Bubonic plague is something we normally associate with medieval Europe, not sunny Western Australia. And yet, at the turn of last century, the Black Death sailed onto the shores of the Swan River, and sent the young city of Fremantle into a panicked, lime and carbolic fuelled spin.
When young William Campbell sat down for breakfast at his Bay Street boarding house on Saturday morning of April 7, 1900, he wouldn’t have known that it would be for the last time. He had been feeling increasingly ill since Thursday, with chills, aches and swollen glands. Quite likely though, his landlord and fellow boarders would have passed off the symptoms as a bad case of man flu, and offered only a modicum of sympathy as he went off to work at the nearby goods shed.
William was a railway shunter, unloading cargo which was brought into Fremantle on ships and placing it on trains for further journey inland. In the week prior to falling ill, he had been handling the loads from the steamers, Pilbara and Marloo. Both ships hailed from Sydney, and amongst the standard consignment of goods was at least one flea-ridden rat-infected with the dreaded Yersinia pestis bacterium. In all likelihood, William wouldn’t have even noticed the fatal flea bite.
By Saturday evening, he felt ill enough to make his way to Fremantle Hospital in search of medicine for his fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. He expressed disinclination to stay at the hospital, however, and left – only to return an hour or so later and was admitted. Luckily so, as soon afterwards he slipped into a coma.
The resident medical officer, Dr. O’Meara, kept a close eye on the patient. What his initial diagnosis was, we can’t be sure, but he was an educated man, and no doubt well read. He would have heard of the epidemic taking hold in Sydney, and his brows must have gathered in a deep frown when he noticed the following afternoon, swollen glands on William’s right groin. Alas, there was nothing to be done, and by 9 o’clock that evening, William Campbell had died.
Dr. O’Meara shared his suspicions about cause of death with an ex-colleague, who had recently been promoted to the position of special medical officer of the Central Board of Health in Perth, Dr Anderson. The latter received the news with a great deal of alarm. He made his way to the hospital morgue and an hour after midnight performed an autopsy which confirmed the worst: William Campbell died of bubonic plague.
A report bearing the news was quickly sent to the principal medical officer, Dr Harvey. Who, on learning of the situation, immediately put the entire city on full alert. All manner of crisis- control measures were put into effect. Wharves were scrubbed, access to the inter-colonial shipping docks was limited, incoming steamers were subjected to strict fumigation, and mass efforts were coordinated to trap rats which roamed the city. A couple days after William’s death, the West Australian reported that government officials had “a tolerably free hand in the expenditure of public funds” when it came to carrying out prevention and control measures. Some of these funds were directed towards urgent and immediate construction of a quarantine station and cremation facilities at Woodman Point.
Immediate orders were issued to isolate William’s lodgings, hospital room and the morgue. The morgue would later be burned, as would all of the victim’s bedding and belongings. The walls in William’s room were stripped of paper and scrubbed, and similar treatment was applied to the ceiling, floors and woodwork, and the whole house was fumigated with sulphur for twelve hours.
A decision needed to be made as to the best way to dispose of poor William’s body. Burial was out of the question, for fear of bacterial contamination of the soil and ground water. With no existing crematorium in Fremantle, officials approved a suggestion to take the cadaver 20 miles out to sea. And so, the body was wrapped in three layers of heavy blankets, each soaked in a strong disinfecting solution of carbolic acid, then placed in a heavily weighted and perforated coffin and lowered into the ocean.
One would have hoped that was the end of the matter. Alas, panic, once in motion, takes a while to slow down and subside. Fear spread about fish and crustaceans feeding on the body and seafood all but vanished from the local menus. This was observed with a great deal of angst and bitterness by local fishermen, the life blood of the community, who noted that the chosen method of William’s burial practically extinguished their trade. Many boats stayed in port, as it was nigh impossible for fishermen to sell their catch.
Fremantle was on tenterhooks, waiting. Rumours circled. And then, on the 12th of April, a shadow spread over the city as the second victim fell.
Between 1900 and 1925, there were 12 major plague outbreaks in 27 localities of Australia introduced by infected rats from overseas ships. According to Government health archives, there were 1371 reported cases of plague and 535 deaths. Sydney was most affected, but the disease also spread to Queensland with occasional cases found in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie and Fremantle.
Source: Australian Emergency Management Institute. (n.d.). Epidemic – Bubonic Plague, Australia-wide 1900-1925 . Retrieved July 9, 2015, from Australian Emergency Management Knoweldge Hubb: https://www.emknowledge.gov.au/resource/194/1900/epidemic—bubonic-plague-australia-wide-1900-1925