The Bubonic Plague Outbreak in Sydney 1900: disease as a political tool


Professional Ratcatchers from Views taken during Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Area, Sydney, 1900, Vol. IV / under the supervision of Mr George McCredie, F.I.A., N.S.W. photographed by John Degotardi Jr.

    On the afternoon of 20th January 1900, van-driver Arthur Payne, a resident of 10 Ferry Lane, The Rocks, became Sydney’s first reported victim of bubonic plague. This was somewhat unremarkably in itself – the arrival of the plague had been duly anticipated by authorities for months prior as it raced through Hong Kong and New Caledonia. What was notably, however, was the wave of public panic that the outbreak prompted, and how it was responsible for community disruption and mass demolition of one of Sydney’s oldest precincts, The Rocks and Millers Point.

The outbreak bred panic and brought emphasized authoritative attention to the living conditions of the area, and much time and effort was devoted to surveying conditions and proposing subsequent remedies of improvement. State resumption of the precinct followed swiftly after the outbreak, coming into effect on 20th January 1900, and forced quarantining of the site swiftly followed, with areas surrounding the wharves being sectioned off, and mass disinfection and demolition processes commencing soon thereafter.

Over the next decade, more than 3,800 properties were inspected, hundreds were pulled down, and hundreds of families and individuals were dispossessed. By the end of August 1900, the outbreak had concluded, and whilst there was only a reported 103 resulting deaths (significantly low when compared to mortality rates from other infectious diseases of the time), the effect that it had on the reputation of The Rocks and Millers Point, as well as its inhabitants, was damaging. The state resumption and its demolition programs left behind a series of questions regarding the motives behind the government’s orchestration of this movement.

The geographical structure of The Rocks, as well as Sydney’s unique historical beginnings as a penal colony credited the often rugged housing conditions. Eleven decades of unregulated building development, as well as uneven and irregular land surfaces meant that often housing was unstructured and haphazardly built. Dwellings sprouted from rocks and other buildings in an “oyster-like” fashion, and the practice of “land sweating” (the construction of multiple structures on one piece of land) was commonplace. The City of Sydney Improvement Act of 1879 highlighted these issues and encouraged demolition of any existing substandard housing. This set the precedent for the destruction programs that were to follow after the bubonic plague outbreak and the early decades of the nineteenth century.

An image of slum housing at the turn of the century

 No. 50 Wexford-street (rear), Chinese bedroom from Views taken during Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Area, Sydney, 1900, Vol. II / under the supervision of Mr George McCredie, F.I.A., N.S.W. photographed by John Degotardi Jr

The middle class mentality and its effect on The Rocks inhabitants

From the 1860s to the early 1900s the middle and upper classes began deserting the area and relocating to the suburbs, divorcing themselves physically from the working and lower classes, who tended to remain in the city and close to the waterfront areas and their place of employment. Naturally as a point of import and export, and a site that saw a high exchange of people, livestock and products on a global level, the harbour foreshore was more susceptible to the outbreak of disease. When bubonic plague erupted along the waterfront precinct, the area became heavily associated with disease and unsanitary conditions, and consequently its inhabitants were assumed to be unwashed and living in a state of constant filth. This has helped to create an historical consensus that waterside housing and urban living conditions were universally appalling. The middle and upper classes were able to dissociate themselves with the presence of the plague, given their geographical distance from the harbour foreshore and the point of outbreak.

The resulting effect was a longstanding assumption that The Rocks was in such dire state that there was no alternative option but for mass slum clearance. Whilst there is no doubt that many properties were definitely substandard, and many families lived in abject poverty and poor conditions, not all the buildings that were demolished were of such a shocking standard, and many were in fact still of a solid and serviceable condition.

The ‘Sum Debate’

The recent ‘slum debate’ which has evolved over the past decade as a result of archaeological drives in The Rocks, places a new emphasis on excavation discoveries. Due to the presence of what appears to be some luxury objects discovered during the excavation, it is now believed that not all residents of The Rocks lived in extreme poverty and slums. Some experts, such as Alan Mayne and Tim Murray in The Archaeology of Urban Landscapes, have gone so far as to claim that the slum is a construction of the imagination, that is was a stereotype created by the bourgeois and the social reformers.

Not all housing of the time was substandard and characteristic of slum living, in fact, many houses were of solid and sound construction

Cumberland Street, Sydney 1831, oil painting by Charles Rodius

So if this is the case, why then was the area subjected to such architectural upheaval and community disruption? What is not often emphasized or known is the political ulterior motives at play that heavily influenced the site resumption and demolition.

One such motive was the improvement of the wharf facilities. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Sydney’s wharf conditions were lagging behind those of the rest of the world, and it was becoming an increasing source of embarrassment for the government authorities, who wanted to be seen as an advanced port city, and a colonial expansion success story, particularly for one with such sordid beginnings.

Another motivating factor for the resumption of the area was to lay the groundwork of the proposed bridge link between Sydney city and the NorthShore. Plans were underway even at these early stages and a good 23 years before construction of the bridge commenced. Even at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was clear that there would need to be a widened thoroughfare to accommodate traffic entering and exiting the bridge, and many buildings would need to be sacrificed to achieve this. The bubonic plague outbreak offered the ideal opportunity to highlight the inadequacies in a lot of buildings, and the chance to condemn the area as slum, whose only chance of redemption was through mass demolition.

The outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 provided a convenient spring board to initiate political motivations for large scale metropolitan improvement achievable only through land resumption and mass demolition. The march for progress at the turn of the century was zealous, and in its stride it took with it hundreds of Sydney’s oldest buildings, many of which were still in a solid and sound condition, at the cost of a piece of the young nation’s past.


4 comments on “The Bubonic Plague Outbreak in Sydney 1900: disease as a political tool

  1. Congratulations, your post in the blog is both an interesting and easy-to-read addition. I was captured from the very title and was particularly intrigued by the fact that it is Australian history. I know little about the history of the bubonic plague in Australia and your post was not only informative but it was structured and written in a way that it engaged me also. The visuals added to this and allowed me to view the area that was being referred to as it was in 1900. It also supported your information effectively. Well done.

  2. maritwarlow says:

    Congratulations on an interesting blog. The only visual reminder in the Rocks of the bubonic plague is a small bronze plaque. Your blog has expanded that information and makes me want to know more. The resumption of land and the clearing done would certainly have made the bridge development easier. The use of the plague to reduce property values and enable the destruction shows the government of the day in a sinister light. Well done.

  3. This was a really interesting and informative blog. I was unaware of the bubonic plague outbreak in the Rocks and Millers Point area so you provide an easy to read summarised history of these events, given I had no background knowledge. Further to this you have found a very interesting event in history and shed light on a conspiracy-like development the government used to cover up their plans for enhancement of the city. The Rocks is such a beautiful and popular location in the city so this such an interesting part of its’ history to be aware of. Thank you for shedding light on this so succinctly. Great blog.

  4. Amy says:

    I really enjoyed reading about this episode in Sydney’s history. I felt I got a sense of the character of of The Rocks at that time, and what a bustling and interesting place it must have been. It was very interesting to get an insight into the ‘slum debates’ and consider the possibility that the inhabitants of the Rocks were a diverse bunch, some living in squalid conditions and others using luxury items. The picture you painted makes me think of a street I lived on in Katoomba, where the drug dealers and the cello players and the renovators with toddlers and the wealthy Sydney weekenders all lived next to oneanother, and the little boy who swung dead rats around by the tail played on the same stretch of the street as the Christian kids who always wore beautifully pressed skivvies. I wouldn’t have expected to be interested in any history of the Rocks, but this piece was very engaging, epsecially because of the angle you took- such an interesting example of the early days of political expediency in action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s