Headstone in Parkes cemetery of John Way and his parents, with a memorial inscription recording the death of his nephew

On 21 April 1896, John Way, 24 years old, died of typhoid, perforated bowel, and peritonitis after an illness of three weeks. John Way, from Parkes in central New South Wales, was a miner like his father, also called John.

Typhoid is a bacterial disease caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated by human faeces. Its spread is prevented by efficient sanitation and careful public hygiene.

John Way’s death was reported in the Evening News, a Sydney newspaper, on the next day:

Death from Typhoid.
PARKES, Wednesday.— Another death from typhoid has occurred a young man named John Way being the victim.

I came across this article by accident while browsing the National Library of Australia’s ‘Trove’ collection of digitised newspapers. I broadened my search to look for typhoid in Parkes in April 1896.

On 1 April, the Queanbeyan Age reported that there were 21 cases of typhoid in Parkes hospital. On 17 April the Sydney Evening News reported that since the beginning of the year there had been 59 deaths in Parkes, 19 of these due to typhoid. The source of the outbreak was yet to be traced. The mayor was taking steps to have cesspits filled in and the pan system generally adopted. On 24 April the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express reported there were over 100 typhoid cases in Parkes and district under medical treatment.

PARKES. (1896, April 24). Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (NSW : 1896 – 1938), p. 17. Retrieved June 29, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article99431481

Towards the end of May a report on the epidemic was tabled in Parliament.The Riverine Grazier summarised the report on 23 June:

  • Dr Tidswell, medical officer, was sent by the Board of Health to inquire into the prevalence of typhoid fever and the insanitary state of that town with special reference to the recent outbreak.
  • Although certain by-laws were passed in 1890 requiring the adoption of a dry earth system, the by laws were not enforced as the validity had been disputed and in 1894 a bylaw was passed permitting the use of cesspits . Despite the requirement that they be constructed so as not be a nuisance, the bylaws were neglected and the arrangements were most primitive. The soil was polluted from slops, drainage and nightsoil.
  • The excreta from typhoid patients was not treated before being buried in back yards or gardens.
  • The supply of water was defective. Rainwater collected in tanks was very largely used in Parkes. The report pointed out that the roofs from which the water is collected are often covered with dust, sometimes to the extent that the gutters are blocked. During dry weather dust storms are no uncommon and the town is a dusty one. The rains carry the dust into the water tanks. the dust from the polluted soild carried the typhoid bacilli into the rain water collected in the tanks.
  • Tidswell pointed out that soil pollution was the primary evil. The combined influence of natural conditions and the absence of an efficient drainage system meant that Parkes was specially liable to diseases fostered by soil pollution. The neglect of the by-laws resulted in excessive soil pollution.

In 1895,according to the cemetery register, there were 22 burials in Parkes cemetery. This in
cluded seven people burnt to death in a fire in April, mainly members of a family called Quinn. Twenty people were buried in the cemetery in 1896 but ten of the burials were in April. The cemetery register does not appear to include all those affected by the typhoid epidemic but the disproportion of the deaths in April 1896 gives some idea of the tragedy.

Usually there were no more than three burials a month in Parkes cemetery. The exceptions are in April 1895 when there was a fire killing seven people and in April 1896 when there was a typhoid epidemic. The figures are derived from the Parkes cemetery register.

In May 1879, John’s sister Harriet Way, nine years  old, died in Parkes of typhoid after an illness of three weeks.

John and Harriet Way were my husband’s great grand mother’s siblings, that is his great grand uncle and great grand aunt.

In my family tree, Eleanor Mary Niall (1858-1891), my first cousin four times removed, died of typhoid in Adelaide in November 1891.  My great great grand uncle Daniel Budge (1842-1895) died of typhoid in Coolgardie, Western Australia, in January 1895. One of his obituaries mentions that typhoid was firmly established at Coolgardie.

It is estimated that worldwide today there are 21 million cases of typhoid and 200,000 deaths each year. “Typhoid Fever.” National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 May 2013. Web. 30 June 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/typhoid_fever/technical.html>.