Purging Pestilence – Plague!

The Bubonic Plague hit Sydney in January 1900. Spreading from the waterfront, the rats carried the plague throughout the city. Within eight months 303 cases were reported and 103 people were dead.

Quarantine areas established

These stretched from Millers Point east to George Street, along Argyle, Upper Fort, and Essex Streets then south to Chippendale, covering the area between Darling Harbour and Kent Streets, west to Cowper Street, Glebe, along City Road to the area bounded by Abercrombie, Ivy, Cleveland Streets, and the railway. The area east from George Street enclosed by Riley, Liverpool, Elizabeth and Goulburn Streets, Gipps, Campbell and George Streets were also quarantined, as were certain areas in Woolloomooloo, Paddington, Redfern and Manly.


Cleansing and disinfecting operations in the quarantine areas lasted from 24 March – 17 July and included the demolition of ‘slum’ buildings. Photographs were taken of buildings before demolition and inspectors took notes of other property destroyed. The photographs also include the interior and exterior of houses, stores, warehouses and wharves, and surrounding streets, lanes and yards, thus providing a fairly clear indication of the state of the city during and immediately after the Plague.

Local residents were employed to undertake the cleansing, disinfecting, burning and demolition of the infected areas, including their own homes. Shovels, brooms, mattocks, hoses, buckets, and watering cans, were tools used to clear, clean, lime wash and disinfect. Not only buildings and dwellings were subjected to the cleansing operations but also wharves and docks were cleared of silt and sewerage.

Cleansing agents used during the cleansing operations included: solid disinfectant (chloride of lime); liquid disinfectant (carbolic water: miscible carbolic, 3/4 pint water, 1 gallon); sulphuric acid water (sulphuric acid, 1/2 pint water, 1 gallon); carbolic lime white (miscible carbolic 1/2 pint to the gallon).

Rat catchers were employed and the rats burned in a special rat incinerator. Over 44,000 rats were officially killed in the cleansing operations.

Sydney Harbour Trust

In 1901 the Sydney Harbour Trust resumed hundreds of properties in The Rocks and Millers Point. While public health was a convenient excuse for resumptions, the need for a harbour bridge may also have motivated the authorities. Green Bans in the 1970s on the redevelopment of The Rocks helped preserve this historic area which is now a major tourist attraction. The Rocks area has been under the control of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority since 1970 and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority since 1999.


Board of Health records relating to the Plague

  • NRS 587, Minutes of proceedings, 1881-1973
  • NRS 590, Extracts from minutes of the Board concerning bubonic plague, 1897-1908

This gallery contains images from:

Taken by Mr. John Degotardi, Jr., photographer from the Department of Public Works, the images depict the state of the houses and ‘slum’ buildings at the time of the outbreak and the cleansing and disinfecting operations which followed.

Text link options to the photographs above – by street