Spanish influenza pandemic closed Sydney’s pubs for almost a month in 1919


BETWEEN January and September 1919, pneumonic influenza, commonly known as the ‘Spanish Flu’, killed 6,387 people in New South Wales, infecting as many as 290,000 in Metropolitan Sydney alone.

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. 

sydney 1919 influenza

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.

In an effort to kerb the rapid spread of the Spanish Infleunza in 1919, the NSW Government issued a proclamation, closing all hotel bars in the County of Cumberland on February 5. The prohibition covered metropolitan Sydney, and also applied to clubs and wine-shops.

The immediate effect of the decision put an estimated 10,000 people in Sydney pubs 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.

A number of Sydney hotels ignored the order, keeping their bars open, and as a result publicans were fined anything from £4 to £10 for each offence.

Publican William Henry Young was fined £10 for opening the Royal Hotel at 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.

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

But there was no wild frenzied rush on the part of Sydney’s thirsty population to buy liquor. In fact, newspapers reported that most of the hotels’ business was 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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