Black and white image of a group of uniformed nurses with convalescent children, posed in front of the Westgarth Fountain in the grounds of the Melbourne Exhibition Building, 1919.

Following the pandemic outbreak of Influenza - or Spanish Flu - around the globe throughout 1918-19, various civic buildings were quickly adapted to become makeshift hospitals. At the end of January 1919, the Minister for Health, John Bowser, met with the Exhibition Trustees with a view of converting the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton Gardens into a temporary hospital.

The chairman of the Board of Public Health, Dr Robertson noted that by taking over the Exhibition Building, it 'should be sufficient to relieve the pressure on other hospitals for some time to come.'

'The building is a very large one and in addition to other accommodation we could make use of the huge oval in the centre if the need arises. It has been objected that this would be little better than a barn. All I can say is, that if anyone knows of a better place, I should very much like to hear of it. We propose to send convalescents to the Exhibition Building, and thus make room for fresh patients at the other hospitals.'

However, those objections ultimately proved largely correct. When Bowser inspected the Exhibition Building a few months later, he came to the conclusion that 'the large building, with its long rows of beds, was a draughty, cheerless place'. Although efforts were made to improve conditions, the Exhibition Building remained a poor venue for influenza patients.

Description of Content

Nurses with children during the influenza epidemic. The group are in front of the Westgarth Fountain in Carlton Gardens.

Physical Description

Black and white image


'The influenza epidemic which swept Victoria in 1919, killing 3230 people (2319 of them in the metropolitan area) cast the Melbourne EXHIBITION Building in a strange new role as a hospital.

Between January and April 1919 about 500 people were nursed at a time in the temporary hospital, because the metropolitan hospitals were full. The matron, Sister McKinnell, claimed that, in an emergency, up to 2000 people could be nursed at the Building at one time.

The Red Cross was called in to set up the makeshift hospital, the first time it has been called on to do so in peacetime.

In a week, volunteers made 8000 sheets, 1500 drawsheets, 1300 nightgowns, 700 locker curtains, 6000 masks, 440 pan covers and 100 shrouds. Others turned packing cases into bedside tables and scrap timber into wardrobes. Ingoing ambulances with attendants wearing masks, and undertakers' hearses leaving by the rear gate soon became familiar sights.

The approach of winter made the problem of heating the huge hall a daunting proposition and the Building was closed as a hospital on 3 May 1919.'

[Label for REB Open Day display prepared by the REB Museum,early 1990s.]

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