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The bubonic plagues in Fremantle, 1900

Michelle McKeough

McKeough, Michelle 2007, 'The bubonic plagues in Fremantle, 1900', Fremantle Studies, 5: 22-29.

Prior to the first outbreak of plague in Western Australia in April 1900 there had been a serious epidemic in Sydney and other cities of the eastern colonies. In 1900 ships heading overseas from the port of Sydney would stop in Fremantle as their last Australian port of call bringing cargo, livestock and immigrants to Western Australia. At the time the frequency of ships coming from Sydney generated a major concern for Western Australians, who, of course, were loath to see the introduction of the plague to their home shore.

Most of the Fremantle population would have known from their school history lessons something of the bubonic plague that had scythed through populations and terrorised Europe in the Middle Ages. It was with graphic visions of that medieval horror in mind that Fremantle residents viewed with suspicion every inward-bound ship.

Reflecting the sense of foreboding, newspapers in both Perth and Fremantle printed plague warnings and dire premonitions. On the one hand, the ever-sensible West Australian advised regarding the outbreak in Sydney that ‘though calling for the most vigorous precaution, is very far from affording an excuse for anything approaching panic’. 1

On the other hand, readers of the more melodramatic Sunday Times were treated to a graphic and petrifying account of the plague and its symptoms capable of provoking a sense of panic in the most guarded of its readers. The report describes in detail the symptoms of a plague victim, from fever, headaches, buboes and carbuncles, to aching pains and vomiting; ‘the eyes are red, the skin hot, the tongue black, dry and cracked, crusts form on the teeth’. 2 Here they point out that ‘if the patient survive long enough ... he wears a dull, stupefied haggard look’. 3

Another contributing factor to the sense of general unease was that the disease was not fully understood by the authorities. In Melbourne the reaction to the Sydney outbreak caused the authorities to decide ‘that all NSW passengers per train’ should disembark just outside of the City and ‘put out their tongues for official inspection’. 4 Similarly the harbour authorities in Albany had expected that live stock coming on board vessels from the eastern colonies might need to be ‘discharged into the harbour and required to swim ashore’. 5

In March, 1900 new Port Regulations were enforced in Fremantle in response to the Sydney epidemic. These regulations for the control of plague included the premise that ‘all intercolonial boats should be considered as having come from an infected port’. 6 Every crew member and passenger was examined by Dr Hope and ‘the whole of their personal effects, luggage etc were placed in the hold and fumigated with sulphur for three and a half hours’. 7

However, it was the appalling state of cleanliness in Fremantle that made the locals aware that the plague threat was to be taken seriously.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, a newspaper correspondent for the Morning Herald wrote that ‘a casual tour of the principal streets of the West End, will convince anyone that Fremantle cannot claim to be even a moderately sanitary town’. 8

Another went further in his denigration of Fremantle writing that:

on the shores of the ocean, and on the banks of the river a town has been built up with narrow, uninviting streets, which for the most part are dirty and unkempt. Of attempts to beautify them there have been none. Here and there are plots of ground which, in time to come, may serve as breathing space for an already overcrowded population; but even these are at the present neglected and unalluring. They serve but to accentuate the general impression of sordidness which everywhere prevails. 9

In May 1884 Dr Alfred Waylen, the Colonial Surgeon, had submitted his report on the Public Health of the Colony which revealed that Fremantle had the highest death rate in the colony. 10

On the eve of disembarking for the Intercolonial Conference on the Plague, the President of the Central Board of Health warned ‘The spread of the plague has shown that the disease is due, in a direct proportion, to the degree of perfection or imperfection of local sanitary arrangements’.11

In Fremantle, local sanitary arrangements were far from perfect. The drainage system was inadequate at best. Drains where they existed were made of wood which absorbed and clung to their decaying contents. Bath water and other dirty water was taken from restaurants and homes in the West End and emptied on to the beach of the South Bay at the Esplanade. The earth-closet and single-pan system were the current mode and this less than hygienic arrangement was exacerbated by there being only one sanitary contractor in Fremantle to empty the pans of all residences and workplaces. Manure lingered in the numerous stables in the West End, rubbish remained uncollected, and there were numerous complaints of residents throwing their nightsoil out of the upstairs windows of their buildings. In these cases, what did not collect in the gutters or fall to the street remained swept along the outside of the buildings.

After the gold rush of the 1890s the West End had became even more overcrowded with new arrivals and boarding and lodging houses were filled beyond their limits. The Council could not supervise the multitude of crude adaptations made to these places or to tenements and even restaurants to accommodate all the hopefuls who had chosen not to join the ‘canvas towns’ on the outskirts of Fremantle.

The increased population overburdened the already straitened sanitary provisions of the West End. Conditions on the docks as well as in the streets of the West End were in an appalling state, once again due to the inability of the Fremantle Local Board of Health to provide latrines and drainage. The three or four hundred men who worked on the South Quay did not have a single latrine to answer calls of nature and complaints were made about the piles of human excreta found among the sandalwood lying on the jetties and in the surrounding water. 12


In 1900 Fremantle residents were accustomed to the fragility of life. Infant mortality was around 10%, and they had experienced more than one epidemic of measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria.

In March 1900, whilst the plague raged in Sydney George Bland Humble, the secretary of the Fremantle Local Board of Health, wrote an anxious letter to the Central Board of Health pleading for some assistance. The local board was still unclear as to what powers it had to control the areas of shipping and quarantine which were so vital to the prevention of diseases in Fremantle. At the crux of the matter was the danger to Fremantle in its position as the entry-port of the colony. Humble wrote

I need scarcely point out that this Board, at the Port of the Colony, feel most keenly on this subject; and we shall be glad to learn that every necessary precaution is being adopted to prevent the introduction of this fearful plague into this town and Colony. 13

In fact the Central Board was busily writing a new set of regulations with which to tackle the threat of bubonic plague head on. The Central Board drafted a set of quarantine regulations which dealt with sea quarantine and a complete set of precautionary regulations which covered land quarantine. The newly appointed Special Medical Officer 14, Dr Black, advised the community that ‘taken together, if properly carried out, they should form a sufficient safeguard to the community against the introduction of the plague’. 15

It did not take long for the battle between the two health boards to take an ugly turn. In May, the President of the Central Board publicly condemned the Fremantle Local Board of Health for ‘inaction and neglect of its duties’. 16 In an impassioned response Fremantle’s Resident Medical Officer, Dr Hope, declared that ‘the regulations issued by the Central Board recently have been hurriedly framed, and some of them are impracticable and arbitrary’. 17 He accused the Board of acting ‘in an autocratic manner as regards the public health’ and called the President of the Central Board, ‘faddish, impulsive and tactless’. 18

1900 – The plague strikes Fremantle

Despite all the precautions, when the first case of bubonic plague was discovered in Fremantle in April 1900, a general anxiety - bordering on panic - swept the town. Both citizens and administrators alike were alarmed. Although there was now a preventative inoculation, and a chance of recovery for cases diagnosed early, the plague appeared in Fremantle, as it did in Europe in the middle ages, like a virulent and dire phantom.

William Campbell was only 19 years old when he became the first victim of the plague in Fremantle, dying at the Fremantle Hospital on 8 April 1900. Campbell had migrated to Western Australia from Victoria only five or six months before his death. He was employed by the government railway department at the No 1 goods shed where his job was to unload cargo which came in on ships from the eastern colonies. At the time he was struck down with the plague he had been unloading merchandise from the steamers Pilbarra and Marloo both from Sydney.

Campbell lived in a boarding house at 10 Bay Street, near Cantonment Street. The boarding house was opposite the locomotive workshops, and was run by an Italian family of the name Martinelly. There were six boarders at the time, plus the Martinelly family of five.

On Thursday 5 April Campbell complained of feeling ill. On Saturday he had a headache and was vomiting. By Sunday he was dead.

Having no crematorium at the Port, William Campbell’s body was buried at sea about 20 miles out of Fremantle. When the people of Fremantle discovered that this was the plan for the boy’s body, they complained vehemently to the authorities that the body could be eaten by fish, which would then be caught and eaten by the townspeople. A reporter from the Morning Herald took this issue up with Dr Anderson who urged him to report that there was no danger that the ‘bubonic germs’ would disseminate throughout Fremantle in that way. 19

The burial at sea of William Campbell also provoked a strong protest from the Inspector for Fisheries who wrote: ‘I defy contradiction when I say that a body stricken down with bubonic plague, buried at sea and ... accessible to crustaceans and fish, will have a very serious effect on the industry’. 20 The Under-Secretary, Octavius Burt, responded to the Inspector that ‘There is not the slightest reason for supposing that fish will ever get at the body’. He was also sure to add that ‘a crematorium will be erected as soon as possible’.

However, the Inspector for Fisheries well understood the public mind. A few days after the burial of William Campbell, the Morning Herald informed its readers that

One result of the appearance of the plague at the port has been almost a cessation of fishing operations. The public took a decided objection to the burial at sea of the victim Campbell ... the idea was also advanced that the cleansing of the ships from the plague-infected ports involved ... an additional risk of the fish contracting and spreading the disease ... the public has taken a decided objection to fish other than the tinned article. The fact that the body of Campbell was wrapped in three sets of strongly disinfected sheets, and placed inside a lead coffin, which was enclosed in a strong jarrah coffin, the whole being heavily weighted so as to secure its going to the bottom of the sea, does not appear to have reassured the public mind. 21

Two days later the same paper reported that ‘A poor fisherman yesterday, disgusted and weary, was obliged to throw away a hundred weight of fish because he could not sell it in Subiaco, where he has hitherto done good trade’. 22

Such was the horror the bubonic plague provoked in the public, even the most cautious burial of a body at sea could resulted in this strong reaction. Indeed fear of the plague manifested itself in a variety of ways throughout Fremantle.

Disinfectants sold out of the warehouses at such a rate, that five days after the discovery of plague in Fremantle, there was not a bottle to be had. And the Manager of one of the local warehouses received telegrams from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, asserting that a supply of the principal disinfectants could not be obtained at any price. 23

A deputation representing the school teachers of Fremantle met with the Inspector of Schools insisting local schools be closed down. The Inspector’s response was to remind them of their duty and to caution that the children had much less chance of contracting the disease in the cleanliness of the classroom than they would ‘running about in the gutters of Fremantle’. 24

A large number of the locals visited the Town Clerk to protest the passage of the plague patients through town on the way to the Quarantine Station at Woodman’s Point. On this subject, George Humble wrote to the Central Board that there was:

a nervous dread amongst the ratepayers in the town, that the passing of the conveyance carrying the plague patients may cause the introduction and the spread of the disease in our midst. I trust you will give me the opinion of Dr Black on this point, so that it may be made known as publicly as possible so as to allay the fears of the public as much as possible. 25

In response, the Central Board could only offer to send the deceased patients in the future by rail. It added that when the patients were being conveyed to Woodman’s Point the Officer in Charge would ‘carry a yellow flag on a pole’ so that the public could ‘keep on the weather side when they were passing the conveyance. 26

And yet, when it came to the real issues of plague prevention, namely the destruction of rats, the public were, perhaps understandably, much less hands on. At first the Central Board had offered a shilling for every dozen dead rats brought in by the public. Even when this was changed to sixpence a rat the people of Fremantle could not be prevailed upon to indulge in rat-catching.

By the time of the second outbreak of plague in May 1901, the Central Board was forced to issue special instructions to their Inspectors as ‘effective means were not being taken by the people for the destruction of rats’ without which the Board declared ‘it is almost useless to cope with the present outbreak of plague’ .27 The Board issued regulations which enforced a penalty for the non-destruction of rats.


By the last outbreak in 1902 only 7 people had actually died of the plague in Fremantle. In 1901 Perth suffered much more than Fremantle from the epidemic with nearly twenty people contracting the disease, of which six died. However, the impact of the plague was not on the mortality of Fremantle but on the living conditions of the people and more importantly on the role of the municipal government and issues of sanitation that impacted most drastically on the residents of the West End. In addition, it prompted the inception of the Fremantle Harbour Trust.

With one exception, every person who contracted or died of the plague either lived or worked in the West End. The exception, Arthur Malet, had contracted the disease almost immediately after landing at the Fremantle Harbour. The wealthy elite had long moved their residences away from that part of town and many of the residents of the West End at the turn of the twentieth century were living in sub-standard conditions; in old and ailing shacks and houses, which were described by the Fremantle Courier in 1902 as ‘erected in times gone by which are still used, although modern ideas are altogether opposed to such places being occupied by human beings’. 28

Due to the visits of the Town Engineer and the Health Inspector to every dwelling and business in the West End during the plague years some vital improvements were introduced including, most importantly, the introduction of a building code through which the granting of building licenses could be properly enforced.

Most significantly for the local townspeople, the existence of plague forced the hand of the Local Board of Health in instituting practices which greatly improved the general condition of the town. In the first monumental effort in this regard, it took a working party of 110 men over three days to remove effluent and the carcasses of dead animals from the Esplanade Beach in mid-1900. Following this, the Fremantle Local Board of Health applied to the newly formed State government for a grant to reclaim the Esplanade Beach, which was granted and carried out by 1903.

The Central Board of Health made its first inquiries into the septic tank system of sewage treatment in August 1900 following the first plague epidemic. Then in 1901, contractors were hired to install the more efficient and hygienic ‘double-pan’ system, starting at the West End and moving to the outer suburbs.

In 1902 following Fremantle’s third attack of bubonic plague and much subsequent discussion at the tables of the Fremantle Town Council, the Fremantle Harbour Trust was established. In this, the Council followed the lead of Sydney, which had established a port administration in 1900 after its virulent plague epidemic.

The Fremantle Harbour Trust was established by an Act of Parliament in 1902, and took control of the harbour on 1 January 1903. It consisted of five commissioners and had control over all aspects of the harbour; from the port and its facilities to the hiring of labour and piloting; all formerly controlled by five different authorities.

Fremantle Studies Day, The Royal Western Australian Historical Society (Inc.), State History Conference of Affiliated Societies, September 2005


1 West Australian, 13/3/1900.

2 Sunday Times 14 /4/1900 p3

3 Sunday Times 14 /4/1900 p3

4 Letters to the Commissioner of Police, 28/3/1900 from Central Board of Health (CBH) Files AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, State Records Office of WA (SRO)

5 Letters from Manager, Millars’ Karri and Jarrah Forests, Ltd to Dr Black , 18/5/1900 CBH Files AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

6 21 March,1900 from George Humble to Sec’t CBH, 23/3/1900 CBH Files, AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

7 Memo from Dr Harvey, Principal Medical Officer to Central Board Of Health (CBH), 16/4/1900, CBH Files, AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 31, SRO.

8 Morning Herald, 10/6/1898.

9 Morning Herald, 10//6/1898.

10 Report by the Colonial Surgeon on Public Health for 1883, Western Australian Parliamentary Papers 1884 No. 9.

11 West Australian, 13/3/1900.

12 CBH Files, AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO.

13 Letter from George Humble to Secretary CBH, 21/3/1900, CBH Files, AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO.

14 Anderson had been Quarantine Officer, but as of Quarantine Orders of 2 April, 1900, had become S.M.O. One of Anderson’s first efforts in Fremantle was to establish an office in Cliff Buildings, with J.K. Hitchcock as Secretary.

15 West Australian, 13/3/1900.

16 Extract from the report of a meeting of the Fremantle Local Board of Health (FLBH), Morning Herald, 30/5/1900.

17 ibid.

18 ibid.

19 Morning Herald 13/4/00 p 6

20 ibid.

21 ibid.

22 Morning Herald 15/4/00

23 ibid.

24 Letter from Cyril Jackson, Inspector General of Schools to Dr Black, 22/3/1901 CBH Files, AN 120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

25 Letter from George Humble to Secretary CBH, 7/3/1900, CBH Files AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

26 Letter from Secretary, CBH to Secretary FLBH 9/3/1900, CBH Files AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

27 Letter from George Humble to Secretary CBH 26/5/1900 CBH Files AN120/4 Acc No: 1003 Box 25, SRO

28 Fremantle Courier, 2/3/1902.

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