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Smallpox comes to Walhalla


At the outset, it needs to be said that although the basic chronology of these events is fairly well documented and understood, this whole episode abounds in supposition, hyperbole, myth and mis-remembered facts and theories. A central authority on the matter should be Henry Thomas Normanton Tisdall (1836-1905), inaugural headmaster of the Walhalla State School from 1868 to 1886. As a participant in the management of this crisis and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society (F.L.S.) of taxonomists, one would expect his account, "How we fought the smallpox in Walhalla", to be letter perfect on matters of fact; but the reality is sadly not the case, perhaps because he let it become rather too remote a memory before committing the story to paper. To illustrate with just one example, his account begins as follows:


In November 1868, the "Avondale" arrived at Port Phillip Bay but shortly afterwards the mate of the "Avondale" sickened of smallpox and died; a man named Beadle, who had nursed the mate during his illness also died. A number of the passengers was then placed in emergency barracks and all were attacked by the dread disease.


The ship, of course, was the "Avonvale", not "Avondale"; "Beadle" was "Bessell", and he was certainly in no condition to have nursed anybody up to the time of his own death, shortly after the mate's; and no other passengers at all were "attacked by the dread disease" -- the "Avonvale" wasn't a passenger ship. However, as one of the very few protagonists who set down an account at all, Tisdall's tiny booklet -- did I mention, by the way, that it's available at a very reasonable price from our Corner Store at the top of the Main Street hill in Walhalla? -- Tisdall's is nevertheless one of the most authentic contemporary records of the atmosphere of measured panic that pervaded the township during this period, and it is used here as the principal source.

Henry Tisdall's account of Walhalla's smallpox outbreak

Beware of imitations! Accept no substitutes!
Make sure it says, "Proceeds to the Heritage League" ...
W H & D L corner store bookshelf

Little is known of the background of Sarah Jones, and not much more is known about her husband, William Hanks.

We do know that on Tuesday, February 16th, 1869, Sarah Ann Jones, 21, a miller's daughter from Werribee, married a Walhalla quartz miner, William Hanks. Some sources suggest that he was possibly already widowed at this time, and may have had a young son. He was known to have been born in Oxfordshire, but the Public Record Office's passenger lists show no record of his arrival in Melbourne as either an assisted or unassisted passenger, which prompts speculation -- given his public record, and his supposed eventual fate -- that he could have arrived, like many others, via van Diemen's Land, whither he might well have travelled as a convict guest of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Such a conclusion is not at all inconsistent with his first few minutes of fame, nor indeed with his behaviour throughout the incident recorded here; nor with his later career and alleged eventual fate, as detailed below.

In a Police Court report published in the Melbourne "Argus" in mid-1865, William Hanks was charged with vagrancy. He was described as someone “who had been found by a constable in a destitute state”, and declared that “before he was found he had been thirty-six hours without food”. The lack of judicial sympathy for anyone in such a condition in Melbourne at that time can be measured by the fact that he was not merely “sent to gaol for two months”, but given a sentence which was embellished “with hard labour.”01.

On his release, he must have moved fairly promptly to seek his fortune in the then-new goldfield at Stringer's Creek, because by late 1868, any such blemish on his reputation had been extinguished, judging by the way that he was characterized in this report of a lucky escape he was to have on October 7th of that year:

Narrow underground escape for William Hanks

Near-fatal mining accident befalls William Hanks
“Gippsland Guardian”, Thursday, October 15th, 1868, p 3
National Library's “Trove” database

He clearly recovered well, because four months later, in mid-February of 1869, he was marrying Sarah Jones at Fitzroy. Following their wedding, and before returning to Walhalla, the newlyweds had been staying at a boarding house in Latrobe Street where one of the last of Melbourne's smallpox victims, 12-year-old James Daly (who was to die from the disease on March 20th) had also resided. James Daly's first symptoms had only appeared on Monday, March 8th,02 less than three weeks after their wedding. By a malign stroke of a capricious misfortune, the new Mrs Hanks must have rubbed shoulders with him, even if only briefly at some point, before she and her new husband left Melbourne, probably on the 6 am Cobb and Co. coach the very next morning, March 9th, for the arduous trip into Gippsland. It's also possible, however, that they could have left earlier, since it was by no means unheard-of for coach passengers to break a trip wherever it suited them and then resume it on the same ticket at their convenience.

It is commonly suggested that she was ill by the time she left the coach at Shady Creek, or that she became ill during the difficult passage on horseback for the remainder of the trip into the mountains to reach Walhalla, during which she was said to have taken a fall, from which she recovered with no apparent ill-effects. For example, a report in the "Argus" of March 20th relates that on arrival, "she complained of some feeling of sickness and pain in the back, but attributed these symptoms to a fall from her horse on the journey. On the 15th, however, a rash appeared upon her face", and only then was a doctor consulted;03 and Henry Tisdall (much) later recalled that "by the time they had reached Walhalla the woman was quite broken down and became delirious. Hanks immediately called in Dr. Hadden, an old veteran of medicine ... Dr. Hadden at once pronounced her disease to be smallpox". However, a later report from the Walhalla correspondent of the “Gippsland Times” seems more reliable in stating that the couple had arrived in Walhalla on Wednesday, March 10th; that Mrs Hanks was “apparently in sound robust health”, and that “for a day or two they stopped at an hotel”.04 As a newcomer to the town, if she had indeed become ill on the trip, it seems very unlikely that she could have failed to attract attention -- since news of the smallpox outbreak had begun to be published in the metropolitan newspapers (in November of the previous year), “Anyone arriving at a country town from Melbourne was looked upon with suspicion and watched anxiously for many days afterwards”.05

The hotel where they stopped that Wednesday was Catherine Parry's new Grand Junction Hotel, beneath what was then the equally new stone wall -- where today there is only a small strip of vacant ground marking where the hotel formerly stood -- and the “day or two” became several. This is rather surprising, given that Hanks's cottage was said to have been only some 400-500 meters up the Left Hand Branch of Stringer's Creek from there; so if she did in fact arrive “in sound robust health”, it's possible that the cottage had simply not yet been prepared for the newlyweds' new life together there, given Hanks's injuries from the previous October's mining misadventure; or maybe the party at the hotel was just too good to leave ... for several days.

Catherine Parry's Grand Junction Hotel
Catherine Parry's Grand Junction Hotel
St John's C of E on Church Hill Rd above left
W H & D L collection

Regardless of the reason for this delay, by the following Sunday, March 14th, she “felt unwell, so sent for medical assistance. On Monday, 15th, symptoms appeared which caused suspicion in the mind of Dr. Hadden. Those suspicions were confirmed on Tuesday 16th, for on that day it was evident to the medical gentlemen, Drs. Boone and Hadden, and by them reported to the magistrate, that the complaint really was small-pox.”06

Both of the "medical gentlemen" would certainly have been equally emphatic in their diagnoses, and indeed the "Age" later reported that "Drs Boone and Hadden say that this case was one of the worst they ever met with". Dr Hadden's appreciation, of course, would have been based on what he would previously have seen in Skibbereen; and the same article noted that Dr Boone had formerly been "a medical inspector to a small-pox hospital in America."07

Henry Tisdall later wrote: "You can all understand the terror created amongst the inhabitants when the announcement was spread abroad. ... Walhalla was then quite isolated from the rest of the world, a township of about 2000 souls, the houses huddled together in the bottom of a deep gorge; only two tracks to it, one from Shady Creek (20 miles) and the other from Toongabbie (20 miles distant). So close were the houses that it was quite certain that, if the disease were allowed to spread, no one could hope to escape." The magistrates responded promptly by determining that Hanks and his wife were to remain at the Grand Junction Hotel until a suitable location could be found for the quarantine of those who might be contaminated, and the isolation of Mrs Hanks, who undoubtedly already was. In addition, in order to limit the risk of spreading the infection, "a number of young men were told off to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the Junction Hotel where the Hanks were staying."08

The "Gippsland Times" subsequently reported that, in a desperate effort to contain the danger, "the magistrates immediately placed the hotel under police surveillance, and all communication was restricted as far as was possible, while search was made by the police to find a house, which, while isolated from any resident neighborhood, might be in itself in such repair as to justify its immediate occupation, and conversion into a small-pox hospital. Such a house was found at the Britannia [Reef]; it is sufficiently large, and has several rooms in it, having been in good repair, and entirely deserted ..." The Police Magistrate, Warden Foster, had arrived in Walhalla on his regular circuit on the Wednesday and "approved of all that had been done, and also placed himself in communication with the Government authorities." Bridling at the prospect of his forthcoming incarceration, however, Hanks "at once decidedly refused to allow his wife to be removed from the hotel, but during the cold hours of Wednesday night, he caused her to be taken to his own place, about a quarter of a mile north, thus assuming an irregular and serious responsibility. The magistrates at once placed his house in quarantine, and caused palings to be nailed all round the allotment, while the outside was guarded by the police by night and by day, who prohibited all intercourse with the inhabitants of the infected house."09

According to Henry Tisdall, once it became known within the community that Hanks and his now gravely-ill wife had absconded from the hotel, "consternation reigned through the township. The infuriated miners were so wild with the landlord that it was with great difficulty that they were restrained from wrecking the hotel. ... A public meeting was held, at which a committee was nominated with full power to take what steps they might deem necessary. No expense was to be spared, all present guaranteeing to be responsible for the money."10

Henry Tisdall, F L S

Henry Thomas Normanton Tisdall, FLS
Author of “How we fought the smallpox in Walhalla”
W H & D L collection

Newly arrived with his family from Port Albert in the winter of 1868 as the founding headmaster of the town's new school, S. S. 957 Walhalla,11 and thus automatically qualifying as one of Walhalla's leading citizens, Tisdall himself, in fact, was appointed as a member of this committee.

For as swiftly and as terrifyingly as the dire news had spread within Walhalla, its impact was nevertheless apparently diluted by distance, because soon afterwards, at a meeting of the Sale Borough Council recorded in the “Gippsland Times”, the Council's Board of Health heard the following report:


Mr. TRACY took occasion to state that for the information of the Local Board [of Health], that a case of small-pox was reported to have occurred at Walhalla, and that two medical men in that place had certified the disease to be a "mild form of small-pox."12


While that might have been their initial assessment, it seems far more likely that it was just Mr Tracy or the reporter, or possibly both, echoing the predominant mood of Melbourne's medical establishment as they would have detected it in the metropolitan newspapers for most of the time since the unfortunate Webster's arrival on board the "Avonvale", four months previously. By way of stark contrast, Henry Tisdall's somewhat florid (but firsthand, eyewitness) account continues:

"...The committee immediately had the whole allotment surrounded with a closely boarded eight foot fence. At the end were placed two small sheds, one on the inside and one on the outside of the fence. When the doctor visited his patient, he stripped in the outside hut, hung up his clothes, stepped through into the inside shed, put on some old garments, and made his visit. He reversed the order of procedure when leaving. The sheds were inundated with carbolic and other disinfectants.

Food, clothes and firing were supplied with the greatest precautions, the constable alone leaving them at the sheds, where Hanks had to fetch it, and carry the water from the creek. The policeman and two of the committee were always on the spot, night and day. No one who had heard, as they did, the screams of the unfortunate woman would have doubted that hers was the worst kind of virulent smallpox. Then the boy became seized with a fever, and poor Hanks had to wait on both patients till he too had to give up and take to his bed. It became absolutely necessary for the committee to find a nurse for the patients, but no one would undertake the duty at any price. At length one of them thought of an old woman who gained a precarious living by fossicking for gold out of some alluvial clay up the right hand branch. She was interviewed by some of the committee; she bargained for £20 and a free passage to Tasmania.13

It was agreed that all the inhabitants should be vaccinated. There was a firewood tramway cut out of the side of the hill about 150 feet above the surface of the creek; it extended along the opposite side from Hanks cottage. Along this tramway crowds of people, with one arm tied up, were to be seen walking along, timidly, even at that distance, and gazing down at the tainted house."


After more than a week, Hanks and the child had recovered, but the town's acute sense of alarm was only heightened when, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 23rd, Sarah Hanks finally succumbed to the disease. The correspondent for the “Gippsland Times” reported that "it was subsequently determined to burn down the house and all its contents ... On the following day, Wednesday, 24th, the house and the one above it in [the] same allotment, were fired and burnt to the ground. The body of the deceased was buried high on the hill; I believe on its crest, in a very deep grave. The husband, his son, and the nurse, were taken to the Britannia, and are now placed in strict quarantine under police control. I think that every measure which prudence could suggest, and energy promptly execute, has been carried into effect; all persons were well warned and sufficiently on the alert to assist with their best exertions, the prompt action of Mr Bell, J.P., and persons of all ages have been re-vaccinated, and carbolic acid freely distributed to all applicants; not a chance has been thrown away, nor an effort left unpractised to prevent the propagation of this pest."14

Tisdall's version of these events continued as follows:

"The committee hardly knew what to do about the funeral. In the first place, the cemetery was at the other end of the township from [the] Hanks house, and as the hills rose up abruptly from the side of the creek, it was evident that the body would have to be brought through the township. This, the miners were determined to resist to the uttermost. Secondly no one could be prevailed upon at first to carry the corpse.

However, liberal offers of reward overcame the second difficulty and four men agreed to carry the corpse. But the trouble was, where? The miners remained firm in the determination of not allowing the funeral to go through the township, and as the last extremity, it was arranged that the four men should get the coffin up the hill directly above the cottage. The last resting place of the unfortunate woman was dug and surrounded by a strong picket fence. The four men, well primed within with whisky and without with carbolic acid, commenced the feat of conveying the corpse to its destination up the almost inaccessible mountain, and performed their task after hours of strenuous toil. Hundreds of the inhabitants were collected at a safe distance on the opposite tramway gazing at the unique funeral with bated breath.15

Halfway up today's zig-zag track
Halfway up today's zig-zag track to the Walhalla cricket ground
Note that neither track nor cricket-ground existed in 1869, nor did many trees remain ...
... but you'll still catch glimpses of the "opposite tramway" from here
W H & D L collection

When the men returned they entered the shed at the gate of the cottage and after bathing in water saturated with carbolic, reclad themselves with an entirely new outfit.

But the troubles of the committee were not yet over. What was to be done with the cottage and its inhabitants? A deserted diggings called the Britannia, some three miles from the township, had remaining in it a few houses; one of these was prepared with every comfort and the nurse and the boy, bathed and disinfected and clad in fresh garments, followed the policemen to their new home. The most original agreement was then entered into between Hanks and the committee. The committee undertook to build him a new house and to give him seventy-five Pounds towards furnishing it, he undertaking to destroy all his property. Nearly all the township turned out to see the end of this extraordinary scene.

Hanks, in his enclosure, commenced by gathering all the clothing and loose property and placing them in the cottage. He then lit a fire in several places and had to stay in the grounds until all was burned; everything about the place, house, sheds, and the fence were reduced to ashes. Then thoroughly disinfected with water and carbolic, and changed into new clothes Hanks followed the nurse and boy to the Britannia, where they were supplied with every comfort for six weeks longer.


Such was the commonly accepted (and, as we will see, the almost completely accurate) version of the way that the outbreak was finally brought under control. It was reported in Melbourne as follows:

"A correspondent at Walhalla, writing on the 25th of March, relates some additional particulars connected with the death of Mrs Hanks, from smallpox, near that township: -- "The building in which Mrs Hanks died, and that adjoining it, were burnt to the ground, and Mr Hanks, his child and nurse, have been removed by the police to some empty buildings at the Britannia Reef, three miles from Walhalla, approaching the end of Stringer's Creek."16

... although, of course, it was actually the "start" end, or source, of Stringer's Creek, leading the writer for the “Gippsland Times” to take the opportunity on the very same day to question the wisdom of quarantining the remaining potential victims upstream from the township ...

We have, however, this disadvantage: the temporary hospital is situated at the Britannia, at the head of the stream which supplies the town. It would have been better if it were below the town, but no unoccupied houses exist there. If, unfortunately, there should be any more cases it will be necessary, for the general safety, to remove them at once to the Lazaretto, for in this narrow ravine, now numerously populated, it would be dangerously inimical to the public health and safety to permit the nursing of small-pox patients in their own private houses; for if such be permitted, the disease will probably spread, to the rapid destruction of human life, and this disadvantage under which we labour is the filthy state of the creek-bed, and the consequent impurity of its water, and this water, taken from wells dug, is the only water available for drinking purposes.17

Meanwhile in Melbourne, the disease progressed apace, and not very happily at all for James Daly, the presumed source of Walhalla's outbreak:

James Daly, a lad between eleven and twelve years of age, who had been nine days at the Royal-park depot for small-pox, died there at eight o'clock on Saturday morning. He was the boy who had been taken from Latrobe-street, while his sister had been attacked in Queensberry-street. There are now only four cases remaining at the depot. The young woman referred to is going on most favourably, having been able to get up yesterday. The man Brunton, who was taken in from Fitzroy, is also convalescent, while the patient Williams, from Richmond, has gone through only a very mild attack of the disease. William Mann, shoemaker, taken to the depot from Rathdowne-street on Friday last, has not yet passed the most dangerous period.18

It might strike us as odd that William Mann's location, Carlton, which these days is simply considered to be the northern end of town and a pleasant spot for lunch along Lygon Street's restaurant strip, was then described as being “in one of the suburbs, which is probably the least prepared to resist contagion. A young man residing in Rathdown-street, Carlton, was removed to the depot at the Royal-park, suffering from unmistakable small-pox. All the appliances for preventing any outbreak in the place were called at once into requisition.”19

By the 27th of March, the “Gippsland Times” succinctly reported the fate of Sarah Hanks as follows ...

Our Walhalla correspondent's letter apprizes us that the case of smallpox at Stringer's Creek has terminated fatally.20

... while the outcome in Melbourne for “William Mann, shoemaker” had by the same date provided no greater cause for optimism, either:

The young man named William Mann, who was removed on the 19th inst. from his house at Rathdowne street, Carlton, to the Royal-park depot for treatment of small-pox, with which he was attacked, died there on the night of Friday last.21

But by April 10th, the anonymous “Gippsland Times” correspondent was reporting that as a result of the disciplined intervention of Drs Hadden and Boone, Walhalla at last appeared to be free of the threat of any further outbreaks of the disease:

Walhalla, 6th April, 1869.

The best news I can communicate is, that there have not been any more cases of small-pox in Walhalla. Today will complete the fourteen days since the houses and their contents were destroyed by fire, and the man Hanks, his son, and the nurse were removed to the Britannia in quarantine. Twenty-two days will have passed, after today, since the first appearance of the rash on the person of the deceased woman. On Thursday next, I understand, the medical gentleman -- Dr. Boone, Government vaccinator -- who has had charge of all concerned with the small-pox case will, if all be well, release the parties from quarantine. The precautions adopted appear to have yielded satisfaction to the Government chief medical officer. The following is a copy of his last letter on this subject:

“Medical Department, Melbourne,
27th March, 1869,

SIR,--I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 24th inst., reporting the death of Mrs Hanks and the removal of the husband, child, and nurse to an isolated locality. As you have already adopted all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the disease, I trust no more cases will occur, and if they do, I feel confident that the preservation of the public health could not be in better hands. Anything you require shall be immediately transmitted to you.
I have the honor, &c.,
W. McCrea.”

James Boone, Esq., M.D.,

As a parting contribution to the debate, their correspondent also took a gratuitous swipe at the township's Chinese community, and at door-to-door Chinese hawkers in particular, as potential carriers of the disease:

I think that there can scarcely be a more dangerous and prolific means of propagating small-pox, than the constant travelling backwards and forwards of Chinese hawkers and peddlers. They are sometimes here as many as a dozen or eighteen at a time. I believe they are clean, so far as regards frequently washing themselves, and the use of the bath, yet they are by no means careful in either their garments or in their huts. I think that they, in common with Asiatic nations, are peculiarly susceptible of skin diseases, and if unfortunately small-pox should manifest itself in a Chinese encampment, it would spread through the district, perhaps the colony, with irrepressible rapidity; for most assuredly they would endeavor, so far as possible, to conceal the circumstance from the knowledge of the authorities, while those on whom the complaint had not yet made itself evident, would clear out to a fresh encampment, under the erroneous idea that they were safe.

The correspondent's preoccupation with the Chinese community would have struck a sympathetic chord with Dr Boone. His report, continued below, reveals that he apparently knew that Dr Boone had raised exactly the same xenophobic concerns to the Chief Medical Officer several years earlier, but at that time, to no avail.

As I understand, Dr. Boone, M. D., the resident Government vaccinator held official communication with Dr. McCrea, Chief Medical Officer, on this subject as long since as 1855. Dr. Boone then pointed out the great danger of small-pox finding its way into the Chinese encampment at Bendigo, and suggested the desirability of compelling the Chinese to undergo vaccination.

Dr. M'Crea admitted the danger which resulted, but lamented that there was no means of legally compelling vaccination. It might be worth while if Government were now to take the matter into its serious consideration, for if this pest once finds its way into a Chinese encampment, say such as that of Ballarat, it would then establish a permanent footing in Victoria.

However, in the same report, the correspondent was also able to relate that the creek had -- at least temporarily -- been flushed clean (or so he felt) by recent rains,

We have been blessed with a plentiful down pour of rain, and the creek bed which is in reality a river has been well cleansed of its many months accumulation of impurity and filth, it now looks clean and wholesome, and will I hope, continue so until the winter rains establish a more permanent supply of wholesome water for our use.22

But just how clean, in reality, could it ever be?

If anything, Walhalla was even worse-equipped than was the grubby metropolis to deal with such an extreme threat to the health of the community. Houses were clustered together along the banks of Stringer's Creek from one end of the valley to the other, drawing water from a stream which they and the mines were all diligently polluting at the same time, with equal abandon. Public understanding of the causes and effective treatment of infectious diseases was primitive, to say the least, and as a result, Walhalla's 19th-century public health record is marked by recurrent and frequent (and more importantly, frequently fatal) outbreaks of dysentery, pneumonia, typhoid fever, gastro-enteritis, whooping-cough, diphtheria and scarlet fever.23 By the end of 1870, for example. even the Melbourne newspapers were noting that "Diphtheria is very prevalent at Walhalla, where several cases of unusual severity have occurred during the past week."24

In a booklet about the life of Muriel Peck, a pioneer Gippsland infant welfare nurse of the early 20th century, Flora Johns wrote of the state of public health in rural communities even thirty or more years after these events as follows: "Knowledge of how to prevent the spread of germs was lacking. For example, it was commonplace to put the milk money in the billy or leave the milk jug uncovered and open to flies and dust in a warm kitchen where it became very quickly unfit for use as feeding for the baby. Many thought babies should not be bathed. Flies, fleas and mosquitoes were accepted as the normal state of affairs. Some were quite unaware they were germ carriers and that they caused torment and misery of young children. The large families of the era provided the baby with too many nurses. One or another of the family were either getting or recovering from an infection of some kind, unaware the baby had not established any immunity and had no ability to combat the infection. Parents ... were not always aware of the dangers lurking in the water supply. Undetected toxins in polluted water were the cause of very serious diseases and deaths."25

And nowhere was this truer than in Walhalla, where households continued to draw water for all domestic purposes from the grossly polluted Stringer's Creek. Indeed, barely two years earlier, the following report had appeared in the "Gippsland Times":

January 18, 1867.

By desire of some of the principal inhabitants of this place a public meeting was held on Monday evening in the large room at Cox's Empire hotel, Mr Gairdner in the chair. The subjects for discussion were, first, to take into consideration the impure state of the water in the creek, and to consider the best means of rendering it fit for domestic use ...

The object of the meeting having been explained by the chairnan, Mr BELL stated that he had noticed the very objectionable state of the water of the creek; that from north to south, along the whole line of residences, the creek appeared to be the common receptacle of filth of every description; that the abominations of house sewerage, of pig sties, slaughter yards, and butchers' shops form direct channels into the creek; that at certain points it absolutely stank in the nostrils of the passers-by; that the creek forms our only supply of pure water; that the water is now impure and unfit for domestic use; that there is much sickness among the inhabitants, which may be attributed to the use of impure water; that sickness will probably increase; that pure water is necessary to health, and that the best and most ready means to purify the water be adopted. Mr BALLER suggested that the most obvious manner of obtaining more water would be, for each householder to sink a well, and he would thus be sure of a constant supply of sweet water. Mr CARVER entirely concurred in the remedy suggested. The feeling of the meeting was evidently in favor of wells being the best, in fact, the only remedy.26

However, the summary of the outbreak that was published in the report by the "Gippsland Times" correspondent at the end of March properly put even this proposal into its rightfully unhygienic context:

According to a report of the medical officer for the city of London -- I think Dr. Letheby, -- he there stated that the filtration of cess-pool water through the earth does not fit it for human consumption, no matter how clear and bright it might appear to the eye, or tasteless to the palate, and that such water was proved by analysis to contain animal impurities, highly injurious to human health. I think it was the report made during the time we had cholera raging in London, in 1854. The small-pox lazaretto is at the head of the creek; consequently we have -- although there are about 2 and a half miles of flowing water between that place and this township -- the addition of all impurities and poisons which now, or in future, may be allowed to drain into our only supply of water.27

The Government vaccinator for the region (oddly enough, a certain Dr James Boone, M.D., appointed to that position three years earlier28) was able to unleash his inner sinophobe and persuade the local constabulary that at least one segment of the local population required particular and urgent attention:

The Chinese residents here have received notice from the police to attend the office of the Government vaccinator, for vaccination. 29

Thus it was that Walhalla's brush with one of the world's deadliest diseases receded into the pages of the history books.

With the luxury afforded by the retrospectoscope of long-distance hindsight, we might feel that the community hysteria was unwarranted, and that the measures they took to contain the risk were extreme, but as noted in the foreword to Tisdall's book, "those who have trudged up the steep winding path to the unique little cemetery at Walhalla and gazed upon the tragically large number of children and young people buried there will understand something of the dread which must have clutched at the hearts of the families so closely packed together in Walhalla at the time." Tisdall himself closed his memoir with the observation that "People outside Walhalla laughed and sneered at what they called a useless waste of property that might have been disinfected, but the inhabitants of that township never regretted the heavy expense for having the dread disease thoroughly conquered."

More importantly, however, he concluded by noting that ...

"No second case of smallpox ever occurred in Walhalla."

The “Argus”, meanwhile, drew a more humorous and slightly more philosophical lesson from the whole affair, finally lowering the curtain in June of 1869 on a strange episode in the history of public health in Victoria with the following pithy footnote:

In Oregon, drinking is said to be a preventive against small-pox, and the present style of invitation is, "Let's disinfect".30



o       o       O       O       O       o       o


What became of William Hanks?

In September, 1870, the year after his wife's death, William Hanks was charged with stealing some 26 ounces of gold from his employer, the North Gippsland Mining Company. The story of his trial on this apparently straightforward charge was related in a report from the Sale General Sessions in the "Gippsland Times", in which the arresting officer, Constable Irwin, testified as follows: "I arrested prisoner on the 13th August, at the house of a man named Gibbons; I searched the house and found [in] a box underneath the bed a bottle of quick-silver, some gold scales and weights tied up in a cloth. Prisoner told me the quicksilver was his. I asked him where these articles had been when his house was burned down; he said, "Planted [ie, hidden], of course." Prisoner's wife died in March or April, 1869, of small-pox, and in accordance with my instructions he set fire to the premises. I then took him to a place called the Britannia, and there he was put into a new set of clothes and the old ones were burned. I inquired then where he got the quicksilver, and he said from the Crooked River, and that he used it for various purposes. I asked him if he had any gold in his possession lately. He said no; I also found some quartz specimens in another room of the house. ... I do not know North Gippsland stone from any other stone, although I have two specimens of it myself. I have my suspicions that these pieces of stone are stolen. I do not consider it always a direct sign of criminality for a working miner to have quick-silver and gold-scales in his possession. I do not believe every man I arrest is guilty, but, as you ask my opinion, I have suspicions that the prisoner is."

William Fuller, the publican and part-time gold buyer who sold the gold to a bank in Melbourne under an assumed name on behalf of Hanks, testified somewhat disingenuously that, "I am a simple minded man, and it did not occur to me that it was strange that a working miner should have £100 worth of gold".31

Hanks was eventually discharged on a technicality, but he certainly would have had difficulty finding further employment in any of the mines in Walhalla following the court case, and for that reason can be assumed to have left the town. The case was well enough known to have been mentioned in an article from the "Gippsland Times" of May 20, 1871, bemoaning the failure of the State Government to constitute a Court of General Sessions in Walhalla. The government claimed insufficient prosecutions to justify such an establishment, but the newspaper reported: "Speaking from memory only, there were four or five [cases], amongst others ... Hanks for gold-stealing, ...".32

When last heard from, William Hanks was once again in court, charged (once again) with cruelty to an animal:



Thursday, February 1.

(Before Mr. Sturt, P.M., and Messrs. Alston and O'Brien, J.P.'s.)

Minor Offences.-- William Hanks was fined 20s. for cruelty to his horse. He did not appear, having been released on £10 deposit bail. Mr. Ford, hackney carriage inspector, said that the horse was on the cab rank with several sores on the body and shoulder. There was a false collar, unpadded, on the horse.33

It has been plausibly suggested that Hanks eventually died and was buried within the walls of Pentridge prison.


  01 The “Argus”, Tuesday 1st August, 1865, p 6.  
  02 Commonwealth of Australia Quarantine Service, “The History of Small-Pox in Australia 1788-1908”, publ. 1914, at the Internet Archive, p 40, retrieved 2nd October, 2012.  
  03 The “Argus”, Saturday, 20th March, 1869, p 5.  
  04 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  05 Henry Thomas Normanton Tisdall, “How we fought the smallpox in Walhalla”, (undated booklet). Henry Hadden, that “old veteran of medicine”, would perhaps have been 42 years old at the time.  
  06 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  07 The “Age”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 2.  
  08 Tisdall, op. cit.  
  09 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  10 Tisdall, op. cit.  
  11 R Paull, “Old Walhalla: Portrait of a Gold Town”, Melbourne University Press, 1967, p 70.  
  12 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday 20th March, 1869, p 3.  
  13 Yolanda Reynolds, in “Walhalla Graveyard to Cemetery”, 2007, (pp 13-14), identifies this woman as Mary Kyberd:

" The simple life of an elderly widow, Mary Kyberd née Lawby who fossicked for gold along the Right Hand Branch of Stringer's Creek, changed dramatically. She was an illiterate Cockney, known to have previously worked in a London hospital, and therefore ideally suited to tend the stricken family ... John Buchanan, the nine year old grandson of Mary Kyberd played a pivotal role in the crisis, regularly taking a pillowcase to the outside cubicle and picking up the soiled clothes shed by the physician. In readiness for the next change, he returned them after they had been disinfected and laundered by his mother.

Sarah Hanks was the eldest daughter of miller William Jones and his wife Janette (née Buchanan), this shared surname leading to the possibility of a family connection between herself and John Buchanan.

Mystery abounds regarding the son of William Hanks. The miniature publication “How We Fought The Smallpox” by Henry Thomas Tisdall, relates that the Hanks lad accompanied his father to Walhalla and was with him during the ordeal. However, at the time of his marriage, 24 year old Hanks stated he was a bachelor, therefore an unlikely candidate for fatherhood. Documentation of a previous marriage of either party has not been found, nor has any evidence to support the boy's existence, such as birth, marriage, death certificate or shipping arrival, therefore casting doubt that his identity may have been misconstrued.

According to family legend, John Buchanan, Senior, the father of the boy who had fetched the sullied garments, also a former publican at Brunton's Bridge, had built the Stone Cottage along the Right Hand Branch. Mary Kyberd who had nursed the trio was his mother-in-law and known to have also lived in this vicinity. Perhaps in her widowhood she had resided with her son-in-law and daughter, John and Ellen Buchanan, The coincidence of surname between John Buchanan, Senior and Janette née Buchanan, the mother of Sarah Hanks, is an intriguing aspect. It is possible that the briefly mentioned Hanks lad was actually John Buchanan, Junior whose known involvement strengthens this theory."


However, there was clearly little love lost between William Hanks and John Buchanan, Senior. According to reports in the "Gippsland Times" of November 10th (p 3) and December 12th (p 4), they had confronted one another in the courts more than once during the previous year, when they owned adjoining blocks in Walhalla, over an errant goat. Buchanan sued Hanks for damages when he attacked and blinded one of Buchanan's goats which strayed onto his property in late October of 1868; two months later, Hanks in turn summonsed Buchanan for allowing a goat to stray onto his property, although this case was dismissed. In between, in November of that year, Buchanan had appeared before the Walhalla Police Court charged with being drunk and disorderly, supposedly while celebrating an unidentified "special occasion"; as a result of his previous good character being taken into account, he was discharged.

Buchanan, by the way, is not the only person to have been credited with building the stone cottage; and in "Mountain Gold" (published by the Shire of Narracan, 1980), John Adams characterizes Hanks as a "Walhalla widower" at the time of his marriage to Sarah Jones (p 57).
  14 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  15 In November, 2009, I had received an email from a visitor to Walhalla claiming to have found what he thought was the site of Sarah Hanks' bush grave. His methodology seemed plausible, and he may well have been right, but when I mentioned my alarm at this prospect to the latter-day Dr [David] Hadden, he was able to reassure me that the virus is not able to survive any longer than a matter of mere hours outside of a living human host. He explained that he was unusual these days, even among his peers, in actually having seen at first hand the effects of smallpox in live patients, in Africa in the 1970s, prior to its complete eradication.  
  16 The “Age”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 2.  
  17 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  18 The “Argus”,Monday, 22nd March, 1869, p 5.  
  19 The “Argus”, Saturday, 20th March, 1869, p 5  
  20 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday, 27th March, 1869, p 2  
  21 The “Argus”, Monday, 29th March, 1869, p 5  
  22 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday, April 10th, 1869, p 3.  
  23 Reynolds, op.cit. Cycles of deaths, especially of children, from such diseases are clearly discernible in the "Cause of Death" column listed in the Appendix, pp 188-208. It's a record that should cheer you up no end, just because you're demonstrably part of a long family line -- yours -- of exceptional people who didn't die unnecessarily at birth, in infancy, or in childhood from what (today) are mostly avoidable diseases.  
  24 The “Argus”, Tuesday 11th October, 1870, p 6.  
  25 Flora Johns, “The Peck Plaques”, Sale, 1992, pp 39-40.  
  26 “Gippsland Times”, Thursday, 24th January, 1867, p 3. The supposed value of wells was strongly discounted in later reviews of the situation in the town.  
  27 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  28 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday, 13th January, 1866, p 3: "James Boone, Esq., M D, is gazetted public vaccinator for the districts of Stringer's Creek and Happy-go-Lucky."  
  29 “Gippsland Times”, Tuesday 30th March, 1869, p 3.  
  30 The “Argus”, Wednesday, June 16th, 1869, p 13.  
  31 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday 24th September, 1870, p 3.  
  32 “Gippsland Times”, Saturday 20th May, 1871, p 3.  
  33 The “Argus”, Friday, 2nd February, 1872, p 7.  

© 2013 Bernard Bolch for the Walhalla Heritage and Development League.

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