It’s a family heirloom, but never has it had such significance. In a room in our house, that is a delight on a winter’s day as it fills with the rays of the waning sun, there is a piano.
It has always been in the family. A Beale upright grand, one of the great successes of early Federation Australia. It belonged to my grandmother, Florence Conroy who became Fewtrell. But that is not the real story.
The beautiful Beale originally belonged to Florence’s sister, Alice. They were a family of Irish stock, working class people, and Alice was a keen pianist. But Alice died in the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic. She was a young woman, cut down in her prime by the pandemic that encircled the world in the aftermath of the First World War – a cruel coda to the pain and suffering of the war itself. The piano was passed to her sister and so it has come down, through a zig-zaggy circuit, to me. I am honoured to have it, especially as it holds so many memories of a loving family environment.
It was the piano that became a central focus of family life. Most Sunday evenings, the adult children of Florence and husband Sam, would gather at their house in Sydney’s Strathfield and inevitably assemble around the piano, as a talented uncle would play. We would all sing. We each had our party pieces. Some of us kids would play the piano, but I was a less than convincing student. For Florence it must have been a great memorial of her sister and we all were aware of its background and significance. Poor Alice. Struck down by the Spanish flu.
Such thoughts are strangely current today as the world again does battle with an invisible and rampant enemy. It makes you wonder, what steps did they take then to avoid infection. It’s hard to imagine ‘social distancing’ was part of their vocabulary, but no doubt they observed whatever protocols considered appropriate at the time. Despite the inconvenience of current restrictions, we are far more fortunate, through science and technology, in understanding such viruses and having tools, hopefully including a vaccine, to counteract them.
So, when the present pandemic arose and our worlds began to shrink around us, I thought of Alice and the suffering that she and her family endured at the time. I also realised that pandemics, infections and quarantine are things that are not just familiar, they are familial. This claim is reinforced by the story of a great-grandmother, the woman who was the mother-in-law of Florence.
Elise Fewtrell was born in Schleswig-Holstein, north of Hamburg, and came to Australia in 1877 on an ill-fated journey on the ‘Charles Dickens’, with her then husband, young son and her sister. The ship had a miserable passage with much disease. Elise was swept down a stairway in a storm, broke a hip and miscarried. She also lost her infant son, one of 17 children who died on the voyage, due mainly to typhoid fever and measles. On arrival at Brisbane in mid-July they anchored in Moreton Bay for several days, while communications went back and forth about the condition of the passengers and the reasons for the high death toll. They were refused port access, forced to fly the yellow jack, the symbol of danger and exclusion and towed to quarantine on Peel Island, which was the Queensland colony’s principal line of defence against disease and infection that travelled with new settlers from the old world.
Quarantine in those days was not just a time and place of separation. It was a rigorous routine of stripping the ship’s fittings so that any last vestige of infection was removed. All fittings were taken ashore and burned. All luggage was removed and linen and clothing was washed and boiled several times. It was an arduous, relentless process, all under the direction of the ship’s surgeon, who had primary responsibility for the passengers on board and during quarantine.
In total the ship was in quarantine for almost two months, unable to disembark until the second week of September. For the ship’s crew, quarantine was an especially difficult time. They were required to do most of the ship refitting and were unable to access their voyage payments. Four of the crew broke quarantine, stealing a lifeboat and rowing up the river to disembark under cover of dark. It is a mark of the seriousness with which these health precautions were taken that a major search was undertaken for the absconders. Following capture, they appeared before a magistrate and were sentenced to 6 months prison, with a fine of £150, or if unable to pay, a further 6 months incarceration. For Elise quarantine was the start of a transition that would see her lose another child, widowed and ultimately, she would remarry and raise four young Australians.
Then as now, quarantine was a serious business and the welfare of the community depended on its effectiveness. The sense of isolation in 1877 would have been far more profound than seems to apply today. While the dimensions of a modern 5-star hotel room may be smaller than the free spaces of a quarantine island, I think I would rather today’s option than the offering of 1877.
And that is the reality facing my sister having just arrived from South America on a rescue charter flight, she and her husband are headed for two weeks hotel isolation. Strange how life goes. Pandemics and quarantine are indeed familiar and familial. Must be time to tinkle the Beale.
Terry Fewtrell is the author of ‘George, Elise and a mandarin – Identity in early Australia’, published by Ginninderra Press.