History: Hawkesbury escaped the plague but not the fear of its spread

Rat catchers in Sydney in 1900 earned their keep amid the bubonic plague pandemic.
Rat catchers in Sydney in 1900 earned their keep amid the bubonic plague pandemic.

Bubonic Plague is a dreadful disease which can cause swollen/painful lymph nodes which may break open. It is transmitted to humans from small animals, mainly black rats, via fleas, though some modern research suggests that in the past it was spread more by body lice and human fleas.

There were three great 'Pandemics' of this disease in history including the widespread pestilence which came Australia in 1900 and lasted, on and off, until 1925.

The first case reported in Australia was that of Arthur Paine, a dock worker, on January 19, 1900.

He ultimately recovered. There were twelve major outbreaks of the disease in Australia from 1900 to 1925, resulting in 1371 reported cases and 535 deaths. It is said that Australia's co-ordinated and scientific approach to the disease meant that it fared better than other parts of the world.

The disease was first reported in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette on January 6, 1900. Mention was made of the clean-up precautions in Sydney and an attempt was made to assign blame for the outbreak pointing to the unsanitary living conditions of communities of Asian people in the city.

At the end of January a Windsor lady was quarantined and in February local use of disinfectant was recommended.

From March, comments became more political, with attacks on local/colonial governments for their lack of active sanitary precautions. A report of a case at Riverstone led to fears of an outbreak at Riverstone Meat Works however it was found to be untrue that dead rats were found there. When George Bushell was inoculated at the end of March, it made him quite ill, though reportedly not his two brothers.

Windsor Borough Council responded to calls for greater attention to sanitary conditions by appointing an additional man to make house-to-house inspections and help clean up the streets.

Some Windsor aldermen actually opposed greater sanitary measures as unnecessary. Health Inspectors reported overflowing cess-pits which "give out effluvia of the vilest ... kind".

Meanwhile the local newspaper continued to be critical - the effectiveness of inoculation was queried, many people didn't trust it, the medical profession should have cured the disease. The exaggeration by the Sydney press caused plague panic, crippling commerce, however typhoid was actually killing more people.

In April, a rumour that someone aboard the SS Hawkesbury had plague was suspected of being a trick to harm the company. In June, two locals were praised for their work in combatting the plague - Mr S Rigg, inspector in the Sydney quarantine area, and his daughter Miss Agnes Rigg (Nurse Ashweather) of the Sydney Hospital, who had been highly complimented.

By August 1900, numbers of cases had subsided and special prayers were said at St Peter's Church, Richmond, in thanksgiving. No actual cases or deaths in the Hawkesbury were reported, but there was certainly much interest and concern. When the 'Spanish' Flu came nineteen years later, things would be much different.