Plague Proclamation poster, 1 February 1905 Source: State Records NSW (CGS 4917, [SR Document 31])

Plague Proclamation poster, 1 February 1905 Source: State Records NSW (CGS 4917, [SR Document 31])GS4917_SR_Doc_31

Have you been struck down by the lurgy this winter?  Lisa’s been looking for a silver lining from her sick bed, and has been giving thanks that no matter how bad she’s been feeling, at least it’s not the bubonic plague!

This morning she & Nic had a look at the effects of the bubonic plague that hit Sydney in the early 20th century.

Epidemics of contagious disease weren’t uncommon in cities around the world, and Sydney was no exception. You can read more about some of them in Garry Wotherspoon‘s entry on Epidemics on the Dictionary.

By early 1900 Sydneysiders were on the lookout specifically though for the arrival of the bubonic plague which had been reported in other port cities through Asia along the route to Australia.

The Rocks is often associated with the outbreak, but this was more a matter of location than unhygienic living conditions as popularly believed at the time. Although it wasn’t known when it began, diseased rats coming off the ships at the wharves and making their way through the city were the source of the infection, as the fleas on them bit people and passed the infection on that way.

Arthur Paine, from Ferry Lane in the Rocks was the first person to contract the disease after a flea bit him on the foot, and he was diagnosed on 19 January 1900 .*

People who lived and worked around Darling Harbour were also badly effected, and large pockets of Surry Hills, RedfernWaterloo ended up with high numbers of cases as well, as many of the areas’ residents were labourers working on the waterfront.

There were over 300 cases of reported plague and by August 1900 there had been 103 deaths, a huge number for the time and the city. If you lived in the inner-city, you would have known at least one family who had suffered. After a case was reported, their whole household would be quarantined – families were sent to the Quarantine Station at Manly and houses and streets were closed.

Whole areas like the Rocks, Millers Point & Darling Harbour west of Kent Street, and another area in Redfern around Walker & Elizabeth Streets, were closed off to the rest of the city, with the quarantine zones enforced with barriers and guards.

At that point nobody really knew how the disease was transmitted so people were scared. As the outbreaks progressed through the city though, enough evidence was collected to show that it was indeed the movement of the rats behind it.  A bounty on rats followed, and photographs from the records of the Cleansing Operations show huge piles of dead animals about to be incinerated.

Professional Ratcatchers in Sydney, 1900 Source: Mitchel Library, State Library NSW (a147264/ PXE 93,

Professional Ratcatchers in Sydney, 1900 Source: Mitchel Library, State Library NSW (a147264/ PXE 93, 264)

You can visit graves of plague victims at some spectactular locations around the city. The No 3 Cemetery at the Quarantine Station still exists, and some Chinese victims of the plague who had been quarantined at the Little Bay Coast Hospital  are buried in the cemetery there, now part of the Kamay – Botany Bay National Park.

One of the main long term effects of the bubonic plague, apart from on our health and the knowledge of how the disease spread, of the plaque was how it transformed Sydney’s urban environment. The Cleansing Operations that came about were an opportunity and trigger to rebuild the waterfront areas. The government resumed the areas as part of the operations, and started building modern wharves and warehouses. The finger wharves in Woolloomooloo, Jones Bay & Walsh Bay are a direct legacy of the epidemic.

*This post was edited on 22 January 2019 to revise information regarding the first death from bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900. Arthur H Payne was the first patient diagnosed with plague, and was sent to the Quarantine Stationon January 24, but he recovered and was released on February 18. The first recorded death in Sydney from plague was of Captain Thomas Dudley, a sailmaker with business premises in Sussex Street, who died on February 22 at his home in Drummoyne. In 1884, Dudley had been tried for cannibalism in England after being lost at sea with his crew. (CAPTAIN DUDLEY. The Herald, 26 Feburary 1900, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article241262248).

Listen now

If you missed today’s segment, you can catch up here via the 2SER website. Tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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