Clara May Stanley

Clara May Stanley (1877-1919) was the wife of W.H. Stanley, editor of the Mount Barker Courier. She was the first person in Mount Barker to die of the so-called ‘Spanish flu,’ and was rumoured (unjustly) to have introduced the pandemic to the town. Her death aged 32 set off a series of events that resulted in W.H. Stanley leaving Mount Barker suddenly and without trace.

Read her story

Clara May Stanley (1877-1919) was the wife of W.H. Stanley, editor of the Mount Barker Courier. She was the first person in Mount Barker to die of the so-called ‘Spanish flu,’ and was rumoured (unjustly) to have introduced the pandemic to the town. Her death aged 32 set off a series of events that resulted in W.H. Stanley leaving Mount Barker suddenly and without trace.

The ‘Spanish flu,’ or ‘pneumonic influenza,’ killed twenty million people worldwide within twelve months of its first appearance in April 1918. For half this time Australia remained free of infection because of strict quarantine measures, but by October the flu had been brought home aboard troopships returning from the battlefields of Europe, and it had escaped into the domestic population by January 1919. While previous influenza strains had disproportionately affected the very young and the very old, this pandemic had an unusually high mortality rate amongst young adults.

By 1920 the official Australian death toll amounted to some 12,000 people, which was the lowest level of mortality of any western nation. South Australia also recorded the lowest death rate of any mainland state, with 540 deaths directly attributed to the pandemic. However, these figures do not include Aboriginal deaths, which were not officially recorded. Researcher Tom Gara has concluded that there was a catastrophic death toll amongst small Indigenous communities in the far north and west of South Australia, particularly in areas around Marree, William Creek, Oodnadatta, Innamincka and the Eyre Peninsula. In the worst affected of these areas Gara estimates that the death rates may have amounted to up to 25 percent of local communities, and that at least 130 additional deaths belong in the South Australian tally.

In March 1919 there were outbreaks in Adelaide, the Mid North, South-East and Yorke Peninsula. In Mount Barker there was a sense of inevitability about the arrival of the virus. A vacant house in Wellington Road on the south-east edge of the town, the property of the late Thomas Colling Paltridge, was requisitioned and hastily fitted up as an isolation hospital. Within 48 hours of its opening on 31 March it had taken in its first thirteen patients. (The property was repurposed that November as the Mount Barker District Soldier’s Memorial Hospital, as it is still known today.)

As the pandemic took hold, a number of extraordinary measures were introduced that would be reinstated a century later during the Covid-19 pandemic. Interstate borders were closed, leaving some travellers stranded far from home. Both the wearing of masks and inoculations were controversially mandated – and resisted – in varying degrees across the country. Flu sufferers and ‘close contacts’ were ordered to remain isolated. Libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor entertainment were closed, in an early twentieth-century version of ‘lockdown.’

Clara May Stanley, who died on 28 March, was Mount Barker’s first Spanish flu victim. She was the wife of Walter Hastings (‘W.H.’) Stanley, the editor of the Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser, or the Courier as it is now known. The Courier itself reported her death:

Quite a gloom was cast over Mount Barker when it became known that Mrs Clara May Stanley had passed away on Friday night after an illness of less than a week. A sad feature of her death was that her mother (Mrs M. Austen, of Footscray, Victoria), and relations were unable to be with her on account of quarantine restrictions. Mrs. Stanley’s death is the more distressing when it is remembered that she attended church service on the previous Sunday evening and chatted with friends, she then appeared to be in her usual good health. On Monday she was taken ill, and when the doctor was called in he realised it was a serious case, and despite every medical attention to pull her through, the odds were too great, and she quietly passed away on Friday night. During her comparatively short residence in Mount Barker Mrs. Stanley had been a prominent worker in church and Red Cross circles, and had made a large number of friends, all of whom were deeply grieved to hear of her untimely death, being only in her 33rd year.

Following Clara’s death there were persistent rumours that she and her friend Mrs T. Ellis were to blame for introducing the virus to Mount Barker by irresponsibly making a social visit to Unley, but a three-week interval between their visit and the onset of their illnesses makes this implausible, as the Courier hotly pointed out at the time. By whatever means the pandemic actually arrived in the town, it was apparently circulated within the congregation at St Andrews Presbyterian Church on 23 March, as many in attendance (including W.H. Stanley) were amongst the first residents to fall ill.

Clara Stanley (née Phillips) was a 23-year-old dressmaker living with her family in suburban Melbourne when she met and married journalist 29-year-old W.H. Stanley in 1910. W.H., who had been orphaned in inner Sydney at the age of twelve, came with few advantages, but he was determined to make good.

At the time of their marriage he was working at the Minyip Guardian, near Horsham, where their only child Edna May Algralene Stanley was born the following year. In 1913 W.H. got his first big break, gaining the position of editor of the S.E. Star in Mount Gambier. He took up the editorship of the Mount Barker Courier in 1917. In both Mount Gambier and Mount Barker the couple were very active in the service of the community. In Mount Barker, Clara undertook her Red Cross work while W.H. was involved in the Mutual Improvement Society, the Mount Barker State School Committee and the Presbyterian Church. He was the Arch Druid at the local Druids’ Lodge and enjoyed performing recitations at various charitable and patriotic concerts.

Clara’s death led indirectly to a dramatic and unexpected change in the trajectory of W.H. Stanley’s career. Two years after her demise, W.H. announced his engagement to 45-year-old widow Emily Matilda ‘Emmie’ Bradford, recently of Mt Pleasant. She was born Emily Walters, a daughter of Mt Barker’s first schoolmaster. When her grazier husband George had died in 1917 he had left her a fortune in excess of five thousand pounds. She and W.H. married in April 1921, with well-wishers on all sides. But a mere five months later the South Australian Police Gazette reported that W.H. Stanley had “left his home at Mount Barker, accompanied by his daughter, aged 10 years, and afterwards wrote to his wife stating that he intended deserting her.” Overnight, and for motives that remain obscure, W.H. Stanley and Edna had disappeared without trace from their former lives.

Warrants seeking W.H. circulated around the country for several years, charging him with leaving his wife without adequate means of support, and noting that he “may be employed on a newspaper staff.” Edna (1911-1975) eventually reappeared as a housewife in Coburg, Victoria, in the 1930s. Emmie died in Adelaide in 1945, still using the surname Stanley. But the fate of journalist W.H. Stanley remains absent from the historical record.

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