Harkive: ‘The Fever in Coolgardie’

This month’s post is an article from the beginning of Harkness’s career as a writer for the west Australian press, discussing an outbreak of typhoid fever in the gold mining community of Coolgardie. Much of her serial novel ‘Called to the Bar’ appears to be rooted in these early observations of the mining town, from the conditions of nursing on the goldfields, to the lack of clean water, to women’s work in ‘sly-grog shops’ or illicit bars. The writing reflects Harkness’s usual awareness of local idioms as she relays the voices of different people on the goldfields.

Despite Harkness’s own medical knowledge, this article is vague about the causes or treatments of what is mysteriously called ‘the fever’, as it first mentions germs and contaminated water as causes but then prevaricates as to the source and the infectiousness of the disease. The article also seems to reach readily for racist and class-based stereotypes as it singles out particular groups within the small community as bearers and spreaders of the disease.

The ‘Londonderry fizzle’ is a reference to the discovery of a gold shoot by the Earl of Fingall at the so-called Londonderry mine, which was followed by a law suit brought against the Earl by the mine’s original proprietors.


Source: Cosmos: An Illustrated Australian Magazine, 29 June 1895, pp. 520–22. Available in volume form from the National Library of Australia.


“The Fever in Coolgardie”

Described by an Onlooker.



TWO fiends rule over Coolgardie at the present time—Gold and Fever. Of the former much has been said and unsaid; but so far nothing authentic has been placed before the public concerning the fever fiend that dogs the steps of those who come to seek their fortunes in the Eldorado of the West.

Along the bush road, between the Cross and the Field, passes a ceaseless stream of men bent on money-making.

Few of these notice the solitary track leading to the cemetery, a lonely spot a mile outside Coolgardie. Yet it is more than likely that some of them will “peg out” before they find “the colour,” for the fever is insidious.

Typhoid the doctors call it.

We have a plethora of doctors in Coolgardie, men old and young, who have come here to make or mend their fortunes. Doctors and land speculators divide the spoil just now. The young doctors scamper about amongst the tents on ponies; the older ones stay at home to be consulted. One doctor died of the fever he came to cure, a young Englishman of twenty-six; another escaped from it by the skin of his teeth; a third looks like a walking ghost, thanks to relapses.

“Proves the fever’s a real thing, that the doctors ain’t crammin’,” remarked an old prospector when he heard that three doctors were down with it.

How did it come here?

It was born of the filthy habits of the inhabitants. Even now, when a health officer has been appointed, a sanitary inspector parades the township, and a town clerk posts up notices concerning the necessity of cleanliness, it fattens on the love of dirt indigenous among the lowest class of diggers and the aboriginals. The last-named people are a perfect pest. They sleep by night in the bush, and perambulate Coolgardie all day, begging from tent to tent, living on the refuse given to pigs in civilized places. The Afghans and Indians who have charge of the camels have clean camps; but the miserable blacks wander all over the field, carrying germs of fever with them.

A secondary cause of fever is no doubt want of water. So much has been written about the water supply, that I will not enter here into details concerning shafts, condensers, reservoirs, dams and wells. I will only remark that men will drink impure water sooner than pay threepence and fourpence a gallon for pure water. On the rare occasions when a shower of rain falls on this thirsty land, impecunious diggers collect from the rocks water that has only too often percolated through filth of a year’s standing. This is one reason why a fall of rain is always followed by a fresh outbreak of fever.

The Government of Western Australia has provided a hospital for pauper patients, and one of the tents is set aside for men who can afford to pay a guinea a week. A substantial stone hospital is being erected on a hillock behind the township, and before the winter is upon us this will be filled with the Government patients now in tents. One tent holds six or eight men, and they are nursed by a matron, five or six nurses and four wardsmen. Unfortunately, at the present time Coolgardie is being regaled with a hospital scandal, the matron and head nurse having fallen out with the medical officer and the secretary. Idle people delight in this quarrel, and there are many idle folks amongst the Coolgardie residents. In fact, it is a little hot-bed of gossip. People are reported dead on the slightest excuse. For instance, the manager of an Afghan camp, a well-known Englishman, sent for some Afghans to put a fly over his tent. Half-a-dozen of them ran to do his bidding. Ten minutes later it was reported in the township that he was dead. Had not the Afghans run to witness his last moments?

Once dead, a man is very quickly buried. A few hours after his death he is put into a coffin, and the coffin is placed on a “backboard.” The undertaker takes the reins, and beside him sits the youthful rector of Coolgardie in his cassock. The mourners occupy the back seat, and their feet rest on the lid of the coffin. If the dead man had many mates another “backboard” follows, or perhaps some men on horseback. The melancholy little procession then wends its way along the bush road, under the glistening umbrella trees to the cemetery, where mounds of red earth and rude crosses or bits of stick mark the last resting-places of many who came to Coolgardie full of life and hope. The fever fiend goes straight for the youngest on the field. Scarcely a grave in the cemetery has closed over a man above thirty. Just lately a hearse has made its appearance, and this gloomy vehicle is doing a good business.

Many a sad tale men have to relate of mates struck down with fever, of one, two and three empty bunks in a camp. Sometimes the fever attacks a man while out prospecting, fifty miles or more away from Coolgardie. One rude tent is all the sleeping accommodation the men possess, so the sick man is placed on a camel and conveyed to the township, and if he has money he is taken to a private hospital.

Coolgardie boasts of three private hospitals—groups of tents in which men are nursed for four and five pounds a week by trained or untrained nurses. Doctors, stimulants, eggs, milk, are all extras, and heavy bills are run up in these places. It is difficult to say whether the ladies who own them make a good thing by their nursing. Provisions are very expensive, labour commands high wages, and bad debts are of constant occurrence. Sometimes they have to wait a long time for their cheques, and patients have been known to run away rather than pay promptly.

Of the seamy side of the field these nursing ladies see more than enough. Cart wheels are heard in the night, and they are called up to receive a man who has been lost in the bush, and picked up delirious. His tongue is in a terrible state; he craves for water, but cannot swallow. They moisten his lips, and presently he tries to describe the agony of thirst he endured while wandering hopelessly in the circle that “bushed” men travel.

“I’ve been chivied [sic] about ever since I came to this bloomin’ colony,” says a poor fellow, when they lift him off a stretcher and place him in a bunk, “don’t chivy me about any more, I’m stone broke.”

It is a common form of madness on the field for a man to be sure that he has found the “colour,” and just as common for a man to cut his throat when things are going well with him.

Excitement sends men off the pivot, and they lie down in the hospital tents with the fever patients. The fever is not infectious; in fact, the doctors do not know whether it comes from germs in the air, or bad water.

Some men are nursed in their own tents, paying a nurse three guineas a week and her keep. Of course, only those who are well off can afford this style of illness. The nurses employed are women who have strayed to the field in the hope of making money, and have soon found that barmaids who run sly-grog shops are the only women who make fortunes in and round about Coolgardie. They work from dawn till dark, run errands, cook over a camp fire, and nurse the patient, who lies on his bunk cursing the flies that swarm over his face, arms, and legs. All sorts and conditions of women may be found doing this kind of nursing, from the good-hearted washerwoman, who believes in rubbing plenty of whisky into all parts of the patient’s body, to the Melbourne society girl, who was too proud to work in her native city, so came to make money in Coolgardie—and it is hard work. Dust flies into the saucepans in which the patient’s food is being cooked, rain and wind make havoc of the camp fire, stores cannot supply a sick man’s requirements, chemists are slow in sending medicines, errand boys demand exorbitant wages, so the nurse is a maid of all work, requiring little knowledge of her profession, but much patience.

Coolgardie doctors, like Gil Blas, have two specifics for the fever. They believe in anti-febrine and sponging. The latter remedy is much appreciated on hot days by patients. With a temperature of 103o, and a hot wind blowing, a man rejoices to see the water-bag in the nurse’s hands. Ice made its appearance for a few weeks, then went the way of other luxuries. Now it is possible to buy cow’s milk and fresh eggs; but, of course, these things are very expensive, and most patients have to content themselves with condensed milk or water, sago and arrowroot. Some are too poor for anything but “billy” tea and whisky. The poorest man who has a mate is sure to be supplied with whisky. Everyone on the field swears by whisky as a fever specific. Whisky will keep off the fever, men say, and help you better than anything else to get rid of it. Some men take quinine, others consume raw and cooked onions, in the hope of keeping well. The wiser sleep outside the township and only visit Bayley-street for meals and business.

The victims of the fever fiend to be pitied most are the lonely men who have lost their mates.

“Gone to hospital. Please no one touch my things,” was written on a bit of paper and pinned to a tent in a desolate place some way from Coolgardie. The water-bag hung on a stick; the billy and tools belonging to the sick man lay on the ground.

“Poor beggar,” said passers by [sic].

The fever lasts three weeks when the attack is slight, three months when it is serious. It is followed in many cases by severe rheumatism in hands and feet, so a man is of little use to himself or anyone until he has “gone down,” that is to say taken a trip to Perth. Coolgardie is a bad place for convalescents. The nights and mornings are intensely cold, and at noon the sun is so hot that invalids can scarcely endure it.

Has the fever come to stay? Probably it will last as long as Coolgardie. How long that will be is written in the Book of Fate, of which Lord Fingal is the interpreter. That his lordship has so far escaped the fever grieves his enemies, who think that the prospects of people here should not be injured for the sake of people at home. Noblesse oblige says Lord Fingal, who on the fatal day when the Londonderry fizzle was announced walked Bayley-street looking so ill that all the doctors hoped to get him as a patient. It will be seen that death from thirst and starvation is not the only danger that threatens inexperienced prospectors and diggers, but that Coolgardie itself is a hotbed of disease germs, which have an especial predilection for young and apparently strong new comers [sic].


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