The saddest chapter
It had been eighteen months since the O’Connell children, Kate, John, James,
Ritchie, May Bridger and Johanna had lost their mother. It would appear that
their father Richard had made some attempt at fatherhood after Ellen’s death but
his concern for their welfare soon waned and eventually he had all but abandoned
John was now seventeen years old and had completed his schooling. He
had a job working in a store near the wharves where Richard sometimes worked.
It was his wages that paid the rent on their cottage on the corner of Pallas and
Sussex Streets. There was little left over for food, especially when he had six
hungry mouths to feed.
By the autumn of 1905, these children were living in the most appalling
In 1905, the sewer ran from the west side of Kent Street to the east side
and under Adelaide Street. Beyond Adelaide Street it was an open sewer passing
through Queen’s Park and emptying into the Mary River near the old Wilson
Hard sawmill, the area presently occupied by the Brolga Theatre. Many
Maryborough citizens and shopkeepers used the sew as a dumping ground for
rotten stock, unsaleable in their stores, but as far as the O’Connell children were
concerned, this was food.
While John worked at his job at the store during the day, the younger of
his siblings spent their days playing in and feeding from those sewers. Kate, left
at home to tend to baby Johanna, known as Mary, walked the streets knocking on
doors begging for charity from her neighbours.
During the course of the next weeks, Dr Baxter Tyrie of the Department
of Public Health accompanied Dr John Crawford Robertson, the Municipal
Health Officer would make an inspection of the cottage where the O’Connell
children had been living. Upon their arrival they found the home:
… through lack of attention and household necessaries were in a filthy condition,
The floor and interstice of the boards being saturated and filled with sputum and
Other excretions of the sick children, to such an extent as to defy efficacious cleaning
Given that the family were inflicted with the deadliest of diseases, Dr Tyrie
ordered that, ‘plague or no plague, the cottage in which the O’Connell children
had been living should be burned alive.’
On Friday the 19th May, 1905, John O’Connell returned home from work,
he was feeling a little under the weather. The following week would herald the
Empire Day celebrations. In the past, when his mother was still alive, the family
would all walk down to Kent Street and watch the celebrations. Last year they had
missed out, that year, John was determined his younger siblings should see the
parade. But as the weekend approached, John grew more and more feverish.
In later discussions as to the origins of the plague outbreak in
Maryborough it was believed that it had been brought to the port by a freighter
from Hong Kong. Discarded bags from the vessel were found inside the cottage,
believed to have been brought home by Richard O’Connell for his children to
sleep upon. The freighter in question had been at the port a month previous.
However, there is one theory that has not been explored, that of John O’Connell’s
direct contact with every man entering and leaving the port in his job as store
Prior to the outbreak in Sussex Street there had been just one other
report of a plague related death, that of a husband and wife from Childers some
two weeks before.
If the bags from the freighter were indeed carrying the contagion, then
the outbreak would surely have occurred some weeks earlier? Pneumonic Plague
is not spread by the bite of a flea. It spreads itself around on the expectorant of an
infected person, a cough, or perhaps a sneeze. An infected man walks into John’s
store. He sneezes, wipes his hand across his face and then with that same hand,
shakes the hand of John O’Connell at the end of the transaction.
The unknown man then boards his vessel and heads back out to sea
where he dies and his body is tipped over the side and the vessel continues its
journey. John O’Connell is now infected and carries that infection home to his
brothers and sisters. It could explain why John O’Connell was the first victim and
not his siblings who spent their daylight hours in the rat infested sewers while we
went to work.
The following Wednesday, 28th May was Empire Day. The rest of
Maryborough were out celebrating but John never got to keep his promise to his
siblings. He had spent every hour since Saturday morning upon his bed of rags.
The fever began soon after his arrival home that Friday evening. His
muscles ached, his temperature continued to rise, eventually he became so
delirious that he kept calling out to his long dead mother. He began to vomit. He
breath came in rasps when he coughed, he spat blood out across the floor and up
the wall. His agonised groans terrified his siblings.
That evening, Dr John Crawford Robertson was called to the cottage to
tend to John O’Connell. The family had left it as long as possible having no means
to pay the doctors fees.
He suspected plague but having found no swelling (buboes) in John’s
lymph nodes he could only conclude that boy suffered from Dengue Fever which
was in epidemic proportions throughout Maryborough at the time. He promised
to return to the cottage in forty-eight hours to check on John’s progress.
Until the outbreak the doctors had little experience in pneumonic plague,
having dealt largely with its cousin bubonic. As the symptoms of pneumonic
plague present themselves in the form of pneumonia, it was an easy misdiagnosis
to make. It was obvious from his observations around the cottage on that evening
that the boy and his family had been living in terrible conditions which probably
attributed to the severity of his illness. Even though, Dr Robertson was
In the early hours of the morning of the 29th of May, Kate ran across the
road to the home of his neighbours, Edward Edwards and his wife Letitia. Letitia
was aware of the plight of the O’Connell’s having helped out with a little food on
the odd occasion. It was 3:45 am when Kate knocked on their door and despite
her husband’s protestations; Letitia left her bed and crossed the road to the
O’Connell’s cottage. She would unfortunately witness one of the most violent and
probably the saddest deaths of all the victims.
By 5:30 am, John O’Connell was dead. Letitia returned to her home
telling her husband that there was nothing she could do only to comfort the boy
in his final hour. After getting her husband off to work and her children to school,
Letitia returned to the cottage to lay out John’s body for burial. When she arrived
she was met at the door by another young woman, Tilly Schafer.
The two women set about the task of cleaning John’s body for burial, an
unenviable task given the length of his illness and manner of his death. When the
task was complete, the two women left the cottage, the remaining O’Connell
children accompanying Letitia to her home for the remainder of the day whilst
Tilly returned to her own home. Both women assumed that the undertakers
would be along later that day to collect the boy’s body and take it away for burial,
they never arrived.
That evening, Letitia sent the children home to the cottage, believing that
the body had been removed. The evening was cool, the first of the winter winds
blowing in from the west. The six O’Connell children did what they had done
every night of their young lives, they huddled together upon the bundle of rags on
the floor, their dead brother beside them.
John’s body was finally removed from the house on Saturday the 27th,
thirty-six hours after his death, and only after the health authorities had been
alerted to the situation by concerned neighbours. Letitia Edwards had been
unable to take the O’Connell children into her home those two nights as she had
suddenly taken ill.