Like most of us, she’s not visiting anyone at the moment, but Beth Spence usually visits a lady in New Horizons nursing home at Ryde each week. She’s a volunteer for our Community Visitors Scheme, which matches volunteer visitors with people who otherwise risk being socially isolated. Back in 1937, during one of Australia’s worst polio outbreaks, Beth was nine and living in Caulfield, Melbourne. She recalls when the border between NSW and Victoria was closed and other parallels and differences from today’s virus scenario.
Beth’s parents planned a trip to Sydney with the Adelaide Steamship Company for the Christmas school holidays to visit friends. But suddenly interstate travel was banned and they worried that they might have to cancel.
“I’m not sure but I think my father might have pulled a few strings. We had to get doctor’s certificates and, because my mother was a nurse, it was the first time I’d been to a doctor so it made a big impression,” she recalls.
“When the time to disembark, the quarantine officers who approved us told us not to tell anyone in Sydney where we were from.”
Their hosts in Maroubra knew the family well and were not worried. Of course polio affected children not adults so the restrictions revolved around children and, while children were separated, not everyone was in lockdown. Beth recalls Maroubra then as “mostly sandhills” with very few houses, and remembers visiting an Indigenous community at La Perouse, which catered to tourists even then.
“They had a snake pit and demonstrated snake handling, and I was captivated,” she said, “I bought from them a pair of slippers decorated with shells, which I loved – they became a part of my childhood,” she says. “Pre-war Sydney was a revelation to me, absolutely different to Melbourne.”
Recently, Beth spotted another pair of the treasured shell slippers exhibited in the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo.
Travel bans didn’t affect everyone so much then because travel was far less common, especially at the tail-end of the depression. Beth’s school had closed down for about six months before the holidays because polio was so contagious for children. There had been a few cases in her class alone so schoolwork was done by correspondence.
“Mum supervised the schoolwork and each week sent our schoolwork to the teacher to be marked. I don’t know how much I did, I might’ve seen it as a bit of a holiday.”
She recalls a schoolmate who was stricken with infantile paralysis, as it was then known, being wheeled into a classroom to say hello from a distance but he never came back to school. Closing the school was not a controversial move at all, Beth’s parents thought it “inevitable”.
“I think people had stronger respect for authority in those days, so if authorities changed regulations about schools, my parents accepted it.”
Beth was not allowed to see her friends out of school and particularly missed a best friend for the whole six months while schools were closed. Yet in isolation then – as now – her love of reading came to the fore.
“I was always passionate about books and didn’t mind being at home or helping my mother. It was a different way of life then. People didn’t go out as much, and people were very family-oriented and we were allowed to visit family.”
Today, Beth’s daughter visited, bringing some interesting books and bottles of wine.
“And I like crosswords and Sudoku, so I’m quite happy.”