Wednesday 15 July 2020

When Smallpox Came to Town

With the increase in coronavirus cases in the areas surrounding Campbelltown, I thought it was timely to recall another threat of serious disease to our town almost 140 years ago. In this case it was smallpox that caused a sensation and panic in the small settlement in 1881. The victim was part of a family whose name lives on in the naming of a suburb in the local area.

On 29 April 1881, the ship Brisbane proceeded to the North Head quarantine station with a case of smallpox on board. The infant daughter of On Chong had come down with a fever and rash. This was the start of an epidemic that caused much fear within the Sydney community. More cases developed and isolation at the quarantine station and vaccination of those exposed to the victims were the methods of control used. Despite the fear and panic, the smallpox outbreak of 1881 was not a major epidemic. From May 1881 to February 1882, 154 cases were notified to the authorities. Of these there were 40 deaths.

The fear of contagion spread to Sydney's surrounding areas, including Campbelltown, where the fear became reality in September that year. John Joseph Curran, a 20-year old newly employed postal worker at Campbelltown Post Office, better known as JJ, became ill at work so made his way home to his parents place on the Camden road near Narellan. Newspapers of the day describe how "Dr Goode was sent for, and that gentleman believing the case one of smallpox, telegraphed to Dr Cecil Morgan, of Sydney, who came by the first train. Dr Morgan, on viewing the patient, pronounced the case one of mild smallpox." The house was strictly quarantined and JJ was strictly isolated.

The effect on the local population was at first profound. There were rumours that Waterworks were infected and belief that a quarantine station should be established at Kenny Hill between Campbelltown and Narellan. Not long passed however, before JJ's conditioned improved, becoming obvious that he would survive and that the town would escape the epidemic.

JJ was the eldest son of Michael and Ellen Curran. Michael was a farmer, who was described as a genial soul and possessed a rare fund of wit and humour. He lived into his nineties and is buried at St John's Catholic Cemetery in Campbelltown. JJ left Campbelltown post office after he was transferred to Albury Post Office in 1887. He worked there for 27 years before resigning and starting business in Sydney, Newcastle and back at Camden. He served in the State Citizen Forces for over 20 years and rose to rank of Major. He died in Albury in 1925.

The suburb of Curran's Hill is named after Michael and his family. Unfortunately, despite much searching, including contacting descendants, I am unable to locate a photograph of John Joseph Curran.

Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

Written by Andrew Allen


Catholic Press, 12 February 1925, p36

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, 9 September 1881, p2

Smallpox Epidemic 1881 by Raelene Allen in The Dictionary of Sydney

Martin, JB et al 2012
Reminiscences of Early Camden
Camden: Camden Historical Society

Thank you to Stephanie Woodward for her assistance with the Curran family

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