Soldiers traumatised by the horrors of World War 1, were confronted by a new nightmare in 1918. The last year of the war marked the beginning of three deadly outbreaks of influenza across the world. 'Spanish flu', as it became known colloquially, affected up to a third of the world's population, spreading rapidly in areas where people were living in close quarters.
For military leaders, the outbreak represented a huge challenge. The British army in particular was severely depleted after four years of fighting and those soldiers remaining in the European theatre of war were weakened by the conditions on the Western front. By necessity soldiers, sailors and support workers lived in close proximity in army camps, barracks, troop-ships and trench dugouts; conditions which enabled the virus to spread rapidly.
Measures to halt its advance were limited. There were no vaccines available to protect against infection and no antiviral drugs or antibiotics to treat those who succumbed. All the authorities could do was to place victims into strict quarantine, shut down theatres and emphasise the need for good hygiene.
One soldier who succumbed to the virus was an Australian schoolteacher called Eric Michael Heenan. He enlisted in 1918, following in the footsteps of his brother Neville who was serving as a Lieutenant in France. He gave his age as 21 when in fact he was only 18 years old.
But Eric never saw action. He sailed from Australia in October 1918 on the troopship The Boonah, arriving at Durban three weeks later to be told that the Armistice had been signed and the war was officially at an end..
Durban at the time was rife with influenza. Many of the Boonah's crew succumbed after contact with labourers helping to load the ship with fresh provisions for its return to Australia. Eric Heenan was among them. He collapsed while working in the engine room of The Boonah, filling in for stokers who had fallen ill.
By the time The Boonah arrived back in Australian waters, more than 300 of the men on board had the flu. Eric Heenan and the other sick men were taken to a quarantine hospital at Woodman Point near Perth. There he remained from December 12, 1918 until January 1 the following year. Six months later when he attended a medical review, he was still suffering from palpitations. But he – unlike many other victims – survived.
From Law to Politics
After discharge from the army, Eric Heenan returned to his career as a schoolteacher, taking up a post as an assistant teacher at East Victoria Park State School. Four years later he decided to change course and become a lawyer. He qualified as a barrister in 1929 and moved to Kalgoorlie to begin practicing his new profession. He was, he said in an interview many years later, "a young, very inexperienced lawyer" but he was fortunate that a local police sergeant had known his father.
I think some of these people who would be arrested, or perhaps there would be someone up on a stealing charge, or an assault or a robbery, or gold stealing, ... I think the police [ask} .... What lawyer do you want?"
Perhaps they don't know, and I think this old Sergeant Ryan would say, "Well, there's a young lawyer just started, named Heenan. Would you like me to get him?
Eric Heenan also developed strong connections with the Australian Workers Union (AWU), fighting many compensation battles on behalf of their mineworker members.
In 1936 he was elected to Parliament, serving on the Legislative Council as Labour representative for the North East Province for the next 32 years. His wife Joan (nee McKenna), the first female lawyer in Western Australia, ran the legal practice in Kalgoorlie together with a partner.
Eric Heenan died in 1998 at the age of 98. Joan died in 2002, aged 91.
Their only child – also known as Eric Michael Heenan – followed in their legal footsteps, becoming a Supreme Court judge and serving in the Western Australia supreme court from 2002 until 2015.
Heenan Family of Esperance
Eric Michael Heenan was born in Kanowna, Western Australia, one of eight children. His grandfather James Heenan came from County Tipperary, Ireland and is thought to have settled in Australia around 1854. He married Bridget Neil in Brisbane the same year.
They had a son – Michael Joseph Heenan – in 1859. He initially settled with his wife, Josephine Francis McCarty in Laidley in Queensland. But when gold was discovered at Kalgoorlie, in around 1895, they moved to Western Australia where Michael Joseph tried his hand at prospecting.
He left the goldfields because, although, in his son's words "he had had some success as a prospector, he had been brought up on the land". He bought land at a place called Grass Patch about 50 miles north of Esperance and began farming. By 1916 he was farming 1,000 acres.
He also bought the Pier Hotel at Esperance where the family lived. Michael Joseph would travel regularly to Grass Patch to attend to his farm, leaving the hotel to be run by his wife. The hotel was completely destroyed in a fire in 1910 but was rebuilt by the Heenan family.
Eric Heenan recalls of his childhood:
... we were a large family. We didn't starve but just like, I suppose, most other families, we were poor and everyone had to just struggle to keep the home going. We had very good parents. My mother, she did nothing but just work and run the home and look after us.
All seven of the children who survived beyond infancy, attended Esperance State School. Two of the boys and two girls were later sent to boarding schools in Adelaide.
After his father's death in 1926, Eric Heenan returned briefly to Esperance to help his mother and brother Esmond to run the Pier Hotel. The family tried to sell the hotel but could not find a buyer because Esperance, once a key port for the goldfields, was no longer felt to have good economic prospects.
Siblings of Eric Heenan
Neville James Heenan, the eldest child of the family, served as a Lieutenant in he 107 Howitzer Battery, Australian Field Artillery. He was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" while serving near Messines, Belgium on 19 Aug 1917. After the war he completed his legal studies and practiced as a barrister. During World War 2 he served as a Captain (acting) with a recruiting division.
Kevin Heenan went into the hotel business. In 1929 the Western Australian newspaper reported that he had built "a fine hotel" at Grass Patch, near Esperance, at a cost of around 4,000 AUS$. It included bars, a billiard room, large dining room and 12 bedrooms.
Esmond Heenan, the youngest son, became the licensee of the hotel after his mother's death in 1935. He ran the premises until his death in a head on car crash in February 1947.
Sisters Mary Pauline and Irene Eileen, both became teachers.
- Article: "Woodman Point memorial remembers the nightmare of Spanish flu after World War " ABC News, 14 Dec 2018. Retrieved 6 Jan 2019
- Interview: Parliamentary History Project/Oral History Programme, The Library Board of Western Australia and The Western Australian Parliament, State Library and WA Parliament Library: 23 September 1986. Available at Parliament of Western Australia
- The Western Australian , 26 Jan 1929 page 8. Accessed 7 Jan 2019 via Trove
- Parliamentary Biography: Parliament of Western Australia, Retrieved 6 Jan 2019
- The London Gazette, 8 Jan 1918, Supplement 30466 page 657. Retrieved 7 Jan 2019 from www.thegazette.co.uk
- Australia Marriage Index, 1938 Registration Number 203. FamilySearch.org
Australia Birth Index, 1859 Registration Number 00503. Ancestry.com