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Preventing plague in Port

From the Collection – Rats Cash Book June 15 1903 to May 3 1904 (catalogue number 2534)

This wonderful document in the PMHPS collection records action taken between 1903 and 1904 in Port Melbourne to prevent the spread of bubonic plague by paying people for dead rats.

A rat bonus of 3d and later 2d a head was paid at the Town Hall between the hours of 9 am and 10 am and 3 pm and 4 pm. The rats were then placed in a tin of tar and later burnt.

This book is a record of the names of the residents who were paid the bonus, how many rats they supplied and gives a running total of the rat numbers and payments.

Entries in the rat cash book – PMHPS catalogue no 2534

Cases of bubonic plague were first reported in Sydney in January 1900 and later in North Queensland, Fremantle and Melbourne and were caused by plague infected rats escaping from ships coming from China and India and infecting local rats. The public health authorities began campaigns to inspect and fumigate incoming ships and kill the rats but this did not completely prevent infected rats from coming ashore. The rat bonus was a part of the campaign to catch and kill all rats.

The following article appeared in The Argus on 27 March 1900 to report on the joint action taken by local councils to pay the bonus.


A conference of mayors took place yesterday in the Town Hall for the purpose of arriving at some united decision in respect to the destruction of rats. The Mayor of Melbourne (Sir Malcolm M’Eacharn) was in the chair, and representatives were present from the following municipalities: — Collingwood, Fitzroy, Footscray, Hawthorn, Prahran, Richmond, South Melbourne, St. Kilda, Brunswick, Essendon, North Melbourne, and Port Melbourne. The Williamstown and Flemington and Kensington municipalities were not represented, owing to insufficient notice. A suggestion was made that £300 should be appropriated for the destruction of rats in all the districts represented at the conference, as a preliminary to further expenditure being authorised by the several councils when they meet. The idea was unanimously approved of, and it was decided that each council should contribute towards the £300 according to the municipal valuations. It was agreed to pay 2d. a head for rats, and make arrangements by which each municipality shall fix a depot in its respective district for the reception of the vermin, which, on being delivered to the persons appointed to receive them, will be destroyed by fire. The various depots will be notified by advertisement, as well as any other particulars that may be deemed necessary.

There appear to have been many enthusiastic rat catchers in Port Melbourne as many of the names in the book appear quite regularly. In fact more rats were destroyed in Port than in the other municipalities in the joint action! This was possibly because there were more rats in Port because of incoming ships, but also when the weekly wage for a man was between 49s 10d and £2 2s 10d the rat bonus of 2d per rat would possibly have been an extra source of income in a poor community.

Some names crop up often in the rat cash book – PMHPS catalogue no 2534

Because the arrangement between the councils was on a pro rata valuation basis the contribution of the Port Council was less than other councils who destroyed fewer rats. For instance, from the 1st of December (1908) to 31st May (1909) 4337 rats were paid for here at 2d each, equalling £36 2s 10d, and yet all our Council had to pay to the City Council was £7 14s 9d. Other municipalities having fewer rats destroyed had to pay a far larger sumStandard 3 July 1909 page 2

Following the Sydney outbreak of 1900, plague reappeared in Australia each year until 1910, infecting 1,215 people and causing 467 deaths.


The Argus 27 March 1900 Page 5

Cossart, Yvonne and Mellor, Lise 2009 Rats in the Realm! A history of the Plague. University of Sydney|medmediabank|FMMUS3540

Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic: 1884 – 1914), 7 March 1903 Page 2

Standard (Port Melbourne, Vic: 1884 – 1914), 3 July 1909 Page 2

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Victorian Yearbook 1903


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Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians

We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.