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Monday, 28 December 2015

Yes Monster

Right now, I am well into the second volume of Colonial Concerns, though if the first volume fails to sell to a dead-tree publisher, I will pile the two together as a Great Big e-book: I have 130,000 words in the bag, all sorts of amusing side-lights to Australian social history, and it is galloping along.

Today, I am working on the story of bubonic plague in Australia, starting with a tale that reads like a script outline for Yes, Minister! Take it from me: it's all real.

* * * * * * * *

By the 1890s, the medical profession largely accepted the idea that germs (usually referred to as bacilli) caused disease, and these things were regarded with superstitious awe. Imagine how the Victorian Board of health felt when they received an anonymous warning in late 1898 that a Dr. Haydon, living at Macarthur, near Warrnambool, had arrived from India about six months earlier, with samples of the bacilli of the bubonic plague.

There was no time to lose (other than the six months that Gray had already been in Australia!), so the Board sent a Dr. Gray to call upon Haydon to see if the covert denunciation was correct, and if it was, to try to persuade Dr. Haydon to hand the microbes over for destruction.

Haydon confirmed that he did indeed have the bacilli, saying that he had secured them for experimental, purposes, at great risk to himself, and he wanted £300 compensation if he had to hand them over. The Board, as all Boards do when faced with a contrary view, started to flap and flail.

The colonial government had no legal power to interfere with the importation, so they appealed to the Minister of Health, Mr. H. R. Williams, and this is where the comedy started. The Secretary of Trade and Customs, Dr. Wollaston, stated that everyone coming to the colony is technically bound to report everything in his possession.

Inquiries at the Customs Department showed that no such importation had been reported. Microbes are not dutiable, and there was no law to prevent their importation, but the Minister proposed sending a Customs officer to seize the germs, after which, Dr. Haydon, instead of being compensated; should be prosecuted for secretly importing the germs of a fearful and dangerous disease.

Those who have worked in bureaucracies know that Sir Humphrey Appleby has always been there. Wollaston, who was formed in that mould, saw a better way. The microbes had been imported in gelatine, opening up a legal solution. Gelatine was subject to a duty of 3d per lb. So, as Dr. Haydon had not paid the duty, the department was entitled to seize the gelatine!

Detective-Inspector Christie, who was more used to seizing illicit whisky stills, contrabrand tobacco and cigars, jewellery, and the like, was told to leave by the 4.20 p.m. train for Warrnambool, and hurry along to Dr. Haydon’s at Macarthur, where he was to seize the microbes. I like Australian Town and Country Journal’s version:

This was the first time, he had been entrusted with such a duty; and, not knowing one microbe from another, he felt nonplussed, until he was informed that he would be accompanied by a bacteriological expert in Dr. Gray, who would identify the particular parcel. Armed with a writ from Dr. Wollaston. Detective Christie left by the 4.20 p.m. train, and Dr. Gray, who was on his way back, was instructed by telegraph to join Christie and return to Macarthur. Christie was directed to seize the microbes at all hazards. This he did, and destroyed them by fire. [1]

And so, children, Australia was saved from a terrible fate of bubonic plague. Well, not quite, because the germs, if they were what they were believed to be, lacked anything that could transfer them from one person to another. And in any case, plague was just around the corner, but to learn more about that, you will need to do your own research, or read the book.

[1] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), 19 November 1898, 13,

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