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.

This gallery contains images from series NRS 12487, Photographs taken during cleansing operations in quarantine areas, Sydney

Housing and other buildings

The photos were taken by Mr. John Degotardi, Jr., photographer from the Department of Public Works and depict the state of the houses, ‘slum’ buildings and streets at the time of the outbreak — interior and exterior of houses, stores, warehouses and wharves, and lanes and yards — and the cleansing and disinfecting operations which followed.

The photos provide a fairly clear indication of the state of the city during and immediately after the plague.


Quarantine areas were 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. 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

Archives behind the scenes - bubonic plague

Did you know there was an outbreak of plague, in Sydney, at The Rocks, in 1900?

Bubonic plague index 1900-1908

The Register of Cases of Bubonic Plague 1900-1908 records the names and residences of those suffering from the plague and their fate as to whether they died or recovered from this fearful disease

Published on 

State Archives collection

A crowd of people in a rotunda decorated with streamers

Celebrating federation

The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901. The Federation Pavilion in Sydney’s Centennial Park was the focus of the inauguration ceremonies and a five mile procession through the decorated streets of Sydney was greeted by large crowds

'Day of Mourning' Aboriginal meeting on 26 January 1938 at Australian Hall, Sydney, NSW
First Nations

Day of Mourning

January 26 has long been a day of debate and civic action. Those who celebrate may be surprised of the date’s significance in NSW as a protest to the celebrations of the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet on what was then “Anniversary Day” in NSW


The Sydney Opera House Books

Significant publications and reports on the Sydney Opera House project, including the rules for the design competition, plans, drawings and photographs at various stages of the construction