The Christmas that the Plague came to Ipswich

The bubonic plague or ‘Black Death’ is one of the most deadly diseases in human history. It killed twenty-five million people or a quarter of Europe’s population in the 14th century. It had a similar effect in the 17th century. It may have been forgotten, or even unknown, that over one thousand people died from the plague in Australia in the early twentieth century. But for one family, the Christmas period back then can never be forgotten. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

The plague is caused by infected fleas that move from rats to humans who, once bitten, become infected. The toxins spread through the body causing massive haemorrhaging in the internal organs and blackening of the skin, hence the name ‘Black Death’.

The last great bubonic plague pandemic began in China in 1855 and spread through seaports around the world. It arrived in Australia when the first case was reported in January 1900. The first case was reported in Ipswich – the only inland city in Australia to be infected – when two-year-old Ida Frances Minett was admitted to the plague hospital on the 23rd of May.

Queensland rat catchers in 1900

Ida was driven into Ipswich in a spring cart by her father Robert who was a house painter just outside of town at One Mile Bridge. They were led and followed by mounted constables all the way. Ida’s mother Ellen remained with her as she was taken by train from the station at Union Street to the plague hospital at Bulimba in East Brisbane. Her father was immediately placed in isolation and the railway carriage was disinfected and fumigated.

Little Ida recovered, but her parents weren’t spared the pain of losing a child when a son Ernest was killed on the Somme in 1916 in the First World War.

Ida married a Gallipoli veteran Allan Rapkins and lived to the grand old age of 95 years in Caboolture. Her oldest brother Hugh lived even longer to reach the age of 98.

The fear of the ‘Black Death’ returned to Ipswich in October 1921 when an infected rat was discovered at a business in the centre of town.

By early December, the infection among rats was growing at a rate which threatened a human outbreak before Christmas. The Ipswich council responded by offering a bounty of sixpence per head for each rat delivered to the council yard in Brisbane and Gordon Streets. The rats had to be soaked in kerosene before being handed over.

By the second weekend of December, fourteen-year-old Norman Maurice Smith became the first person from Ipswich to be infected in the new outbreak. He was admitted to Wattlebrae Infectious Diseases Hospital in Brisbane but died on the 14th of December.

Wattlebrae Infectious Diseases Hospital (right) at the Royal Brisbane Hospital complex

The Ipswich council immediately doubled the rat bounty to one shilling per head.

The plague claimed a life of a three-year-old child in nearby Brisbane on Christmas day. The day after Christmas, the Ipswich council dropped the rat bounty back to sixpence. Five people from Ipswich had died during this outbreak.

The boy Norman Smith was the only son of a fruiterer on Brisbane Street in Ipswich. He had probably been infected by fleas on a rat feeding on waste stock at his father’s shop. Shortly after Norman’s death, the family left Ipswich and re-established their business in High Street at Southport. Despite the relocation, for them the Christmas of 1921 was one they could never forget.

ADDENDUM – this story was particularly difficult because the names of those who died in the plague were never released, so it took a  lot of research… the newspapers of the time reported that a fourteen-year-old boy from Brisbane Street in Ipswich had died on 14th of December 1921… so I had to find out the names of every male who died in Brisbane (that’s where the plague hospital was) on that date… and then of those, find their birthdates and look for anyone who had been born fourteen years earlier… and of those, anyone whose family was living on Brisbane Street in Ipswich in 1921… and there was only one who ticked every box, and that was Norman Maurice Smith… his family published the only death notice on the one-year anniversary of Norman’s death, after the stigma of contracting the plague had passed.


Photo credits:
Rats caught in Sydney – National Museum of Australia
Destroyed rats during the bubonic plague in Brisbane 1900 – State Library of Queensland
Wattlebrae Infectious Diseases Hospital on the right c1934 – State Library of Queensland

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