In the 1890s the world was in the grips of a pandemic of the Black Death. Cases of bubonic plague were first reported in China and spread across the planet through trade routes eventually killing around 10 million people.
New Zealanders watched in fear as news of the spreading plague was reported in local newspapers and when cases began to appear in Australia in January 1900, the New Zealand government began making urgent preparations for its appearance on our shores.
In Auckland a two-acre block of land on the Domain was chosen for a plague hospital containing two wards of six beds each. A large crematorium was also built to incinerate the bodies of those who perished from the often fatal disease.
In Wellington a similar hospital was constructed on MacAllister Park, Berhampore, much to the disgust of local residents who had challenged the plans in the Supreme Court, but lost. Over subsequent years plague hospitals were also built in Whanganui and Christchurch.
Plague inspectors were appointed in major cities to inspect properties and order residents to clean up houses and sections which could harbour rats. Quarantine stations were also set up. Efforts were made to eradicate rats with the nation’s councils paying a bounty of around one to three pennies for each rat killed.
On April 23, 1900 New Zealanders’ worst fears were confirmed when authorities reported that rats infected with the plague had been found on Auckland’s wharves.
A week later a boy in the city was admitted to hospital with a suspected mild case of the disease – apparently contracted when he was bitten by a rat two weeks earlier. A week later it was determined that the boy did not, in fact, have the plague.
Around the country, business people took the opportunity to advertise their herbal remedies and other wares as plague preventatives, including Wellington shoe merchants R Hannah and Co., who somewhat spuriously claimed the disease could be kept away by wearing of their locally manufactured “G boots and shoes”.
Then on 22 June a man named Hugh Charles Kelly, 36, died at his house in Upper Queen Street, Auckland. Kelly was a married man with five young children and another on the way. Kelly’s doctor recorded his death as being due to bubonic plague. The Auckland City Council quarantined Kelly’s house and those of his children’s grandparents, Jose Perez (his wife Marion Mildred Kelly, nee Percy’s parents) and Kelly’s mother Sarah Boyd Harrison, while tests were made on his specimens taken from his body. Kelly’s family were kept in quarantine for 14 days. Three weeks after his death the official report came back with a finding that Kelly, a gum packer in the employ of Messrs Gorman and Newton, may or may not have died from the plague, or from blood poisoning. Kelly’s death was officially recorded as being due to plague. He is buried at Waikumete Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the government passed a Bubonic Plague Prevention Act giving authorities widespread powers, including the ability to isolate and quarantine individuals and demolish buildings.
Several more suspected cases were reported over subsequent years, but no epidemic followed. The plague scare eventually died down, despite outbreaks continuing in Australia and other countries.
Then in March 1911, three people were admitted to hospital with the disease. The victims were a husband and wife who operated a fruit and confectionary business in Onehunga and one of their employees, David Fletcher, 26, who subsequently died. One of the nurses who cared for Fletcher also developed plague, but survived. A fifth case, a 17 year-old man who worked as a storeman at the Great Northern Brewery in Customs Street, and a sixth case, an 18 year-old man, who worked in Smith and Caughey’s warehouse also in Customs Street, were reported on March 30. April revealed no further cases, but on May 3, the seventh case appeared, a 20 year-old woman, quickly followed by the report of the eighth case, a 15 year-old lad employed as a gasfitter. Both also worked at Smith and Caughey’s warehouse. New Zealanders held their breaths for the expected onslaught of the plague epidemic – but it never came. Don’t, however, breathe too greater sigh of relief – according to the Ministry of Health both species of rodent flea capable of transmitting the plague bacteria are still present in New Zealand.
The nine victims: (We think this is the only list naming the victims of the plague in NZ)
22 June, Hugh Charles Kelly, 36, gum packer, Upper Queen Street, city
29 April, Thomas Henry Virtue, 37, lumper (wharf worker), Richmond Rd, Grey Lynn
25 May, George Barraclough Bentley, 18, a kauri gum sorter, Grey Street, central city
4 July, Luke Edward Walker (known as Edward), 48, of Haydn Street, also a lumper on Auckland’s wharves
Robert Stafford, 17, warehouse worker, Brunswick Lane, city
12 May, Minnie Kitchen, 15, Tararua Tce, Parnell
15 May, Norma Isabell (Daisy) McMillan, 27, seamstress, Radford St, Parnell
(Both worked in same building on Queen Street)
22 July, Ernest Bridgeford, 18, packer at an electrical company near the wharves, Kingsland
29 March, David Fletcher, 26, shopworker, Trafalgar St, Onehunga