Plague in 1900 in Sydney

2020, 1919, 1900 … what do these years have in common?

2020 doesn’t bear writing about, what with fires, Covid-19 and now recession. And we keep hearing comparisons with the worldwide disaster of Spanish flu in 1919.

But the history of plague in Sydney is less well known. That’s plain old bubonic plague, the kind they had in London in the 1600s. Turning up here and there over the decades, it was carried from rats to fleas to humans. Sydney’s first encounter was in January 1900.

The rats came by sea. In Sydney the main dockyards were at Darling Harbour, and that’s where the plague took hold, among dock workers, local traders and carriers, and residents in crowded housing nearby.

The first sign was not a sick person, but an increase in the number of dead rats. It had never occurred to me that rats were also victims of the disease. Soon there were big campaigns to kill rats. The official number killed in Sydney that year, 108,308, looks a bit too precise to be believable. It could be an under-estimate.

Cover of Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken‘s book

Rat catchers proudly photographed great piles of rotting rodents. When Leichhardt Council Chambers was announced as the a local collection depot, the town clerk was besieged by people bearing dead rats and demanding the “captitation” fee of sixpence. The depot was actually in Canterbury Road. Some inner city districts were barricaded off until rat eradication and cleaning could be completed. Huge barge-loads of dead rats, contaminated material and other rubbish were towed out to sea, and some unsavoury items turned up on Bondi Beach. The Bulletin commented,

Break, break, break/ At the foot of thy crags, O Sea.

But the pungent smell of the cat that is dead/ Will ever come back to me.”

The disease spread rapidly, with the inner suburbs hardest hit. The Rocks and Chinatown were badly affected, as were Alexandria, Surry Hills, Botany, Waterloo and Woolloomooloo. City boarding houses, crowded cottages and cheap hotels were also at risk. Plague seldom penetrated the graceful streets of Mosman, Vaucluse or Strathfield. Manly was the only north shore address to be affected.

When a case was suspected, public health officials inspected the patient and the premises. Confirmed cases were quarantined – transported by launch to Quarantine Station at North Head. Close contacts were also taken to Quarantine Station where there was separate accommodation for contacts, up the hill from the hospital. People from small households usually complied with these arrangements, but when authorities insisted on quarantining 80 people from one hotel, there was violent resistance. Most contacts spent only a couple of weeks at North Head, but a few were there for months.

In all, there were 303 cases, of whom 103 died. Young men, at high risk because of their jobs near the wharves, were the largest group affected.

Restricting deaths to 103 represents a triumph for the authorities, but the figures mask untold tragedies. A terminally ill 3-year-old was snatched from his mother’s arms and taken to die alone at the Quarantine Station. Many families lost their sole breadwinner.

The city had much to learn about the need for decent sanitation, but in the meantime snake oil salesmen had a grand time promoting various preventive substances and cures. With its centuries-old name, The Black Death, the plague inspired terror, misinformation, and the desire to find someone to blame. The rumour mill went wild, with false claims that the Chinese community was the source of the infection, or that rich families were bribing officials not to identify them as plague victims. There was little clarity about which level of government was responsible for what. No one knew what the future might hold. Plague was not the only threat to health: doctors could offer little to combat scarlet fever, measles or flu.

But when winter 1900 turned to spring, the plague had run its course. Health experts warned that there would certainly be another epidemic one day, but most residents of Sydney just sighed with relief.


More information: Curson, P. & McCracken, K., Plague in Sydney, UNSW Press


COVID-19 is very confusing for some dogs in Sydney and my pooch Sam is one of them. Sam, a pure-bred black and tan Kelpie, was born on a sheep station in the Snowy Mountains six years ago, and when I first saw her, at the age of eight weeks, she and her five siblings were alreading mustering recently born ducklings into jam tins that had dropped into their enclosure.

By the time she was six months old she had all but mastered the art of mustering sheep — but she was suddenly whipped off to the urban surrounds of Darling Point, whre there have been very few sheep for more than 150 years. Most evenings for the past five years, I’ve taken Sam to Yarranabbe Park, a stretch of parkland that skirts Rushcutters Bay on the south shore of Sydney Harbour, for her second big run of the day. She loves the park, partly because she sees a few of her doggy friends but mainly because each day a steady, if small, stream of humans walked along the harbourside pathway.

A couple of years ago when a bout of heart maintnance slowed me down for a few months, Sam worked out how to keep herself active and amused. She would pick up her tennis ball, lope over to the most likely looking perambulator and drop the ball at their feet. She would then back away about five metres and fix them with the Kelpie stare – the classic sheepdog pose of arse up, head down and one paw tucked to her chest. It worked about 70% of the time and her ball would be thrown. The sucker would then discover that if you throw a ball once for a Kelpie, you are expected to keep doing it time and time again. And it is not easy to wear out a Kelpie.

But on March 16 Sam’s world was wrecked by the bloody COVID-19 virus. That was the day Gladys the Cruel started to shut down New South Wales. At first we were told to keep a distance from each other, but then Our Glad sooled the coppers onto us and said we couldn’t leave home without a reasonable excuse, and worst of all, she shut the gyms.

Shutting the gyms in a city of five million people made the parks a nightmare. Yarranabbe Park went from seeing 30 to 40 walkers each afternoon to seeing thousands. Great muscle-bound lumps of sweaty and puffy humanity were packed shoulder to shoulder on the paths, and the grass was covered with perosnal trainers and their victims attempting to do push-ups or master the plank. Sam was totally confused. She quickly discovered these new people were too busy to notice a dog. Those who stopped when confronted by the classic sheepdog pose paid no attention to the tennis ball at their feet. They thought she was about to attack them and rip out their sweaty throats.

They grabbed their mobiles phones and rang the cops.

We moved to another park well away from the harbour – but now the personal trainers have discovered it too.

At the end of March, Sam and I slipped down to the Snowy Mountains to do a bit of trout fishing — but the local coppers ordered us home. Fishing, even on a totally isolated river, is not a Gladys-sanctioned activity.

Sam is now baffled.