James Mathers and the plague outbreak of 1900

The coronavirus epidemic has now spread to most parts of the world, and Switzerland is in the top 12 countries for confirmed cases, which may not reflect the reality of cases in countries with little or no testing.  This time of social distancing and self-quarantine brought to mind my great-grandfather who lived through an epidemic of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900, the first and largest plague outbreak in Australia. In this post, I take a look at this outbreak and his experience of it through the window of the detailed journal that he kept at the time.

My great-grandfather James Mathers was born in 1852 and migrated from Scotland to Australia in 1897 with his family, including my four year old grandfather William Melrose Mathers. Some months after their arrival, he started working as a Christian missionary for the Sydney City Mission, having previously undertaken similar urban mission work in Scotland.  For 14 years until his death in 1911, he worked in the Millers Point and Rocks areas of Sydney, areas now either side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

James Mathers and residents of the Rocks, circa 1900

In 1901, Miller’s Point and the Rocks had a population of around 112,000, nearly a quarter of the City’s population and its population density was near the highest in the metropolitan area. The Rocks in particular, was a slum area with very high population density (one quarter of Sydney’s population lived there in 1901) and high rates of poverty. The population contained an above-average proportion of non-British immigrants, especially the Chinese, clustered near lower George Street, in Queen and Little Essex Streets. There were 134 men to every 100 women, and three times the average Sydney proportion of bachelors.

In 1900, bubonic plague broke out in the Rocks less than three years after James Mathers started his mission work there. As part of his employment, he kept a detailed daily journal to give an account of his activities for his Mission supervisors but they also provide a personal impression of conditions in Miller’s Point and The Rocks. The sixteen volumes of the Mathers journals span the period July 1897 to February 1911 and collectively weigh about 10 kilos. They were passed down through the family to my mother some years ago. She later gave them to the Mitchell Library in Sydney, where they now held and one of the volumes can also be read online.

James Mathers visiting a family in the Rocks, circa 1900.

An Australian historian, Malcolm Prentis has summarized the journal observations of James Mathers on the 1900 plague [1] and I gratefully acknowledge drawing on his research for this post. Sydney experienced outbreaks of bubonic plague in 1900, 1902, 1907 and 1921-22. The 1900 outbreak was by far the worst. Between 19 January and 9 August 1900, 103 residents of Sydney died of bubonic plague. Another 200 contracted the disease and survived. The 1900 outbreak is thought to have originated in South China in the 1890s and reached Sydney from New Caledonia, carried by the fleas on ship-borne rats. The bubonic plague, or ‘Black Death’ as it became known during the pandemic of the 17th century, is one of the most deadly diseases to which humans have ever been exposed. The disease is caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis (Y pestis), which is carried by rat fleas.

James Mathers knew the family of the first victim well and made the following entry in his journal for 25 January 1900:

“Great excitement prevails all over my district just now through a reported case of Bubonic Plague, the sufferer being Arthur Payne 10 Ferry Lane, & who along with his family has been removed to the quarantine station, for further examination.

“Visiting in that part of the district and hearing of the man’s illness I went to the door. I was met by Mrs Payne whom I know well, and whose mother, Mrs Holms, attends my meetings regularly. I asked her if I could see her husband, but she refused my request for 2 reasons, 1st, because it was suspected bubonic plague, and 2nd, because he was suffering severely with his heart & did not like to be spoken to on such a subject, as he was a peculiar man, but a good man she said.

“I asked her if he was saved & she could not answer the question. I was very anxious to deal with the poor fellow about his soul, not knowing how soon he may pass from off this stage of action with an unsaved soul, but for some wise end I was prevented from seeing him.

“The authorities removed the family immediately I left, also all those who had been in the house from Friday. The Lord knew best, if I had got an entrance to the house I would have been in Quarantine along with the rest & the Lord preferred me in my district. Praise be his name, he doeth all things well.

“Oh: that people were just as much excited about the plague of sin in the soul, as they are about the supposed Bubonic Plague in Sydney, we would have a real revival in our midst. I believe it is coming, that God is going to pour upon us a great blessing, & that not very far in the distance.”

A number of accounts I’ve seen state that Arthur Payne was the first person to die from the plague, but in fact he survived, and the first fatality was Captain Thomas Dudley. About a month later, Dudley, who also worked at the wharves in the Rocks, began showing symptoms. He had noted scores of dead rats in his neighbourhood and said he had been pulling dead vermin from his toilet before falling ill. Dudley became the city’s first plague fatality and his death set off a wave of panic. Fun fact: 16 years earlier, Dudley had been convicted of murder for the purpose of cannibalism  [2].

Buildings and Tents, North Head Quarantine Station, c.1900. Courtesy National Archives of Australia

There was a wave of public panic in inner Sydney as the plague, which arrived on fleas brought ashore by ships’ rats, began to thrive during the warm wet autumn. Those who could afford to fled the city, real estate agents were inundated with calls for suburban properties and there were stories of residents fleeing to the Blue Mountains. Fear bred hostility and the newspapers were full of lurid stories about the “Black Death”. People were marched off in the middle of the night to be quarantined and the names of those infected or deceased were published daily.The authorities made North Head’s quarantine station the city’s first line of defence, designed to delay and destroy the “deadly foes threatening to storm the great metropolis.” In all, more than 1700 people were sent to the station, of whom only 303 were cases. There were 103 deaths, and the dead were interred with quick lime to hurry their decomposition.

While there was a tendency to blame the Chinese residents of the Rocks area, much of the blame for the outbreak of plague was assigned by the press to the government and City Council, for lack of  enforcement of existing public  health and housing laws and regulations.

Within a few months of Captain Dudley’s death, the plague had spread along transport routes across the city and quarantine areas were established from Millers Point west to Chippendale and Glebe, as far east as Paddington and Manly in the north. Squadrons of ratcatchers were formed and in the next few months, tens of thousands of vermin were killed and burned in a special rat incinerator with some councils paying six pence a head, making the pestilence very profitable.

Rat catchers with a pile of dead vermin in Sydney in 1900. Rats were fetching up to six pence a head during the outbreak. Picture: State Library of NSW

Other references to the plague in the journals are rare over the next few months. A couple of entries in March note that Mission meetings were well attended despite the plague. He also notes increased difficulty in visiting Chinese opium dens and brothels in Queen Street: “but for the love of God the task would have been too much for me, more especially at a time when the plague is in my district” (20 March 1900). He also noted the problems caused by the quarantining, particularly the loss of work due to the closing of the wharves.

One of his colleagues in the Mission, Mr J.H. Mills, was quarantined with his whole family at North Head. Mills’ eldest son died, much distress among the Mission workers. Mathers’ wrote in his journal on 28 March:

“It caused a deep feeling of sympathy towards our bro. I never was in a more earnest prayer meeting. Every one poured out his & her heart on behalf of Mr Mills & his family. May the Lord restore them all to health again, & Bless & sanctify it to us all, is my earnest prayer.”

Although the Chinese were a popular scapegoat for the plague, nowhere in his journals does my great-grandfather reveal any prejudice or assign any blame to the Chinese  whom  he  continued  to visit  throughout 1900. One Chinese dwelling he described as “exemplary clean”. He noted the tiny bound feet of the Chinese lady living there, who showed him proudly over the house and listened with attention to his message, “at least appreciating the name of Jesus” (2 February 1900).

The 1902 plague barely affected the Rocks area, in contrast with the 1900 plague. By 1902 its transmission was understood and there was much less panic; also the quarantine policy was applied more humanely and rationally. Mathers makes no reference whatsoever in his journals to the 1902 plague. Even “rat Wednesday” on 5 March when residents of Sydney joined in a great festival of rodent extermination, is merely noted in his journal as a “public holiday”.

Overall, James Mathers was remarkably relaxed and fearless of his personal safety during the 1900 plague. He did not really change any of his usual activities. He was compassionate about others’ tragedies and annoyed by the problems caused to others by the quarantining of much of his district. Malcolm Prentis makes particular note that there was no reflection in his journal on the plague as divine vengeance, unlike an address of Rev. William Macky of Scots Church in May 1900. Prentis speculates that Mathers thought the victims of the plague in inner Sydney were no more in need of punishment that the politicians whose negligence had allowed unhealthy conditions to persist.

Slum shanty dwellings in the Rocks, circa 1900.

Historically, the three major outbreaks of bubonic plague have been among the greatest disasters to strike humans in historical times. The 5th century plague in the time of Justinian killed around one quarter of the population of the eastern Mediterranean and that of the 14th century around one third of the population of Europe. In 20th century Australia, however, there were relatively few deaths due to a coordinated response from health authorities and government. In all the outbreaks from 1900 to 1922, there were a total of 1371 reported cases and 535 deaths.

The colonial and city governments instituted a three-pronged approach to controlling the disease in Australia: transporting infected individuals and anyone they may have had contact with to the quarantine station at North Head; intensive cleaning and, in some cases, demolition of sections of the inner city and dock area; and a rat extermination program. Initially the quarantine period was 10 days but this was eventually reduced to five. In the first nine months of 1900, 1759 people were quarantined. Of these only 263 were confirmed cases.

In February 1900 cleaning of infected neighbourhoods began under the direction of the newly formed Plague Department. Between March and July 1900, the Rocks and waterfront areas were barricaded off and residents armed with lime, carbolic acid and sulfuric acid, enlisted to cleanse, disinfect and even burn and demolish their own houses in infected areas. In March the city council began organising teams to exterminate the rat population. The government paid two pence per rat delivered to an incinerator on Bathurst Street.  Eventually, more than 108,000 rats were killed by government employees, although the number killed by private individuals using poison provided by the authorities may have exceeded that number.

Areas of The Rocks were barricaded off and its slums were demolished. Picture: State Library of NSW

The 1900 plague paved the way for substantial urban renewal, of waterfront precincts such as The Rocks and Millers Point, where a century of unregulated building had created shanty towns ripe for disease. The NSW Government took back ownership of virtually the entire headland from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour and demolished hundreds of slum houses and businesses in what are now prime real estate precincts such as George St, Sussex St, Kent St and Martin Place.

The pathogen that caused plague had been discovered by the French and Japanese epidemiologists Alexander Yersin and Kitasato Shibasaburo during the Hong Kong epidemic in 1894, and another French epidemiologist, Paul-Louis Simond, then proved during the 1896 plague outbreak in Bombay that fleas could act as vectors for transmission between rats. However, this theory was not widely accepted by the medical community until the chief of the New South Wales Board of Health, John Ashburton Thompson, isolated the Y pestis bacterium in fleas on dead rats captured in Sydney in 1900. Apart from spurring the rat extermination program and slum cleaning, Ashburton Thompson’s experiments were instrumental in changing public health methods around the world to combat bubonic plague.


[1] Malcolm D.Prentis. Christian responses to plague in Sydney 1900: James Mathers of Miller’s Point. Studying Australian Christianity in international perspective 1997.

[2] Dudley He had been employed to sail a yacht from Britain to Sydney and when it sank in a storm, he and three other crew took to a life boat without food. On the 20th day he and the mate killed the cabin boy and the three surviving crew ate him, and then were rescued four days later by a passing ship. He was charged with murder and tried. Although the jury found him and the mate guilty of murder, the judge took into account that they thought there was no prospect of rescue or survival otherwise, and sentenced them to only six months imprisonment. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/241262248


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