Bubonic Plague and South Brisbane Cemetery

Occasional outbreaks of bubonic plague, introduced via coastal shipping and spread by fleas off rats, were fairly common in Queensland at the start of the 20th century. The first case occurred on Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, in April 1900, and over the next ten years there were 499 cases of bubonic plague officially reported in Queensland, resulting in 219 deaths, many of them in Brisbane. Another outbreak in 1921 caused 63 deaths, and the last case was reported in 1922.

Strict public health and sanitary measures were implemented, and patient’s houses were quarantined, cleaned and fumigated, linen was burned, and stockades were erected around the property and those adjoining it. 90,000 rats were also destroyed during this time. Isolation hospitals were established, and special provisions were made for the disposal of the dead.

Sealed-off house in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, the site of the first Bubonic Plague case in Brisbane in 1900. (John Oxley Library)

Victims were often sent to the quarantine station at Colmslie, and many of those who died were buried on Gibson Island, in the Brisbane River near Murarrie, which was set aside as a special plague burial ground. The bodies, wrapped in sheets soaked in carbolic acid and placed in lime-slaked coffins, were transported on a ‘plague boat’ and accompanied only by two warders and a doctor, who was authorised to read the funeral service.

There are at least six bubonic plague victims buried in the South Brisbane Cemetery, and possibly several more. These include George Green, also known as ‘Quinn’, who was a sailor on the Barcoo running between Brisbane and Townsville. He contracted the disease either in board or at a wharf, and died in August 1901. The ship had to be disinfected afterwards. Jemima Golby, of Melbourne Street, South Brisbane, died of plague in February 1902. She was buried with her 20-year-old son Henry, who had died just a few weeks beforehand. Her 16-year-old daughter Jemima had died on Christmas Eve 1901. Arthur Francis of Brighton Road, South Brisbane, died of plague in April 1902. He was 25 years old.