Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Bubonic Plague of 1901 / 1902

Bubonic plague is one of three types of plague caused by the plague bacterium (Yersinia pestis): bubonic plague, septicaemic plague and pneumonic plague. The type of plague is determined by the route of the infection. In the case of bubonic plague, the bacteria enter through the skin via a flea bite and travel in the lymphatic vessels to a lymph node whereas the other two types are caused by bacteria in the blood or via the lungs. One to seven days after exposure to the bacteria, flu-like symptoms develop. Without treatment, plague results in the death of 30% to 90% of those infected. In the middle ages the plague known as Black Death was in all probability bubonic plague.

This blog deals with the most serious outbreak of bubonic plague experienced by the town.

Main picture: 1902 Map of distribution of typhoid fever

On the 13th April 1901 rats infected with bubonic plague were found in mealie stacks on the Harbour Board property. A Plague Board with far-reaching powers was formed on 23 April, and officials, including the Colonial Secretary, travelled to Port Elizabeth to discuss the situation with the Council. Free inoculation was made available to everyone. The first vic­tim in the town, Sergeant Pegg, who had worked on the Military Stores depositing ground, died at the Base Hospital on 20 May. By 1 June there had been 5 fatal cases. Dr David Rees of London, an expert on tropical diseases, was brought out, first to Cape Town and then Port Elizabeth, to organise the fight against the disease.

Sacks of grains are fumigated to kill all rodents, the fleas of which are responsible for spreading bubonic plague

Immediately after Port Elizabeth experienced the outbreak of bubonic plague in April 1901, a Plague Board was set up under the chairmanship of the Civil Commissioner Mr. J.T. Wylde. The board met weekly, and their proceedings were extensively and fully reported in the Eastern Province Herald. In addition, a Senior Plague Medical Officer was appointed. Dr. David Thos. Rees was given the nod and appointed into that position.

It was conjectured that the basic cause of the outbreak was the unhygienic living conditions of the black residents residing on the outskirts of the town. These cramped and generally squalid conditions were the ideal breeding ground for various diseases. At the turn of the century there were a number of Locations close to the town: Stranger’s Location at the top of Russell Road, Gubb’s Location on Gubb’s property at what would become Mill Park and Cooper’s Location near the top of Cooper’s Kloof, now Albany Road.

Location of Gubb’s Location on the top of the map

Negotiations were entered into with the colonial authorities in Cape Town for a grant of land outside the municipal area on which properly serviced townships to house these inhabitants could be established. It was envisaged that this settlement would form the blueprint of the “model village” of the future. Negotiations with the administration in Cape Town were unduly prolonged and frustrating. What irked the Port Elizabeth contingent was the fact that concurrently with Port Elizabeth, Cape Town had also suffered an outbreak of plague at that time. Insult was added to injury when the Cape Town municipality was provided with land for housing whereas Port Elizabeth still had not been allocated any.

A parcel of land finally given to Port Elizabeth some time in 1903/4 was situated in a northern part of the area now known as New Brighton adjacent to Deal Party. The name of the township was taken from the name of an hotel owned by Matthew Berry on the Deal Party beach known as New Brighton Hotel. As an interesting aside on life in Port Elizabeth at that time is a report in a Herald of January 1902 Herald listing all the visitors to New Brighton Hotel. Apparently much like shipping Passenger Lists, it was the practice then to list the visitors at the various hotels. The New Brighton was a popular hotel near the beach of that name. It was eventually incorporated into the location and the hotel was used for many years as a Tuberculosis Hospital.

New Brighton Hotel later used as a TB hospital

Edgar Walton, as a member of Parliament for Port Elizabeth, was given the dubious distinction of being called upon to address the black residents to persuade them to relocate from their very unhygienic living conditions in Gubb’s Location et al to New Brighton. This request was not favourably received on two counts. As New Brighton was situated outside the town, the trip to work would be longer. Secondly, they preferred the option of settling in Korsten where they could obtain freehold land.

By February 1902, the outbreak had virtually ended though the official end was only in August of that year. In reports to the Board in February Dr. Rees stated that there had been 106 cases, 51 fatal, 52 cured and discharged from the Lazaretto and 3 still there under treatment. Thus there was a 48.1% mortality rate. 361 Europeans and 4757 blacks and coloureds, totalling 5118 people were inoculated. 8573 rats and 9741 mice were destroyed.

A strongly worded article was published in the Herald of 20th February 1902, and repeated on the 26th of the same month, stating that the town deserved to be guarded by a strong health department adding that it was fortunate that the town did in fact have one. The Town Council had, at the outset of the plague outbreak, appointed Dr. Galloway as head of the department, a man capable of supervising the establishment and subsequent maintenance of the necessary sanitary and public health conditions. The article went on to demand that all classes of the community are provided with well-built houses in hygienic conditions.

Finally on the 4th Aug. 1902, Port Elizabeth was declared free of plague. According to the final tally, there had been 136 cases, 57 of them fatal

In 1903, the location known as Gubb’s Location was closed by the Plague Board. Later this property owned by the Mill Park Estate and Land Company. was converted into the township named Mill Park.

Later outbreak

On the 23rd March 1938 an outbreak of bubonic plague was reported, and a campaign of control and eradication was begun with inoculation, fumigation and the destruction of rats. By 30 June twenty-one cases had been reported of which 19 had died. The old sanatorium at New Brighton which was formerly the hotel of Matthew Berry’s was taken into use as a Formidable Epidemic Diseases Hospital. Thereafter it was utilised as a TB Hospital from 1942 until was demolished in 1959.


History of the E.H. Walton Group 1845 to 1995 by G.S. Walton (Port Elizabeth, E.H. Walton Packaging, 1995)

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