The Rat Catchers of the Bubonic Plague

This photo is courtesy of State Records NSW. It is titled “The Rat Catchers” c1900 and shows a group of gentlemen who made a living as rat catchers during the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in Sydney in 1900.

The plague is said to have arrived on fleas aboard ships which were brought to shore by rats. The first reported case was Authur Payne, a delivery driver from Millers Point who was diagnosed on the 20th of January. Luckily for Mr Payne he survived, but others were not so lucky. About a month later a sailmaker named Thomas Dudley sadly became the first person to pass away. He lived on Sussex Street and in the preceding days he had noticed the presence of many dead rats in his neighbourhood. He also reportedly had to pull rats from his toilet!

Dudley’s death, along with recent outbreaks in the Asia-Pacific region, sent Sydney into a panic. Areas such as the slums in The Rocks were barricaded off and demolished as the suspected source of the outbreak even though only contributing 5 deaths. The city also commenced cleansing operations such as the one in this photo. It’s reported that 44,000 rats were caught and incinerated by such groups of catchers. It’s also reported that catchers could make up to six pence per head which was decent money at the time.

The plague set Sydney’s quarantine operations into full swing with the North Head Quarantine station bearing much of the brunt. People were reportedly taken to quarantine in the middle of the night and the names of infected or deceased victims were published in newspapers daily.

In total there were 303 cases and 103 deaths reported during the months of January and August 1900.

The bubonic plague may sound like something from the past but there are still around 3000 cases reported around the world annually. So please make sure to check your toilet for rats before your next use!

Note: I try to be as accurate as possible but make no guarantees. Please use this information at your own risk.


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