Bubonic Plague in Australia

Some people believe the plague ended in the seventeenth century, but this is not so. There have been many outbreaks around the world right up to the present time.

In mid-January 1900 bubonic plague made its first recorded appearance in Australia, being officially declared in Adelaide on the 15th of the month and in Sydney four days later. The Adelaide outbreak subsequently came to very little. In the case of Sydney, however, the disease, introduced by infected rats aboard overseas vessels berthed at Darling Harbour, quickly invaded the nearby dockside streets and within a few months had spread to encompass much of the city.

The death toll was nothing like European outbreaks. Yet it must be remembered that although Australia is a large country, the population was small. Between February and August 1900 some 300 persons were struck down by the infection, of whom more than 100 died. Probably the toll was much higher due to misdiagnosis and the fact that many cases went unreported.

Sutton Forest Butchery. No. 761 George Street, Sydney, 1900 - photo courtesy of State Library of NSW
Sutton Forest Butchery. No. 761 George Street, Sydney, 1900 – photo courtesy of State Library of NSW
Johnstone's Lane, Sydney (NSW) - photo courtesy of State Records NSW
Johnstone’s Lane, Sydney (NSW), 1900 – photo courtesy of State Records NSW

Like all plague outbreaks, the epidemic caused a degree of human tragedy and suffering out of all proportion to the numbers of cases and deaths actually involved. More than 1750 people were uprooted from their homes and forcibly quarantined at North Head. Many homes and outbuildings were demolished, fences knocked down, sanitary conveniences destroyed, chattels removed and people virtually turned out on to the streets. Whole districts of Sydney were cordoned off, quarantined and invaded by an army of “sanitary inspectors” and public cleansing teams.

Exeter Place, taken during Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Area, Sydney, 1900 - photo courtesy of State Library of NSW
Exeter Place, taken during Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Area, Sydney, 1900 – photo courtesy of State Library of NSW
Professional ratcatchers, Sydney, 1900 - photo courtesy of State Library of NSW
Professional ratcatchers, Sydney, 1900 – photo courtesy of State Library of NSW

Curfews were imposed upon infected zones of the city and people’s right of movement were severely restricted. Organised teams were engaged to collect and kill rats (and in some cases domestic dogs and cats). Popular cures and home remedies became vogue. Especially blood purifiers, bile beans, Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills and uncontaminated dairy products. One senior government minister went as far as to urge people to burn barrels of pitch and tar in the streets to purify the air.

The outbreak of 1900 highlighted the inadequacies of Sydney’s sanitary and housing situations, and also demonstrated that the public authorities were unable to cooperate and act decisively in times of crises.

There were twelve outbreaks of bubonic plague between 1900 and 1925. In total 1371 cases were reported and there were 535 deaths. The 1920’s saw most cases reported in Queensland.

There has been no further outbreak of the plague in Australia since 1925.

**Reference: Plague in Sydney: The Anatomy of an Epidemic by Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken

Want more photos?

Visit Library of NSW. Click on “Context” located in the darker grey navigation bar (the second one, not the top one). Then click on the volume you wish to view. Now click on “Images” located in the navigation bar. Each volume has about 65 photos to view. And believe me, they are worth looking at.

3 thoughts on “Bubonic Plague in Australia

  1. Dear Karen,
    I found your article particularly interesting, my parents came from Italy to Australia during this time. When I asked them about the plague in Australia they responded in saying that it was present, but controlled very quickly. They thought that the actions of the local authorities were sufficient. “The outbreak of 1900 highlighted the inadequacies of Sydney’s sanitary and housing situations, and also demonstrated that the public authorities were unable to cooperate and act decisively in times of crises.” this is false, they responded in such a way that reduced the amount of cases and as a fact sydney at the time was becoming one of the most developed cities and if the responses were so bad the outbrake would have lasted so much longer and the deaths would be so much more severe, it could be a close comparrison to england.
    I hope you consider this
    p.s you spelt rats as rates haha lol

  2. I’ve always been interested in the plague, however, the words in the post are not mine, they are credited to the authors in the ‘source’ note at the end.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo. I’ve fixed it. 🙂

  3. My understanding is that plague developed in Australia because slums were allowed to grow unchecked and that the public authorities neglected their responsibilities to monitor health.

    Although plague was confirmed in January 1900 it was not proclaimed, and sanitation measures were not enforced, until March of the same year.

    The human tragedy was compounded by the response of the populace, who blamed the poor and attacked the mostly Chinese residents of the slums.

    Page 272
    Australia’s Dangerous Creatures, Sutherland et al, Readers Digest 1987

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *