ALEX MITCHELL: How Sydney survived the 1900 bubonic plague

Sydney was struck by bubonic plague in 1900 creating panic throughout the ramshackle town on Sydney Cove. The city fell under a state of siege and a shutdown. Why did it work?

Captain Thomas Dudley, a sail-maker working on the wharves of Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, was the first casualty. He was removing dead rats from the primitive toilet at his workshop in Sussex Street when he became ill. He died at his Birchgrove home on 22 February 1900 and was buried at the Quarantine Station, now heritage-listed as a tourist attraction, at North Head.

People living in the primitive housing and slums of Surry Hills, Redfern and Waterloo were hardest hit. But the biggest number of fatalities were among Aborigines who had no defence against the white man’s pandemic. They died in their hundreds and were buried in unmarked mass graves.

Health authorities quickly discovered (from text book and library sources) that the bubonic plague was spread by rats carrying the flea bacteria known as Yersinia pestis. The infection was spread when tiny fleas bit people.

The NSW Premier thrust into the firing line of Sydney’s plague was the first MP for Hume, Sir William Lyne, a reforming conservative who held office from 14 September 1899 to 27 March 1901.

After the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, Lyne switched to Federal politics and became Minister for Home Affairs in Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s Government. He served as Federal Treasurer under Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and ended his career supporting Andrew Fisher’s Labor Government as a cross-bencher. He lost his seat at the 1913 election and died in Double Bay on 13 August, 1913, aged 69.

NSW Governor, Sir Harry Rawson, issued a plague proclamation to “His Majesty’s subjects” on 19 July 1900 ordering everyone who “shall find dead rats in unusual numbers in premises in the said State, or who shall know of dead rats having been so found, to immediately report the fact to the nearest Officer of Police. God Save The King!”

The appeal worked. People queued at police stations to report dead rats and the lock-down proceeded apace. Shops, eating houses, factories and local schools were closed. Street barriers went up, and guards stopped people from walking through infected areas.

Hundreds of rats were collected and incinerated by professional rat-catchers who received a bounty for each rat they caught.

Chinese residents were rounded up and taken to Little Bay, south of Maroubra. If they died, they were buried in a nearby cemetery.

Dr Neil Radford, former Sydney University Librarian and today an active historian, recalled: “Balmain was affected by the bubonic plague because of its proximity to wharves. Balmain Council offered (I think) tuppence per dead rat and all the kids went hunting for them to supplement their pocket money. Huge numbers were brought in. Eventually the council realised that all the kids from surrounding suburbs were bringing their rats to Balmain because the other councils were only offering one penny.”

Bubonic plague is a pandemic treatable by using antibiotic medicine. But there is no vaccine (yet) to treat COVID-19 patients. Bubonic plague is caused by bacterium from fleas on rats while coronavirus is spread easily from human to human.

Some scientists and medical researchers have reached the conclusion that capitalism is the surrogate of the current pandemic and that what’s needed is a properly funded, universal, free-of-charge socialist health system.

In a memorable scene from Ridley Scott’s award-winning film, The Gladiator, the character Gracchus and his friend Falco are debating whether a carnival of bloodcurdling combat at the Coliseum would be a mistake or not.

Gracchus, played by Sir Derek Jacobi, says: “Fear and wonder are a powerful combination.”

But his friend Falco, played by David Schofield, is unconvinced: “You really think people are going to be seduced by that?”

To which Gracchus replies: “I think he (Emperor Commodus played by Joaquin Phoenix) knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Coliseum. He’ll bring them death – and they’ll love him for it.”

This week’s Newspoll published exclusively in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian showed a further rise in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s personal popularity. He has achieved the highest popularity since Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s figures at the height of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) in 2009.

Morrison’s lead over Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is 51% to 29%. Both are Sydney MPs – Morrison from Cronulla-based Cook and Albanese from Marrickville-based Grayndler.

Sydney’s bubonic plague was chiefly overcome by the cooperation of the general public. People did what they were asked to do. Will this happen today?

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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2 Responses to ALEX MITCHELL: How Sydney survived the 1900 bubonic plague

  1. Jim Hourigan says:

    Sydney had an epidemic, on average, every eighth year between 1866 and 1920, but the bubonic plague’s rat-chasing photos grabbed attention.

    The lasting cure to recurring epidemics was not rat-catching but removal of the conditions in which rats thrived: cramped, unsanitary housing. John Dacey saw a future where the poorest could live in dignity in low-cost detached homes. Although he died in 1912, when he was Treasurer in the Labor Government, his dream was realised in 1919 when the Housing Board opened the ‘garden suburb’, Daceyville. The quarter acre block was not an accident- it cured a problem.

    We lament the current lack of political leadership: John Dacey had it in spades.

  2. Chris Cotter says:

    What will happen today? We will see. But I can say that having recently read Journal of the Plague Year/ Defoe, human behaviour as he describes it from the 17th century has not changed much to our time in the 21st. Though his was a work of fiction ( he was actually 5 in the plague year of 1665) the author has used historical records to create what today would be something like our docu dramas. It is convincing in its authenticity.

    The lockdown, the resort to quack remedies and the premature relaxation of what preventative measures there were, could be topics of discussion today. The way people reacted then was very similar to today.

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