Venom: the search for the taipan

Roy Mackay, Neville Goddard and Kevin Budden prior to their 1949 expedition to north Queensland in search of a live taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus).

In 1949 Guugu Yimithirr man George Rosendale did what no one had done before him – he survived a taipan bite. He was bitten by an aggressive snake well over two metres long and whose venom what intense and fast, yet it had been unknown to science until a few years before and no anti-venom had been developed. It was known and feared by Aboriginal people of the cape, of course. Rosendale and the others who lived at Hope Vale called it a nguman, but it is remembered by the name others further up the cape called it, the taipan.

They are ferocious biters. When Rosendale realised he was bitten he swung his leg around and the 2m long snake remained attached. He managed to kick it clear but had two fang marks on his ankle. Rosendale panicked and ran, making matters worse as the venom coursed quickly through his veins. Another man tied a ligature round his leg as he lost consciousness. The bush doctor saved his life by cutting along the fang marks until it bled. Rosendale was rushed by truck over bumpy roads to Cooktown Hospital, where somehow he recovered. Nurses later showed him photos of his blood which was black in places.

At Hope Vale they called him Mr Famous, but Rosendale had the misfortune to be as black as his blood in a time in Australia when black lives most certainly did not matter. Despite the media frenzy about the deadly taipan, Rosendale’s recovery was written off by racist media as “the Abo who survived the taipan.” So his nameless survival was overlooked as North Queensland remained paralysed by this most deadly of snakes. Rosendale’s story is the centrepiece of a fascinating book called Venom by Brendan James Murray about the search for Australia’s deadliest venomous snake – the taipan.

Nineteenth century German immigrant Amelie Dietrich was probably the first European to capture one alive in 1866. She sent the snake to a Hamburg museum where it was identified as a new species but incorrectly as pseudechis scutellatus, a member of the black snake family. It was a poor taxonomy. Unlike the inoffensive black snake, a bite from these large coppery-brown snakes meant certain death.

Some early colonists called them “travelling browns” but they remained unknown to science until 1920s bird watcher Bill McLennan 1920s shot two large taipans dead and sent them to the Australian Museum in Sydney where they were reclassified as oxyuranus mclennani. A study of the snakes’ venom found it extremely toxic despite severe deterioration.

Though the name of the giant brown snake was unknown, its toxicity was well understood by Northern Queensland farmers. As was its speed. When John Pringle went to kill a snake that was poisoning his cattle, he attacked with a hoe, but the snake covered 2m in an instance and bit an astonished Pringle on the shins. Though he felt fine at first, Pringle was rushed to hospital and within hours, suffered seizures, lost consciousness and died.

Pringle was not alone. Queensland’s rat-infested cane country was a pefect taipan habitat. Typically bite victims would be convulsing within an hour and dead within two. Children were disproportionate victims in the 1930s and 40s due to the time they played in the bush. The snake was finally named in 1933 after Cape York Wikmunkan people led naturalist Donald Thompson to one, a female he captured alive with a snake stick. He kept the snake for eight months, during which time she laid eggs and Thompson milked her venom, which sadly was never used as antivenom. In a scientific paper he deduced Dietrich’s and McLennan’s snake were the same species he called oxyuranus scutellatus. Its common name would be what the Wikmunkan called it, the taipan.

The newly named species quickly gained a reputation as an animal whose bite was one hundred percent fatal. Frustrated medics tried to treat patients with tiger snake antivenom in massive quantities but this proved useless. A live taipan was needed, but given their aggressive nature, speed and toxicity of their poison, capturing one alive was extremely dangerous. A young group of Sydney naturalists who called themselves the Australian Reptile Club vowed to find one in the bush to use for antivenom.

In 1949 three young Club members Roy Mackay, Kevin Budden and Neville Goddard took their Sydney snake catching skills to Coen in FNQ to tease out the taipan. After a frustrating six week search they found one but it was too fast for them and escaped. To add insult to injury park rangers confiscated all the wildlife they did collect on their final day.

Undeterred Budden decided on a second field trip the following year. He looked for them in the cane fields near Cairns. He arrived at the start of crushing season, using field labourers as his spotters. When told there was one at the Cairns rubbish dump, he hunted among the debris where he found one distracted eating prey. The snake was too long to lift by the tail so he put his foot on its neck, finally grabbing it in his hands. However with the long body coiled around him, he couldn’t bag it by himself. He walked to the road and hailed down a truck, convincing the driver it was safe to take him.

At the truck owner’s house Budden lowered the snake into the bag but released his grip too early and the taipan bit his hand. Though it fell onto the grass he caught it again and bagged in inside a double knot. Budden was rushed to Cairns hospital but after a remarkably long fight he died. The truck driver took the bagged snake to the North Queensland Museum where he passed on Budden’s wishes it be sent to Commonwealth Serum Laboratory in Melbourne.

They sent it to the National Museum of Victoria as it had snake experts though no-one fancied opening the box. They called in David Fleay, a conservationist who ran the Healesville Sanctuary and he reluctantly accepted the task of freeing the snake and milking it for venom. But in the heat of the museum room, the taipan worked on a hole in the bag and escaped into a larger bag the museum had provided to cover it. Fleay gingerly opened that bag and saw the taipan’s head in preparation to strike. He quickly upended the bag on the floor, threw himself backwards and grabbed the tongs.

The released taipan was about to attack when Fleay lunged forwards and snapped the jaws shut with the tongs while the enormous muscular snake thrashed around. Fleay released the trigger of the tongs with the snake held securely behind the neck. Fleay lowered the head to a vial and clear yellowish venom poured inside. Fleay waited before the snake pulled towards the bag before emptying it in, surviving one last terrifying moment when it launched its head back up but was fractionally beaten by the yanking of the wire. Everyone present in the room agreed it was ‘the most savage tempered, tough and resistant snake’ they had ever seen.

Soon afterwards Cairns Council staff captured a second taipan alive after a falling rock had temporarily stunned it, at a spot the workers dubbed “Taipan Gully”. Arrangements were made to send it to Melbourne zoo which would give the venom to CSL. However it died on arrival in Victoria leaving only Budden’s snake for anti-venom. The Reptile Club, now rebadged as the Australian Herpetological Society came to the rescue using a pinner to spear the snake close to the head while a second person held the writhing coils and a third grasped the animal by the neck.

In 1955 10-year-old Cairns schoolboy Bruce Stringer was taken to hospital with a taipan bite. After initial failure with tiger snake venom, doctors offered his patents the new untried taipan antivenom from CSL and they agreed. The gamble saved Bruce’s life and once hospitals were stocked no-one needed to die from a taipan bite again.

We are still learning about taipans and their range across northern Australia is enormous, stretching from Brisbane to Broome. As recently as 2007 a new species was discovered – oxyuranus temporalis, the central ranges taipan. It was the third taipan species discovered, and the second, oxyuranus microlepitodus or the inland taipan, was pronounced the most venomous snake on earth. The rebadged original, or coastal taipan is the third on the list. However for its size and venom yield, the coastal taipan remains by far Australia’s deadliest snake.

Pat Mackie’s many ships to Mount Isa

Some 56 years ago Mount Isa Mines went through the bitterest dispute of its 100 year history. Starting in August 1964, when Queensland’s Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission rejected a proposed pay rise, it led to a miners go slow. The premier gave police powers to enforce a mandatory return to work, and mass sackings before the strikes petered out in early 1965 and a new award was struck in June that year.

Pat Mackie being interviewed during the miners strike.

The unionist at the centre of the action for much of those 10 months was so famous for his red cap, a musical by that name was made about it. In Mount Isa and across Australia he was known by the alias of Pat Mackie, but it was that man’s third change of name. Variously described as a Communist, an American, a criminal careerist, a Wobbly, and a destructive influence, he was revered by workers but fired by his own union and he left before the dispute was resolved. He ended up in Sydney mired in defamation cases against many newspapers that besmirched his reputation as the embodiment of evil in the strike.

Mackie wrote his own story in two parts with the help of his wife Elizabeth Vassilieff Wolf . There was “The Great Mount Isa Dispute” of course, but arguably the more interesting book was his colourful life leading up to that event, chronicled under the title “Many Ships to Mount Isa”.

Mackie was born Maurice Murphy in New Zealand in 1914. His father Michael was a timberman born in Australia, a fact which counted for Mackie when a vengeful Australian government failed to deport him after the Mount Isa dispute. His older brother and younger sister died young and he went to bush school near Rotorua. Michael was constantly on the move and Maurice schooled to age 14 at Moutohora and after one year of high school at Masterton he was forced to leave due to costs. Aged 15 he ran away to Wellington in the middle of the Depression drifting from one job to the next.

While staying at a hostel, Mackie met some older lads who gave him a life-long passion: wrestling. He went to Anton Koolman’s gymnasium, weightlifting and bodybuilding. Koolman was an Estonian with a flair for training and he passed his comprehensive knowledge to the youngster. After a year Mackie was good enough to win the Wellington Amateur Championships at welterweight division. He also studied the techniques of visiting American professionals. At the Hawkes Bay annual championships he was invited to join a professional wrestling troupe. He was billed as Giorgio Cortez champion of South America, and learned the arts of the professional showman.

He also learned a less good habit: getting in trouble with the law. He was arrested for joyriding and in court the sergeant advised him to plead guilty as “the quickest way to get out of trouble.” He was convicted and got two year’s probation, the first of many sentences opponents would use against him in the Mount Isa dispute.

The experience led him to stow away on a boat bound for NSW and once discovered he was pressganged into the dangerous business of loading coal for the engine. He got off at Newcastle and made his way to Sydney where he stowed away again on a steamer to Canada. He pretended to be Wesley Bredemus from Milwaukee. He was locked in a cabin and handed to immigration officers in Hawaii where he was forced into service for the judges instead of prison. After three months he was sent back to New Zealand on the ship he came in. There he was charged with breaking probation and sentenced to prison with hard labour for a month.

He found another ship bound for Nova Scotia through the Panama Canal and scored a job as deck hand. Stopping in Cristobal in the American Zone he crossed the main street to the Panamanian city of Colon and had his first taste of America with street cooking, red light districts and marijuana. After meeting a young prostitute he decided to jump ship and stay in Panama but could not get a job on the American side while there was no work on the Panamanian side. He stowed away again on a coffee ship bound for New York.

When discovered he claimed to be Canadian and was put to work. After he was locked up while the shipped called near Philadelphia, he busted the padlock and jumped overboard at midnight only to be washed away in the fast current of the Delaware river. Luckily he grabbed a rope from the ship, climbed into a lifeboat and was discovered the following morning. At New York he was handed over to immigration officers at Ellis Island.

They sent him back to Panama on a ship as a “workaway” (not a crew member but working for his keep). At Puerto Colombia he saw the ship’s carpenter fall overboard and be eaten by sharks and piranhas. While the ship stayed for the inquest he fell ill with yellow fever and was taken by rail to the Canal Zone. At Panama City he had the same problem as before, unable to get work without an American passport. He slept rough before the British consul sent him on his way as a “distressed British seaman”, as fireman on another ship bound back to New Zealand. He learned the ropes and back home found another ship which took him to London where he stayed and earned money on a wrestling circuit with the stage name Wildcat.

He ran out of money and went to sea again to Hamburg, in Hitler’s Germany where everyone wore uniforms. He disliked them but liked the beer and got drunk. After several police interrogations he wrote large graffiti on a wall “Heil Stalin, Fuck Hitler” and was promptly arrested at gunpoint. Luckily it was sailing time and he was allowed to leave. He sailed to Durban, New Zealand and eventually settled in Albury where his father had family. He fell in love with his cousin Kathleen and they eloped but he left her in Goulburn. He bummed a train to Cootamundra but was arrested and served two days for vagrancy. In Sydney he was arrested again, charged with breaking and entering though the judge for once overturned it.

Back in New Zealand in 1938 he was finally allowed to join the Seaman’s Union, beginning a lifelong love of unionism. He could not keep out of the courts, charged with drunkenness in 1939 and unjustly with assault of soldiers in 1941 and fined five pounds. In 18 months there were two more minor convictions, all used against him to paint him as a troublemaker in Mount Isa two decades later.

In 1941 his ship landed in Tahiti, and he was beguiled by the charms of local women. He lived in a grass and bamboo hut for a week and reluctantly sailed for San Francisco where he decided to take a bus to Vancouver, sneaking across the border on foot. There he took on a new identity Eugene Markey of Ontario. He met and married Pearl in 1942 as he worked the tugboats and organised the union. His success in improving pay and conditions got him and the union notice.

To earn extra money he went back to wrestling organising bouts with friends from gym and charging admission. He wrestled as Gentleman Gene and became popular with crowds of 6000 attending. Mackie said wrestling was neither real nor fake. It’s a form of dramatic entertainment with elements of acting, gymnastics and ballet dancing, he said, and professionals jazzed up the contest giving it form and meaning.

With the war on, Mackie was considered an essential worker as a seaman and moved cargo in dangerous waters around the world including freezing Murmansk in the USSR, where he was delighted to be in “the land of the workers”. Back home he was approached to join the Canadian Communist Party but he didn’t like the theoretical approach of its middle-class members and they huffily labelled him an anarchist.

Mackie preferred unions, saying his vocation was “organising the unorganised.” He earned a reputation as a brilliant talker and tough negotiator. He was elected to the Vancouver trades council and trained up other union delegates. At the library he studied union history, learned about the Wobblies and read the novels of Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos and Jack London. The Seafarers Union invited him to New York and organise their workers there. He accepted but Pearl wouldn’t go and their three year marriage ended.

He still went to sea and sailed to St Nazaire in Brittany after D-Day where he saw destroyed buildings and ships though the German U-Boat workshops were still standing. Back in New York he got into pro-wrestling and went on a lucrative tour of the Americas to leave him quite wealthy by war’s end. His tough training in the ring helped him deal with the hurly-burly of New York’s dangerous waterfront and its private armies of strikebreakers and gangsters and standover men. There was rough tactics on both sides. When police on horseback broke up a strike, unionists threw marbles on the ground causing the horses to fall.

The seafarers helped out other unions. When the hotel and restaurant workers went on strike, initially the cafes kept going with scabs. But the seafarers went into the cafes and ordered soup then took an emetic. After they vomited everywhere they shouted “I’m poisoned!” and business fell so rapidly the owners quickly came to terms with the unions. The same tactic was used successfully with recalcitrant taxi owners. When laundries went on strike, the seafarers emptied 120lb bags of soap into the washing machines and turned them on, covering the building in suds. The owners came to a quick agreement.

In 1946 Mackie returned to Canada to organise unions. Ship owners in Montreal were afraid of his reputation and issued threats and rough treatment. The city’s chamber of commerce was worried about his ability to organise other industries. Unions issued him a firearm in case of violence but authorities framed him using a lady called Beverley who he was attracted to. Returning from a union meeting across the American border, immigration officers found his gun. Worse still they found the butt of a marijuana joint left by Beverley.

Mackie was arrested for trafficking narcotics and imprisoned in Montreal. With accusations he was a Communist, Markie was advised to plead guilty, and got nine months jail. When he was released authorities finally realised he was not Canadian and booted him back him to New Zealand.

The image of Pat on the cover of Many Ships to Mount Isa.

There he found his father (though not his mother who had separated) and got a job painting. But his big mouth and unionising got him in trouble again and he moved to Sydney. There he met a painter heading for a place called “The Isa” where big money was to be made. Mackie thought this might help in his dream to build a ketch he remembered seeing in Tahiti.

He took the long trip north stopping in Brisbane where he fell foul of the law again. In a hotel where police were after stolen goods from a roommate, he got involved in a brawl. Police charged him on trumped up possession of stolen goods. Again he pleaded guilty and was fined.

He finally made it to Mount Isa in early 1950 in the middle of a blazing hot summer. The town, he said, looked like a derelict dead end of the world. He was advised to go to “The Barracks” where everyone who worked for Mount Isa Mines lived. He called it a “weird place” where people slept they could, many drunk amid card games, fights and arguments. He decided to take the first train back to Townsville but joined other new arrivals to meet “Hughie the Pieman” the only person selling bootleg whiskey, rum and cheap wine on a Sunday. After getting drunk, he woke up in the middle of the night “bitten to death by a million mosquitoes.”

Having missed the Townsville train the following morning, Mackie found the company was short of men and got a job as a painter. The foreman looked at his union tickets marked “E Markey” and asked what’s the E stand for. “Eugene,’ he replied, “Gene for short.” “That’s a bloody girl’s name,” he was told. “Well I don’t care what you call me, Call me Pat, that’s my other name.” He was called Pat Markey but the name on his first pay cheque was written Mackey which the newspapers settled on as Pat Mackie many years later. Eventually he gave up telling people his name was Markey.

Mackie attended the union meeting and immediately spoke out for workers’ rights, which marked him as a “Communist” to bosses. When he took a sick day after too much grog on May Day, they used it as excuse to sack him, refused to allow him sleep in the Barracks, and blackbanned contractors in Mount Isa from employing him.

He got work at a nearby Bernborough mine and with workers there took a fateful fishing trip to the Gregory River. He loved the fishing and the pub there but was even more intrigued by mineral finds. Mackie took up a lead mining lease at Lawn Hill he called Lucky Dollar. He sold his first five tons to Mount Isa Mines which allowed him to fit out a house on the lease. He spent eight years on the lease battling drought, flood, starvation, flies and isolation but earned enough money to send away for plans to build his Tahitian ketch. He said had the price been slightly lower he would have been sailing the seven seas instead of leading the dispute in 1965.

Times got tough when the price of lead dropped and he also got sick with lead poisoning. After unsuccessfully raising a syndicate of bush miners, and prospecting for wolfram (tungsten) on the Nicholson River, he had sell the lease to the company, and return to Mount Isa. Still warned off the mines, he got a road job with Thiess Brothers and rejoined a union. Finally in December 1961 with the Mines short of workers after a dispute and lokout, he got a job underground and joined the Australian Workers Union. Under an arrangement between MIM and AWU the company deducted dues owing to the union from workers’ pay packets. This issue would explode into the dispute of 1964, the subject of Mackie’s second book.

Remembering Ben Skeates, WW2 submariner

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, here’s a story about someone who fought in that war and ended up in Mount Isa. Ben Skeates died in 2010 so I never met him but I feel as if I know a little about him having read a book in which he features and having spoken to his son-in-law who still lives in Mount Isa and who says Ben was “his best friend” for decades before he died.

Ben Skeates and crew aboard the submarine Utmost. Ben is the petty officer on the right.

Come the start of the Second World War, Englishman Ben Skeates knew exactly what he had to do. After all he had joined the Royal Navy as far back as 1935. Four years in the sea had given him a thirst for the crazy life of an underwater mariner. And for six long years this small band of highly trained specialists and generalists took on some of the most dangerous missions of the war. The island of Malta got a George Cross for its refusal to buckle to the Nazis but it was Skeates and his submarine comrades that kept them alive.

Ben Skeates stayed alive too and after the war this sea wolf who saved Britain founded his own early electronics business. He followed family to Queensland and then the North West where he lived out most of the rest of his life, fossicking for opals. Until his death in 2010 Ben Skeates proudly wore his medals each year to Mount Isa’s Anzac Day parade though few people were aware of just how to close to death his service put him. His medals are among are among the proud possessions of Rod Lovelock, his son-in-law.

War hero Ben Skeates late of Hampshire, Barrow, Mary Kathleen and Mount Isa.

Skeates’ story featured in Tim Clayton’s book Sea Wolves: The extraordinary story of Britain’s WW2 Submarines. The book recounts how submariners battled innumerable dangers in difficult conditions. Being a submariner was a particularly dangerous role and they spent most of their time defending the fortress of Malta, an island that had refused to buckle under siege from German forces for well over two years. Despite the war Skeates loved the warmth and fun of Malta. He helped keep Malta alive though it almost killed him too.

Ben was born in Andover, Hampshire and his father Albert was a painter and decorator and an injured veteran of the First World War. Mum Lilian brought up four kids, Ben the second arriving on 5 February, 1919 just after the war ended. Ben was handy and after leaving school aged 14 he got a job with an electrician in Winchester until the work ran out in 1935. Rather than take a job plumbing he joined the Navy.

“Mum reckoned that the Navy life would be (too) rigorous for me, as the doctors had stated I wasn’t very robust in my formative years. This naturally had the opposite effect to that intended, and made me even more determined, to join the Navy,” he wrote in his diary.

He served mostly in cruisers in the Mediterranean and home waters and enjoyed the freedom the Navy brought though the discipline was memorable too. He never forget the day in training his class was ordered to climb the mast in threes without boots.and the entire 30 of them had to do in it in three minutes. If they failed they were marched to the mess and ordered to throw in the bin the breakfast they were about to have. “If you hesitated at swimming you were pushed in and when you came out of the shower you received a whack on the backside from the instructor,” Ben recalled.

Ben’s five official medals. He often wore three or four other medals on his right side: these were unofficial and awarded by the British Submariners Association.

But when war broke out, Ben decided to leave the relative safety of the cruisers and volunteered for submarines, the most dangerous part of the service. At his farewell he ignored the fatalistic jibes of his Navy mates. “Sooner you than me sparks.” “Mind you don’t fire them bloody torpedoes as us, that’s all”.

They were right to be worried. Of the British 49 subs, 19 went down in the war, 13 of them in the Mediterranean where Ben was headed. Ben was drafted into HMS Dolphin submarine base at Portsmouth to learn the ropes – and there were a lot more ropes to learn here than above water. The training was tough and it needed to be for the claustrophobic environment of the submarine.

Dealing with pressure – atmospheric and psychological – was the biggest concern and they started in a tank. Not an army tank but a water tank for long periods where both kinds of pressure could be measured. “Some people who passed the test in the tank could not stand the submarine once they got in, the atmosphere of being in this sardine can locked up,” Ben told Sea Wolves author Clayton.

Each man aboard was trained to do everyone else’s job because in an emergency they might have to. “If you were in the control room and near the main ballast diving vent panel, you pulled the vent levers in the correct order else the bleeding sub would go down head first,” Ben said.

Initially he was in the spare crew and could sneak home for weekends using rum as currency to bribe guards. That suddenly changed when he was assigned to the submarine Utmost to support the island of Malta which was surrounded by German positions in the Mediterranean.

Ben Skeates served on HMS Utmost. Photo by Royal Navy official photographer – This is photograph FL 4279 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2356022

HMS Utmost was a British U class submarine soundly built by Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness. These small submarines, of around 570 tonnes and 50m long and less than 5m wide, were originally intended as unarmed training vessels to replace an older class to be used as practice targets in anti-submarine training exercises. Initially converted fishing boats, more were built from scratch as war approached. The U Class proved to be useful warships in the confined waters of the North Sea and particularly in the Mediterranean.

Skeates’ electrical knowledge scored him a job in the Utmost radio office and on March 9, 1941 he radioed in a signal that three enemy Italian cargo ships were close by. They took out the Capo Vita, carrying gasoline and ammunition, and it detonated in a huge explosion sending debris in all directions, killing all on board. A second ship was torpedoed a day later.

When the submariners had shore leave they spent it in Malta where they let their hair down drinking and talking to “sherry queens”. The women were so named because if they bought them a sherry they would sit and talk with the soldiers. At a pound a pop, it was too expensive to take them home for the night.

At 11.30pm one night and alone, Ben heard the air raid siren sound. He could hear the screamers on the bombers as they dived but the all clear sounded and he dozed off. He didn’t hear the second raid and remembered dreaming the bedroom wall was splitting open. When Ben regained consciousness he was pinned down with an immense weight on his chest. He lost consciousness again and woke up a second time in a Maltese hospital. “A nurse was busy with scissors, trying to cut away the hair from my head,” he said. “There were some deep gashes in the scalp and she thought my skull had been fractured in several places.”

Rescuers had spent an incredible 27 hours digging him out of the rubble from a 500lb bomb though he was fortunate an unbroken sandstone block fell over his chest allowing him to breathe. With no anaesthetic available the nurse gave him a tumbler of brandy to dull the pain. The wound turned septic and he left for Gibraltar in a hospital ship.

A heavily bomb-damaged street in Valletta, Malta. Photo Imperial War Museums. Crown Copyright expired.

When he recovered he was assigned as a petty officer telegraphist at the submarine building yards at Barrow-on-Furness, England. There he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Muriel, the daughter of the family who owned his lodgings. Ben and Muriel married a year later. In 1944 Ben paid his first visit to Australia when he was ordered on to the sub HMS Maidstone to accompany a convoy to Fremantle. “The Yanks were already there with their inane jokes about our toy submarines,” he said. “Their’s were like battleships with deep freezers full of chicken and ice cream.”

Ben Skeates with wife Muriel and their three children in Barrow-on-Furness.

Ben survived the war and he and his young family carved out a life in Cumbria starting his own electrical business. His son-in-law Rod Lovelock said Ben was the first man in Barrow to make his own television. “He used a broomstick as an aerial and made a cathode ray tube out of radar parts,” Rod told me.

Rod played an important role in Ben’s later life and Rod said Ben would become his best friend for the last 50 years of his life. Rod, from Wiltshire, met and married Ben’s daughter June and they decided to move to Australia in 1974.

Son-in-law Rod Lovelock with the Skeates and Lovelock family history book that was compiled by Ben Skeates.

After a stint in Brisbane Rod got a job at Mary Kathleen uranium mine, east of Mount Isa, where he worked at Bell & Moir’s service station. Sadly by then Ben’s wife Muriel had died aged just 42 and at a loose end Ben decided to follow his daughter out to Australia. But there was no ordinary way out for this intrepid submariner, with two younger mates Ben decided to do the overland hippie trail and they took 18 months to get from Britain to Australia.

Ben Skeates (left) with one of his companions somewhere on the overland trail to Australia.

Rod said Ben followed him and his wife out to Mary Kathleen where Ben worked as the garbage man. “Later he went down to Kynuna to go opal hunting,” Rod said. After 18 months at Mary K, Rod and June moved to Mount Isa where Rod worked as service manager for Max Platt (now Malouf Auto) and Rod would later start his own business. “Ben stayed at Mary Kathleen till it closed and then moved back to live in a donga in Mount Isa,” Rod said. “He worked on the buses for Campbell Coaches running the midnight shift to Hilton (now George Fisher mine).”

Ben Skeates on Anzac Day in Mount Isa. Year not known.

Anzac Day was always important for Ben, Rod recalls, but he didn’t like talking about his war days. “The only time he talked a lot about it was for two days after his wife died,” he said. Rod said that in 50 years he and Ben almost never argued except when in 2010 when Ben decided to leave his extended Australian family and return to live in England where he had two other children. Perhaps Ben must have known something Rod didn’t at the time. The the old sea wolf died within weeks of returning home to England, aged 93 and he was buried in Barrow. But Ben Skeates’ legacy remains strong in England and his adopted Australia.

Pemulwuy, scourge of Sydney

White Australia has a hard time dealing with heroes of the Aboriginal resistance. With no treaty and no way of properly commemorating a century of frontier wars we prefer to forget them. America is far from perfect dealing with its history but at least the likes of Cochise, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Sitting Bull have made it into popular consciousness. But Australian equivalents such as Yagan, Jandamarra, Windradyne and Bussamarai, who fought to save their way of life, remain steadfastly unknown. Most famous of all should be the Sydney warrior Pemulwuy who almost cast the new colony back into the sea. He too remains in the shadows, a fate he has endured since his own lifetime over two hundred years ago. One of his biographers, Eric Willmot, calls it a “conspiracy of silence”.

1803 engraving by Samuel John Neele of James Grant’s image of ‘Pimbloy’, the only known depiction of Pemulwuy (Grant’s original image has been lost).

The more famous way of dealing with the foreign invasion of the First Fleet was that of Bennelong, arguably the first ambassador to colonial Australia. Like all his people Bennelong was concerned by the uninvited newcomers but he tried to act as a bridge between his people and the whites. In the time of first governor Arthur Phillip he had some success. But illness and disease took many of Bennelong’s comrades and when a ship took Phillip and Bennelong to England, the new colonial leaders dished out farms as favours leading to inevitable confrontation with prior owners of the land.

With diplomacy failing, it was time to turn to war and that was the job of Pemulwuy and his supporters. The name Pemulwuy, means “earth” and he was the man of the earth. Pemulwuy lived in the last generation of Indigenous Australians who owned the Sydney area. Born around 1756 he lived for 46 tumultuous years, the last 12 in rebellion, dying at the hands of the British invaders in 1802. Pemulwuy led a rebellion that almost ended the infant colony. Pemulwuy terrorised the colony from 1790 until his death and the war he inspired did not end until his son Tedbury was captured by governor in 1805, three years after his father’s death.

Pemulwuy was a mythical figure to the people of Sydney, black and white. David Collins wrote in 1798 that they believed he had been so frequently wounded in attacks, firearms could not kill him and he led the attack at every turn. But Collins noted too this myth would likely prove fatal in the end. When it did, Governor King sent his head in a jar to England in 1802. King called him a pest to the colony, but also a “brave and independent character”.

Pemulwuy was from the Bidjigal subgroup of either Eora or Dharug and lived further away from the penal colony, so he did not immediately come in contact with the new Sydney experiment in 1788. Though Phillip tried to kidnap Eora and Dharug, first Arabanu then Bennelong and Colby, Pemulwuy remains elusive until 1790. The first mention that year is when Bennelong, then living with the governor, accuses Pemulwuy of killing a missing convict. The British called him a woodsman who ranged from Parramatta to Botany Bay. He was tall and athletic and had a pronounced cast in one eye.

He also hunted meat and provided it to the newly established white colony in exchange for goods. He developed a relationship with Phillip’s gamekeeper John MacIntyre though Pemulwuy eventually fatally speared him after a confrontation between soldiers and Pemulway’s warriors in December 1790.

MacIntyre was a complicated man who also tried to bridge the divide between black and white. He had been well known for his recurrent wounding and killing of natives while competing with them for food. When trespassing on tribal land he also frequently shot and ate totem animals revered as spirit ancestors which was forbidden by Governor Arthur Phillips’ new law. While the Eora may have accepted gifts from him, they were all too aware of the ways he had broken their old laws too.

According to Watkin Tench the 1790 confrontation began when soldiers were surprised by two natives who they thought were about to ambush them. MacIntyre calmed the soldiers down saying he knew the two men. He put his gun down and spoke to them in their language. He walked with them a while before “one of them jumped on a fallen tree and without giving the least warning launched his spear at MacIntyre and lodged it in his left side.” Tench said the attacker was a young man with a blemish in his left eye.

The spear was barbed with small pieces of red stone and MacIntyre suffered a perforated lung and several broken bones taking several agonising weeks to die. Although MacIntyre confessed to depradations against the natives on his deathbed, Phillip was furious at the loss of so valuable a convict, and believing that Pemulwuy had killed or captured 16 others he ordered the reluctant Tench to form a large revenge party to capture and kill Pemulwuy and five of his associates. The posse turned out to be a hopeless failure. Pemulwuy had disappeared into the bush.

Pemulwuy was a “carradhy” or a “clever man” as noted by Colby, another who mediated between the Eora and Phillip. Colby said Pemulwuy’s left foot, which was bruised and dislocated by a club, which indicated his status in the tribe. He was likely seen as a leader who could dispense justice. On adulthood he acquired the name Bembul Wuyan, meaning “the Earth and the Crow” sometimes shortened to Butu Wargun, just “Crow”. They believed that he had the spiritual ability to transform into a crow in an incident later in his life where he was locked up and was able to escape.

After MacIntyre’s death Pemulwuy stepped up his resistance against the British, especially as they began to develop their system of European agriculture. Over the next five years he coordinated attacks against farms and crop fields to weaken the newly established colony almost entirely dependent on maize and wheat and their limited livestock. His hit-and-run tactics quickly diminished the settlers’ supplies and stores.

Pemulwuy sought alliances with other clans of the area including the Dharug and Tharawal people and even accepted two runaway convicts William Knight and Thomas Thrush. It was another convict that almost killed Pemulwuy. John “Black” Caesar was one of 12 prisoners of African origin on the First Fleet, and Australia’s first bushranger. Caesar was part of a work group at Botany Bay in December 1795, when it was attacked by Pemulwuy’s band. Caesar cracked Pemulwuy’s skull in a fight, leading many to think he died, however Pemulwuy managed to escape with a critical injury.

Two years later in 1797, he led a frontal attack of several tribes against the government settlement at Toongabbie. Settlers tracked him to Parramatta, where he was heavily injured with seven pieces of buckshot in his head and body. He was taken to a prison hospital and was unconscious for days while chained to the bed. Nevertheless “the crow” escaped one night adding to his magical unkillable reputation. He defended the lands of Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River, raiding settlers ’ farms and pillaging food and supplies.

Pemulwuy was responsible for the death of 30 colonists and in 1801 a fed up Governor Phillip King issued a reward of 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon for his capture, dead or alive. Despite this incentive, most were too afraid to consider it. Pemulwuy had an unrivalled aura around him that bullets could not harm him, and chains could no longer keep him tied down. John Washington Price marvelled he had now lodged in him “in shots, sluggs (sic) and bullets, about eight or ten ounces of lead.”

While the colonists held a healthy of fear of Pemulwuy, London had no idea of his existence. Those leaders that followed Phillip – Grose, Patterson, Hunter and King – excised his name from all correspondence for fear the colonial office would investigate why there was an insurrection at all. The Rum Corps wanted no interference with their activities. He appears only a handful of times in public records.

As English firepower increased, Pemulwuy’s luck finally ran out on 2 June 1802 and he was killed in one ambush too many. It was likely Henry Hacking, quartermaster of First Fleet flagship the Sirius, who fired the fatal salvo but his death was coming. King had his head cut off and preserved in alcohol and sent it to 1770 hero Sir Joseph Banks who continued his abiding interest in all matters flora and fauna in Australia. Indigenous skulls were very highly prized for research and scientists took samples and attempted to test them.

The whereabouts of Pemulwuy’s skull is unknown today. Prince William pledged in 2010 to help Bidjigal elders return Pemulwuy’s remains as did former minister Christopher Pyne. There were rumours of Pemulwuy’s head being kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. From there, the remains are said to have been moved to the Natural History Museum, however the museum denies this. After his death, he became known as the “Rainbow Warrior” for his ability to unite tribes. His son Tedbury was brave too and continued the war, but he lacked his father’s magical reputation and was imprisoned in 1805 and killed in 1810.

In 2015 an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia honoured Pemulwuy for his impact on Australian history with a plaque was permanently erected bearing his name. NMA director Mathew Trinca said Pemulwuy was a hero to Aboriginal people. “Pemulwuy’s daring leadership impressed enemies and comrades alike and the story of his concerted campaign of resistance against British colonists should be more widely known,” he said. Bidjigal elder Uncle Vic Simms said the exhibition was helping get history right. “Pemulwuy as a Bidjigal man, resisted and rebelled against the settlers and stood up against them when they were giving blackfellas such a hard time,” Simms said.

Farewell John Hume

John Hume’s abiding influence was his respect of institutions. Hume recalled his first visit to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament in 1979. He went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. He stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. “If I’d stood on this bridge 30 years ago, at the end of World War II, and I’d said that’s the last war in the history of Europe, and in 30 years or so these countries will all be totally united, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist.” This meditation informed his belief his native Northern Ireland could be similarly transformed.

Having heard John Hume died on Monday, aged 83, I remembered the only I saw him. It was in my brief time at University College Dublin when I was 17 years old and grappling with a degree I didn’t want to do in a city where I had just moved and had no friends. To fill in the time I joined clubs and watched university debates on any topic and with any guest speaker. Only two remain in my memory. One, the late Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) in hilarious flights of fancy and then John Hume, who was impossibly eloquent and who inspired belief in all sorts of possibilities.

The year was 1981 so Hume would have been 44 years old. By then he had been two years into the role of replacing Gerry Fitt as leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. At the time the SDLP was the North’s main non-Unionist party, and Hume moved heaven and earth to make sure it was defined that way and not as a Catholic or Republican party.

Hume’s quarrel with the Unionist approach was what he called “their Afrikaner mind set”. They held all power to protect themselves with widespread discrimination in housing, in jobs and in voting rights. The worst example of that was the city of Derry where Hume grew up.

Hume wasn’t immediately interested in politics and studied for the priesthood in Maynooth. He eventually settled for a MA and a teaching position back in Derry. Interested in helping people he joined the Derry Credit Union, which in an interview after Hume won the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 he says was the proudest involvement of his life.

Before credit unions, poor people couldn’t borrow from banks and had to resort to loan sharks or pawn shops. Hume helped start the Derry Credit Union in 1960 and became president of the Credit Union League of (All) Ireland by 1964 when he was just 27. It helped poor people manage money and inspired local small business too.

Through his credit union work, Hume realised there was a housing problem too. Several families often lived together in one house in working class districts, and it was very difficult to get a house due to discrimination. Hume helped found a housing association to build houses in the same manner as the credit union, housing 100 families in the first year. When he put in a plan to build 700 houses, local politicians wouldn’t give planning permission because it would upset the voting balance in their gerrymandered system.

This injustice led Hume into the civil rights movement. The leadership of Martin Luther King in the US had a major influence and civil rights soon meant political involvement. He stood for election in the 1969 Northern Irish election. He ran as an independent Nationalist but sought a mandate to found a new political party based on social democratic philosophy.

“We would deal with real politics, with housing, with jobs, with voting rights, and not into flag-waving politics, because in my belief that was a common ground, and if you work common ground together, that that would end the divisions in our society,” Hume said in 1998. His was a winning message and he was elected. Hume and his followers believed the Unionists had every right to protect their identity, but their methodology caused widespread discrimination and was bound to lead to conflict. He wanted to reach agreement with them. The problem was there were others less patient about finding common ground, and the Troubles had started.

A minority within the Nationalist minority had the territorial mindset that it was their land and the Unionists could not stop a united Ireland. Hume’s challenge to that mindset was that only people had rights, not territory. “Without people, even Ireland is only a jungle, and when people are divided, victories are not solutions. When people are divided, the only solution is agreement,” he said. Hume’s father had warned him off extreme republicanism. “You can’t eat flags,” Hume Sr told him.

Nevertheless as the Troubles escalated, Hume had no hesitation in direct dialogue with those organisations engaged in violence. “When I was very severely criticised for doing that I said very clearly ‘Look, given that thousands of British soldiers on our streets haven’t stopped the violence. If I could save one human life by talking to somebody, it’s my duty to do so’. That’s what I said at the time.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Hume was finally elected as a Westminster MP in 1983 – two years after I saw him speak. Hume said his job was to go to the British and Irish governments to get them to make a joint declaration backing his position on the IRA. That view expressed in the Anglo Irish agreement was that the majority supported British rule but if the majority changes their mind the British will leave.

While the 1985 Downing St agreement was rejected by hardline Unionists and republicans alike, Hume believes it was a crucial starting point to the later Good Friday Agreement and a lasting peace. He was undeterred by the failure and kept talking to the IRA, and Gerry Adams in particular.

He also used the enormous influence of Irish American politicians especially the “four horsemen”, Senator Edward Kennedy, speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Pat Moynihan and NY governor Hugh Carey. “The four of them had worked very closely together with me in giving strong support to our peace process,” he said. The new president Bill Clinton also put peace in Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda in 1993.

In December 1993, the Joint Declaration on Peace (the Downing Street Declaration) was issued by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It called for an end to British “selfish strategic or economic” interest in Northern Ireland, the right for the people of Northern Ireland to decide its future, and the right for the people of all Ireland to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent. These were all positions Hume advocated.

The mid 1990s was punctuated by ceasefires and resumptions of violence. Spurred on by a new Labour government in London, Hume and Adams issued a joint statement in 1997 about achieving a lasting peace. “There is a heavy onus on both governments, particularly the British, to respond positively and imaginatively, both in terms of the demilitarisation of the situation and particularly in dealing with the issue of prisoners.”

Fixing that last issue was one of the most contentious issues of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It also called for a devolved, inclusive government, troop reductions, paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, and civil rights measures and “parity of esteem” for the two communities in Northern Ireland. Despite (or maybe because of) the Omagh bombing atrocity later that year, the peace miraculously held.

Hume and Unionist leader David Trimble were justly rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Surprisingly when it came to power sharing, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, not Hume, who became deputy to Trimble in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. When he finally resigned the party leadership in 2001, Hume was praised even by his arch-enemy Ian Paisley. Paisley and the other extremist Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein eventually went from demagogues to democrats and took the political success from moderate Unionists and the SDLP.

But Hume could look back on a job well done. By the mediation of the ballot box and not by the brutality of the bullet, he had achieved another miracle of Strasbourg. As the Irish Times said in their obituary, John Hume was the architect of peace. Over 20 years later Northern Ireland is still reaping the rewards of his great work.

1918 flu pandemic: the deadliest influenza

Over one hundred years ago, a viral and dangerous flu swept the world killing more people than the World War that was coming to a close that year. Commonly known as the Spanish Flu, no one is sure where it began, though it certainly wasn’t in Spain. Better described as the 1918 flu pandemic, it was an unusually deadly pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza and like COVID-19 today it spread quickly across the world.

As Catherine Arnold wrote in Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History, the most terrifying aspect of H1N1 was its fast-acting and aggressive symptoms. Victims collapsed in the streets haemorrhaging from their lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue due to oxygen failure as lungs filled with pus and they gasped for air like landed fish. Others suffered projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea and died raving as their brains starved of oxygen. Those who survived were often left with a lifetime of nervous conditions, heart problems, lethargy and depression.

Apart from the enormous death toll, the main memory of the 1918 was the ubiquitous mask, until recently thought to be a freak of history. Masks spread from the medical profession to traffic cops and onto the civilian population. In many places it was an offence to go outside without a mask, though then like now its efficacy was debatable. Writing in 2018 before COVID-19, Arnold likened the mask photos to “scenes from a science fiction movie”.

Like now, there is debate about how the virus started. There are two main candidates for ground zero of the 1918 pandemic, both related to the war. Again like now, there were conspiracy theories related to the 5G scares of the era, such as it was a strain of bubonic plague from China (the yellow peril has a long history), or caused by the effect of rotting corpses and mustard gas in the battlefield, or that it was man-made in Bayer aspirins and distributed by U-boats.

What is true is the war spread the virus quickly across the world with mass troop movements, bond drives, and victory parades. The flu may even have changed the course of the war with the German advance stymied by huge losses to illness. The pandemic was the one enemy that scared both sides.

The earliest known death from H1N1 occurred in February 1917. English Private Harry Underdown, aged 20, died at Étaples field hospital in France officially due to “complications following an attack of influenza”. Underdown was serving in northern France when struck down by “widespread broncho-pneumonia”. As he died, his doctor Lt J.A.B. (initials, not an appropriate nickname!) Hammond noted Underdown’s face was blue due to lack of oxygen. Hammond wrote an article in the Lancet in 1917 about the “small epidemic” at Étaples, the largest field hospital on the western front.

Étaples was chosen for its stragetic location, near Calais and with rail lines to the front. It had port facilities and railway yard, stores, hospitals, prisons and training area. There were also stables for thousands of horses and piggeries and poultry farms to feed the masses – the presence of live animals another portent of the virus which could cross the species boundary via avian faeces eaten by grubbing pigs.

People living close to animals is one of the reasons China is the epicentre of influenza epidemics. In the course of several winters ending in 1917–18, epidemics with afflictions of the lungs were seen in northern China. Chinese labourers were in large numbers at Étaples brought in to support the war effort. Étaples was a bleak spot at the best of times. Poet Wilfred Owen described it as as a “vast, dreadful encampment”. Conditions deteriorated to an extent there was a mutiny in the training camp in September 1917. The revolt was put down with 300 arrests and one soldier sentenced to death.

While the virus was possibly incubating in France, there was another troubling hotspot across the Atlantic Ocean. Doctors in Haskell County, Kansas were seeing strange symptoms of what they called “knock me down” fever. One doctor saw so many cases he wrote to Washington but was ignored because influenza was not a “notifiable disease”.

Some 300km from Haskell was Camp Funston at Fort Riley, where young Americans got basic training before being shipped off to Europe for the war the US entered in 1917. Around four million men, mostly farm boys with little immunity to big city diseases which roamed freely at vast places like Camp Funston (named for Fighting Fred Funston who served in the Spanish wars). Construction began in mid 1917 of 4000 buildings holding 40,000 soldiers.

The air was full of dust and burning ash from the tonnes of horse manure which stung the eyes in the high winds of the Kansas plains, leaving the men prone to respiratory infections. A bad dust storm occurred on March 9, 1918 turning the sun black. Within days a steady stream of soldiers reported sick with high temperatures. By the end of the month a thousand men were stricken and a hangar was used as a ward.

It was diagnosed as the flu with symptoms such as high fever, headache and back pain. Some patients were too weak to stand, others coughed violently or had projectile nose bleeds and some even choked to death. It spread to Camp Dix in New Jersey and other camps across the country and Washington was advised. Again the advice was ignored.

The flu spread back from the camps to the local population. A thousand Ford motor workers in Detroit and Chicago came down with it as did 500 prisoners at San Quentin in California. Schoolboy John Steinbeck also caught it in California and almost died. “I went down and down until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes,” he wrote. Doctors operated to drain pleural pus from his infected lung and he survived with a profound sense of vulnerability that informed works like The Grapes of Wrath.

Troops from Camp Funston and elsewhere brought the virus with them on the troopships as the ‘doughboys’ were shipped out to Flanders. The British first noticed a small outbreak in the already unhealthy Ypres Salient in April 1918 and a second wave in June was deadlier still. By then the virus had crossed no-mans-land and German commander Eric von Ludendorff estimated 2000 men in each division had the flu, a huge problem as he struggled to replace a million casualties despite the end of the war on the Russian front. “It was a grievous business to hear the chief of staff’s recital of the influenza cases and the weakness of the troops if the English attacked again,” he complained.

In late May the disease hit Spain and king Alfonso XIII and several government ministers fell sick. Because Spain was neutral, Spanish censorship was not as strict as elsewhere and it was the first press to report on the crisis, calling it the French flu. But when international papers picked up on the news from Madrid, the pandemic was immortalised as the Spanish flu. Cartoonists depicted it as the ghoulish Spanish Lady, her skull dancing in a black flamenco dress.

In the months to come the Spanish Lady’s deadly dance crossed Europe. Convalescing troops brought it home to Britain, the northern industrial cities hit hardest. Miners were particularly prone and the coal, iron and munitions industry was crippled as people collapsed and died in the streets. “If you try to shake it off it becomes much worse,” a Manchester paper reported.

In London the theatres full of service personnel from every nation helped spread disease. Many victims were young, rich and healthy. Virginia Woolf in Richmond noted it had “come next door”. Fellow writer and socialite Cynthia Asquith wrote how it was the worst illness of her life, “bursting head, painful pulses, aching legs, sick, burning with cold shivers. I tossed and groaned.” Over 70,000 Britons were dead by November but the war effort demanded the flu be ignored. Britain’s chief medical officer admitted it could not be controlled and refused to take public health measures. The nation’s “sacred duty”, he said, was to carry on working and it was unpatriotic to even worry about it.

The pandemic meanwhile, spread across the world from port cities such as Bombay (Mumbai). It then spread east back to Baghdad and Shiraz where the bazaars and shops were closed as there was no doctors, nurses or drugs to offer help. More ports spread it in Africa; Mombasa, Freetown, and Cape Town. Injured men on troopships brought it back to North America creating another wave in August, overwhelming the east coast naval hospitals.

Boston schools shut down in October 1918 which schoolboy Francis Russell remembered at first with delight in great weather. That changed the day he stumbled upon a funeral where he saw gravediggers dump the bodies out of the coffins to reuse them. The memory scarred Russell for life.

Philadelphia was the worst hit city after an outbreak at the naval yard. A massive parade in September, the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive, attracted 200,000 people and a massive epidemic began a day later, with 75,000 cases in October. Over 700 died in a week and numbers increased in the following weeks, overwhelming understaffed hospitals. Services collapsed and Bell Co shut down the phones to all but essential calls. The undertaking business was overrun and coffin theft was rife with 500 bodies at the morgue and demand growing daily. Bodies piled up in the streets and the Highways Bureau loaned steam shovels to dig trenches in Potter’s Field for the burial of the poor and unknown.

Mask wearing became compulsory across America. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a range of masks which started with standard surgical gauze and went from elaborate Turkish muslin yashmak veils to flimsy chiffon coverings. “Some wore fearsome looking machines like extended muzzles,” the paper reported. Commuters on the ferries found it a nuisance and were caught with masks dangling from chins while they enjoyed a morning pipe in the sea air.

The pandemic got to Australia in early 1919, brought back by returning soldiers to Sydney, and gradually spreading out. The Queensland government closed its borders and established quarantine camps along its southern boundary at Wallangarra and Coolangatta. Travellers had to remain in the camps for seven days before being allowed to enter the state and strict inspection of all ships was carried out.

Nevertheless on May 3 laundresses at Kangaroo Point Hospital in Brisbane caught it. It then spread throughout the state and defied all attempts to control it, including isolation, closure of public places, and inoculation. Many of the 830 deaths in Queensland were young adults with Aboriginal populations particularly vulnerable – the epidemic caused 69 deaths among the 596 residents of the Barambah Aboriginal Settlement (now Cherbourg).

By mid 1919, the Spanish Lady had mostly finished her exhausting dance across the world. Some 500 million people were infected, around a third of the world’s population, and up to 50 million were dead. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the genome from a defrosted flu victim from the Tundra showed it was a bird virus adapted to humans. The virus provoked an auto-immune response called a cytokine storm with a marked inflammatory response, causing secondary damage to lungs. This secondary response caused the deaths, not the virus itself.

Writing a century later, Arnold said we had not since seen a pandemic on the scale of 1918. But she acknowledged the Hong Kong H5N1 outbreak in 1997 was a ‘wake up call for epidemiologists and public health authorities” and the threat of another pandemic was real. She finished with prophetic words from English virologist John Oxford back in 2000 who compared their work to vulcanologists. “We are sitting on our volcano, and we don’t know when it is going to erupt”.

Twenty years later, seems to be the answer.