Recently Senator Katy Gallagher shared her distress about her 13- year- old daughter coming home from school suffering from the Covid 19 virus, (C.T.30 October 2021). The Covid virus was a global pandemic causing fear, isolation and sometimes, death, and was something few were prepared for. Alerting others, she spoke of the necessity of setting up a home hospital and praised her GP and pharmacist for assisting her. She was also grateful for the help from on- line medical advice. Isolating her sick child in her home was also a priority.

Items she recommended for a home hospital included a thermometer; Nurofen; disinfectant; pulse oximeters and ice blocks. While most of us have never experienced a pandemic before, many older Canberrans remember the epidemics of polio, influenza and all the childhood diseases such as measles, chicken pox and mumps. We were all happy to line up to be vaccinated when vaccines became available. Medical supplies in the old – time homes though were very different to those recommended by Katy.

Those of us from large families also remember the lovely comfort foods such as jelly, junket, and vanilla custards and the care lavished on us when we became sick. That was until everyone else in the house came down with the disease, as we were all crammed into tiny houses, so it was impossible to be isolated!

These thoughts came to mind recently while I was sitting in the kitchen at the Tuggeranong Schoolhouse that I run as a museum. Around the room for visitors to remember are all the old- time cooking artefacts, including the jelly moulds, the little tube of junket tablets and the custard flavourings. Displayed on shelves are also the following: Calomine lotion, a tin of Rawleigh’s salve, (famously advertising its efficacy for man, or beast), Aspro tablets in their distinctive bright pink box, (painkillers), Sloan’s liniment, and lots of other old-time remedies for a multitude of ailments, including the dreaded castor oil! I also spotted a bottle of Phenyl, industrial strength disinfectant, so pungent it is hard to ever forget it!

The Schoolhouse had always been isolated, with Tuggeranong still a remote farming community until the southern Canberra suburbs were developed in the late 1970s. The schoolhouse had no electricity until the 1950s, and tap water and sewerage were finally connected in the 1980s.

Going through the vast amount of documentation about the history of the school, housed in the museum, I read about those who taught, and learnt, at the school, as well as those who lived in the four roomed 1880 brick cottage attached to the schoolroom, with the later addition of a kitchen, in 1899.

I noticed another mother, like Katy Gallagher, had had to nurse her fifteen-year-old daughter at the tiny schoolhouse, when she came home from the old Canberra High School, on the bus, with a bad case of measles. Surprisingly, the school remained open and Mrs Browne, the schoolmaster’s wife, had to continue teaching her four hours of sewing on the chilly veranda at the front of the schoolhouse.

In October 1939, the poor itchy, infectious girl would have had to have been isolated somewhere in such a small home. For Mrs Browne, life would have been hard. As well as doing her home nursing, and teaching, she had to run a house where there was no electricity, no running water, only tank water, no telephone, only a rudimentary bathroom and laundry, and chamber pots, as the long drop pit toilet was way down the back of the property. Although the family had a car, the doctors and pharmacists were many kilometres away in Canberra or Queanbeyan, as were the shops. There were also no near neighbours if there was an emergency.

Even more unfortunate was poor Mrs McGee, who was an earlier teacher’s wife, and sewing teacher, who also came down with measles, in August 1926. Luckily all her seven children had left home, but there was no one to care for her, as Mr McGee was still teaching about seventeen students next door in the classroom. She would have been so worried that the highly infectious disease would infect the children, and then end up in lots of homes in the Valley.

Certainly, this did happen several times in the 1890s, when the Kennedy’s were the teachers. This time the disease was influenza. In 1891 all the families of the students were ravaged by the disease, all, except one, kept their children at home. However, in August 1894, Mr Kennedy caught the disease, and with a history of respiratory ailments, was very, very sick.

Mrs Kennedy’s job as home nurse would have been even more difficult compared to the other two women. She didn’t even have a kitchen as well as having no bathroom or laundry. She cooked over the open fire in the living room with cauldrons suspended from a crane, and she baked in camp ovens. Like Mrs McGee, if there was an emergency a horse and sulky was used.

Looking around the kitchen for Victorian medicines I realised I had many different types of laxatives, little liver pills, cough mixtures like ‘Heenzos”, cough lozenges with names like ‘Black Devils’, gout mixtures, Lysol for head lice, Morse’s Indian Root Pills, Rawleigh’s ‘Anti Pain Oil’ and a little pot of ‘Virol’ reputedly good for, among other things, sore breasts! None of these things would have helped poor Mr Kennedy, but maybe the little green glass bottles which once contained laudanum might help? Mrs Kennedy nursed her husband through eight days of sickness while the school was shut. I reckon he would have been happy with a ‘slug’ of whisky, while she ‘downed’ the laudanum!

Think again of Mrs Browne in 1939. Only three children were attending the school at the close of 1939 – the fourteen- year- old Edlington twins, Ron, and Joyce, her sewing pupil, and eight- year- old John Kemp, a child from a railway camp just over the border in NSW – not enough to keep the school open.

She would have known that Tuggeranong public school was about to shut forever, and she would already have had the family’s bags packed ready for their next posting to Uriarra School. As she lovingly nursed her sick daughter, she may have thought of the twins, Ron, and Joyce, robbed of a mother when they were only two years old, because she had died of influenza.

Another major thing on her mind may have been the fact that the month before she had to nurse her daughter at home with the measles, the start of the Second World War had been declared. Life as she, and the world, knew it would be forever changed.

History With a Difference