Alstonville Historical Society member John Sim.
Alstonville Historical Society member John Sim.

Super-spreading wedding that once locked down Alstonville

A CENTURY AGO, on May 28, 1919, Bangalow man Percy Latimer boarded a motor vehicle with a party of three other people, and travelled to Alstonville, where he was to marry Ilene Bell.

Mr Latimer was coughing profusely on the way to the church.

So not to delay his wedding any longer, Ms Bell became Mrs Latimer at 2.30pm that day.

The couple travelled to Ballina by motor vehicle to register their marriage, where they arrived around 90 minutes later.

By then, the groom was so sick, he was sent to hospital, where he remained for three weeks.

Forty-eight hours after the wedding, all but three of the 25 guests at the wedding, including the bride, were diagnosed with pneumonic influenza, and every new case in the area could be traced to contact with one of those original cases.

The story of the Latimer wedding was told by the professional that treated most of those people, Dr Roy Graham (1889 – 1948), who wrote his 1920 thesis for University of Sydney on the pneumonic influenza and its effect on the Northern NSW population in 1919.

Dr Roy V Graham of Lismore.
Dr Roy V Graham of Lismore.

As the pandemic was in full swing then, both Lismore and Bangalow had both been declared infected areas.

Retired teacher and Alstonville Historical Society member John Sim, enlisted help from Dr Peter Hobbins and Ballina Shire archivist Jeanne Burke to uncover details of the story.

“Everyone who was infected from that original wedding recovered, except for two miscarriages recorded, one of them a maid who was six months pregnant,” Mr Sim said.

“Authorities at the Tintenbar Shire had to put the whole town in lockdown until the end of that year due, mostly, because of this single super-spreading event,” he said.

All 400 residents of Alstonville, back in 1919, were in lockdown after that incident.

Hand drawings of the pneumonic influenza virus by doctor Roy Graham (1889-1948) from his 1920 thesis The Influenza Epidemic in North Easter NSW in 1919.
Hand drawings of the pneumonic influenza virus by doctor Roy Graham (1889-1948) from his 1920 thesis The Influenza Epidemic in North Easter NSW in 1919.

A Tintenbar resident, Mr Sim said Alstonville belonged to the Tintenbar Shire and authorities were forced during these times to requested a certificate of health from people trying to enter the council area.

“The proprietor of the Amusu Theatre voluntarily closed down and the same decision was made by the School of Arts Committee while the town was in lockdown,” he said.

“What is also very exciting about reading Dr Graham’s thesis is to see, at the end of the document, he did hand drawings of what he saw in the microscope.”

Mr Latimer lived until 1967 and Ilene until 1970.

Read more>> How Spanish flu impacted the Northern Rivers 100 years ago