My great-grandmother fought Spanish Flu in Newcastle with constant care

“Every city needs a Mary Ann Dalby … the people’s friend.”

It’s strange how an unlikely heroine can suddenly step straight out of the dusty pages of your family archive.

Newcastle, NSW, 1919: Australia was recuperating from the shell shock of World War I. Granite memorials in every city, town and village across the nation spelled out, in chiselled gold, the names of local boys who had never returned home. And then, without warning, a swiftly moving dark cloud swept the planet and harvested an appalling 21 million lives in the space of six months.

The demand for basic necessities fell on volunteer groups – in particular, the churches.

Recent studies say it could have been more like 50-100 million.

In Newcastle alone, nearly 500 people died. In all of human history there was nothing to rival it in the cost of life – no famine, plague or war had reaped such a harvest.

The dreaded ‘Spanish Flu’ arrived in the Steel City quietly. On March 4, a single seaman, on a ship from Melbourne, died of pneumonia in Newcastle Hospital and from there the disease spread like wildfire. The authorities jackknifed into action. Homes were quarantined, throats were sprayed, inhalation chambers set up in main streets, but still the epidemic travelled with alarming speed. Medical scientists were baffled as they struggled for solutions and experimented with inoculations. A church paper declared ‘the sin of war’ was to blame. By April, railway stations were displaying stark signs declaring “NO MASK, NO TICKET!” But still the columns of funeral notices in the papers lengthened.

As the pandemic raged on through May and June and into July, under-resourced local authorities were quickly overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of unemployment and the lack of staff and facilities to meet the basic needs of the population.

In Newcastle, being a country area at the time, the burden of meeting the demand for basic necessities fell on volunteer groups – in particular, the churches. They set up kitchens and visited the sick at home offering assistance. The backbone of these auxiliary efforts to feed and clothe suffering families were the city’s women. In the thick of it was a short, sturdy lady in a plain black dress, known to everyone in the city simply as ‘Ma Dalby.’ Ma and Pa Dalby were well known as the proprietors of the boot shop in Newcastle’s main street.

“Nobody ever wanted for comfort if the case reached the knowledge of Mrs Dalby.”

Mary Ann Dalby loved serving people, particularly the poor. Somewhere in the 1870s, she had begun as a young volunteer doing home visits across Newcastle and her own neighbourhood in Stockton. This was in the days before there were government agencies and social service payments. For 50 years, she maintained her commitment to touching the lives of people in need, while mothering five children and sharing in the running of the shoe business with her husband. Suffering the loss of two infant children only seemed to deepen her compassion.

She was the original Pink Lady at Newcastle Hospital, spreading kindness among the patients and doing the small things that spoke of a caring heart. It was said around the wards, “Nobody ever wanted for comfort if the case reached the knowledge of Mrs Dalby.”

The Benevolent Fund became one of her chief fields of action. Formed in 1813, it was the first charitable organisation in Australia at a time when governments were reluctant to take responsibility for relief work. Its goal was to extend practical action on the basis of Jesus’ teachings. The Newcastle branch, which opened in 1885, driven mostly by Christian women of the city, set up an asylum to supply the growing number of poor with shelter, clothes, food and necessities for survival. Their particular concern was providing accommodation for the aged and a maternity ward for single mothers.

Ma Dalby became one of the visitors sent to assess the needs of those applying for help. The demand for aid increased rapidly to the point where it was decided in 1896 to build a new asylum at Waratah, funded by the biscuit manufacturer William Arnott, an active member of the Salvation Army. True to form, Mary Ann, though a staunch member of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Stockton, became an enthusiastic supporter of the Salvos. In the early 20th century, the Waratah hospital became a well-known symbol of Christian compassion in the city.

When the war brought loss and added suffering, Ma Dalby threw her energies into patriotic efforts such as the Ambulance Brigade and Red Cross. Struggling families of returned soldiers found her a sympathetic friend. When the influenza epidemic drifted over the suburbs in 1919 like a cloud of poison gas, Ma Dalby, now almost 70 years old, stepped into the breach again.

People reported seeing her walk for miles in drenching rain … to give out sewing and clothes.

The Waratah Asylum became an isolation hospital and her base for action. With public offices, shops and factories at a virtual standstill, women volunteers established a kitchen at nearby Hamilton, distributing beef tea, custard and jelly to hundreds of people. Funds were desperately short and soon the stout figure of Ma Dalby became a familiar sight, out in all weathers, organising and collecting for the different charities that called on her.

People reported seeing her walk for miles in drenching rain in her black bonnet to give out sewing and clothes. My dad, Allan, remembered trotting beside her on these errands of mercy when only a boy of seven or eight. His brother Lindsay recalled that she wasn’t afraid to distribute strong medicine along the way as well. If she spotted the father of a family she’d been helping drinking his pay away in the pub, she would hook him out with her umbrella and tell him to go and take care of his kids!

When the wards filled to overflowing and trained nurses were in short supply, she and other women set about providing home care, wearing only masks for protection. In the middle of this, the flu hit her daughter’s family.

My dad had vivid memories of the lethal scourge that brought his family close to death. He recalled, “So widespread was the illness that many people died. To cope with the sick people, the public schools were made into makeshift hospitals. The park next to Cessnock Public School was filled with many temporary huts made into isolation wards. It was a really serious plague.”

“All the people had to wear masks over their noses in public spaces to prevent infection … In our home everyone got sick excepting myself. I acted as nurse to all in our family … Eventually, I got sick. I remember the terrifying darkness that swept over me when at regular intervals I was delirious. We all survived that traumatic time.” And Mary Ann was spared the loss of more children.

“Every city needs a Mary Ann Dalby … the people’s friend.”

It moves me to think of tiny Ma Dalby, energetically at work in the eye of that ferocious five-month storm in her hometown. Despite the great loss of life and family devastation it caused, that horrible illness evaporated rapidly from memory. The Depression and World War II quickly overshadowed those frightful days. But discovering my great-grandmother’s story reminded me that that some things do remain.

In the words of Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon,

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

After she passed away in August 1924, Ma Dalby’s son, Claude, recalled the impulsive generosity which nearly impoverished herself and her family. If someone were in need, she was quick to give away shoes from the store, her own personal things or even at times her children’s clothes. He summed up his mother’s life simply. “She really lived for others. She was a follower of Jesus Christ and made no distinctions of creed.”

The people who crowded into Newcastle Cathedral to farewell the little shoemaker’s wife silently proved that to be true. Anglican clergy in robes stood with Salvation Army lassies in uniform; members of the Painters and Dockers Union and tugboat crews rubbed shoulders with head office staff from Newcastle industry. Undoubtedly many of the poorer, working-class folk to whom she had ministered made up the crowd. Along with representatives of nearly every Newcastle charity, they listened as the Dean affirmed that her long life of practical Christianity had made an indelible mark. He said, “She showed what one heart and one pair of hands consecrated to the service of humanity could do. For 50 years she radiated good courage and cheerful optimism to the poor and needy. Every city needs a Mary Ann Dalby … the people’s friend.”

As three Mayors of Newcastle helped carry the coffin from the church, the flags of all the ships in the nearby harbour fluttered at half-mast. It was a tribute from the community of seamen who ebbed and flowed in the port to their friend Ma Dalby. A memorial plaque later unveiled by the Mayor at Newcastle Hospital, as a tribute from the citizens of the city, was headed with the words of the Apostle Paul, “The greatest of all, is charity.”

Now when I visit my family’s hometown, I like to imagine Ma Dalby of Newcastle standing beside Mother Teresa of Calcutta up on Nobby’s Head, looking out across the city and agreeing, “We can’t all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.”