as it was then known, along with their date of birth and their positions, locations and salary throughout their career, which in those days was often over a lifetime from ages 16 to 60.

Importantly, the register also noted in detail any time off – whether due to illness, misadventure or other reasons.

In the year the virus arrived, the Bank of New South Wales’ Register shows there were 1650 active staff, employee numbers having depleted during 1914 to 1918 when a massive 70 per cent of the bank’s staff enlisted to serve in the Great War.

Of those employees active in 1919, 494 – or almost 30 per cent of the bank’s staff – were struck ill with Influenza and a further 121 – or 7 per cent – in the following year.

Sadly, two staff members lost their battle with the illness: one man aged 46, and another 52. This was in addition to those employees who died of from the virus offshore at the end of their war service, including one man 16 days after Armistice, still in France, and another at sea on his way home. Thankfully, the bank has not lost any staff to COVID-19.

The sentiment at the time of the Spanish flu is summed up in a letter by the bank’s head office branch manager at 341 George Street, Sydney, to the general manager:

“The last four years of War with dislocation to our staff, by the large percentage of enlistments comprising the best of our men, the serious Influenza epidemic and other troubles which added to the exceptionally trying times, have called for a spirit of service and loyalty to the bank in overcoming all difficulties ... Men have given of their best, and worked themselves in many cases to a standstill.”  

Like today's crisis, the Spanish flu led to closures of schools, churches, theatres, libraries, pubs, race meetings and agricultural shows, resulting in economic hardship and significant interruptions to education, entertainment, trade, travel and shopping. Similarly, people were required to wear masks, urged to practice cough etiquette, regular handwashing and ventilation, streets were sprayed with disinfectant, movement by public transport was restricted and state borders closed.

Without diminishing the difficulties we face today, it does remind us others have faced and got through similar times.

An ambulance with nurses protected with masks against Spanish flu at the Randwick Military Hospital, 1919. (Australian War Memorial)

While it is difficult to gauge the direct economic impacts given the economy was already reeling from costs associated with the Great War, Westpac’s 1919 annual report noted the effects of disruptions to international transport routes and unreliable access between markets globally for trade of goods.

Despite the economic disruption, analysis by the Reserve Bank of Australia shows the labour market recovered quickly from the pandemic and strong economic growth followed, which bodes well for today.

Among other bright spots from the archives included a particularly unexpected one: employment for women.

During the war years 1914 to 1918, Westpac had radically altered its operations to fill the shortage of men who had enlisted to serve their country, by employing women in significant numbers for the first time, albeit on a temporary basis and in support roles only.

In 1915, 22 women joined the staff, followed by a further 53 in 1916, meaning women shot up to become almost 8 per cent of the bank’s total staff complement of around 1000. As the pandemic took hold, again momentarily depleting the number of male employees, any assumptions about retiring the temporary female staff were abandoned, many of the women continuing at the bank for years to come, some becoming trailblazers for women’s rights.

Another upside out of the period related to employee entitlements.

At the time, employees had no access to ‘sick leave’, ‘annual leave’ or any form of ‘carer’s leave’. Time off was only granted, without pay, for major illness or injury, broken bones and deaths in the family being the two most common reasons. Aside from the unpaid leave taken due to illness from the deadly Influenza virus, the bank’s register also recorded a number of other illnesses (and deaths) at the time caused by diseases no longer prevalent in our society such as typhoid fever and measles in particular.

Although there are many alarmingly similar traits between the pandemic battle of 1919-20 and our struggles one hundred years later, one thought in particular comes to mind: thank goodness we live in better times now.

As Westpac's head of historical services, Kim has responsibility for managing the bank's corporate archives – the largest privately held archives in the Southern Hemisphere. Having commenced her career in media and journalism, Kim found her passion in historical research and documentary heritage and, prior to joining Westpac in 2015, has held a number of archivist and research roles, and was President of the Australian Society of Archivists.

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