Pubs also defied government health orders during 1919 Spanish influenza pandemic

Hyde Park inoculation depot. Picture: Sydney Mail February 5 1919

THE 2020/21 Covid-19 pandemic is not the first time an infectious disease has forced the closure of Australian pubs.

Between January and September 1919, pneumonic influenza, commonly known as the ‘Spanish Flu’, killed 6,387 people in NSW, infecting as many as 290,000 in metropolitan Sydney alone.

In an effort to kerb the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu, the NSW Government issued a proclamation, closing all hotel bars in metropolitan Sydney, which also applied to clubs and wine-shops.

That was the first wave of the flu. The next two waves of the Spanish Flu pandemic were far more deadly (killing about 4.5 per cent of Sydney’s population). Pubs were closed again once the second and third waves hit.

The pandemic threw the people and government of the state into a community effort rivalled only by that of the recent war, in an attempt to lessen the spread, and impact, of a deadly disease. 

The Sydney Mail newspaper reported on February 5 1919:


During the week nearly 200,000 persons were inoculated (against pneumonic influenza) at the various Sydney and suburban depots and by private physicians. As over 100,000 had previously been done; nearly half the population of the metropolis had thus been treated by the beginning of this week.

A number of licensed venues have similarly defied health orders during the 2020/21 Covid-19 restrictions, resulting in fines.

The publican at the Caledonia Hotel, Singleton, is alleged to have repeatedly served beer to unvaccinated guests at the venue. He was convicted and slapped with a $1000 fine in December 2021.

Just over a century earlier, in 1919, a number of Sydney pubs also defied government health orders during the influenza epidemic, keeping their bars open.

Some hotels ignored the proclamation, with publicans fined anything from £4 to £10 for each offence.

Publican William Henry Young was fined £10 for opening the Royal Hotel in the western Sydney suburb of Enfield. He successfully challenged the fine, taking his case to the High Court in November 1919.

The High Court declared the action of the State Government in closing hotels illegal during the influenza epidemic.

The Federal Chief Justice declared that section 33, under which the order was made, applied only to vessels or persons connected with vessels.

Young’s conviction was quashed, and the Crown was ordered to pay all the costs.

The immediate effect of the decision to close pubs put an estimated 10,000 people in Sydney out of work. An estimated 20,000 people working in the broader places of public entertainments, including picture theatres and billiard saloons, were also without a job.

The State Cabinet declared that hotel keepers could continue delivering liquor in bulk or bottles on receipt of telephone or mailed orders, much the same as what occurred in the 2020/21 pandemic.

After almost a month, the hotels were re-opened across Sydney on March 3 1919, along with pictures theatres, billiard saloons, and other places of public entertainment. But the worse was still to come.

There was no wild frenzied rush on the part of Sydney’s drinking population to buy liquor when bars reopened in March 1919. In fact, newspapers reported that most of the hotels in Sydney remained quiet.

All the bars had their customers, however the Newcastle Herald reported that there was “a general feeling of relief at the passing of the ‘dry’!”

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Categories: NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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2 replies

  1. South Africa was hit badly as well.

  2. That was the first wave of the flu. The next two waves were far more deadly (killed approx 4.5% of Sydney’s population). Pubs were shut again once the second and third waves hit.

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