Bendigo's Rat Rollout
While regional Victoria is desperately seeking RATs (Rapid Antigen Tests for COVID-19) at the moment, which continue to be scarce, it hasn’t always been that way – at least not with the furry, gnawing variety which Bendigonians have often found in abundance! Join us for a quick foray into Bendigo’s history with rats…
Ballarat went in for a bit of bragging in the late 1850s, noting that despite ‘being nearer the metropolis than Bendigo and having plenty of opportunities given to the rats to visit by the thousands of cart loads of goods that arrived’ there, they had avoided the ‘plaguey rats which swarm at Bendigo’ [i].
There have certainly been many occasions upon which the City has struggled with the squirming vermin, significantly in the autumn of 1900. The Shire of Strathfieldsaye declared that their inspectors, working with abattoirs and piggeries, were on top of the problem and maintaining sanitary conditions through a program of ‘dogs, ferrets and guns’ to make a ‘clean sweep’ [ii]. They discussed issuing a bonus to the Health Inspector, Benjamin Code, for the rats killed and noted that special attention was required at the railway yards with rats possibly hiding in shipments of ‘nuts and articles’ imported from India [iii].
Eaglehawk had determined a plan to exterminate the masses of rats at the Lake and in the creek. The question was then raised – ‘what is Bendigo doing?’. The Council had considered – but not implemented – the idea of issuing a bounty, but word didn’t quite reach the streets. Many boys were enlivened by the idea and began hunting, and delivering, dead rats to the Town Hall where the ‘half-amused, half-disgusted’ official told them to take the rats away, they were not wanted there and no reward was due [iv].
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 Bendigo City, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P01, Unit 7, 1897-1904
Cr Harkness called attention to the dangerous practice of allowing dead rats to be carried about the streets by young children
The issues of the day were on one occasion conflated in 1900, with inebriate Annie Allen rushing to the Eaglehawk police station in the early hours to complain about ‘the Boers storming Lightning Hill and shooting at rats as a preventative of bubonic plague’. Sergeant English observed that she was ‘suffering greatly from the effects of drink’ and was remanded for seven days [v].
By 1906, the practices that had been established to deal with the risk of rat-borne plague had been ‘considerably relaxed’ and the population was booming once again, particularly at Wellsford. The Wellsford Sewage Farm & Manure Depot was gazetted in 1892 and extended in 1894 in the area where the current aerodrome is sited.
Two markers were setting up targets for the monthly competition at the Wellsford Range. Upon finding a moving canvas, they carefully carried it outside, expecting a snake but instead found a rat with eleven baby rats; ‘The female rat and its young was promptly dispatched’ [vi].
Bubonic plague broke out in Brisbane and Sydney in 1907 and Bendigo’s Health Inspector advised Council to take ‘every possible measure’ to destroy rats, and the Health Officer reported that to facilitate, a bounty be paid by the Council. Councillor Abbott declared that ‘the scare in New South Wales should not affect Bendigo’ [vii]. The committee debated the introduction of the recommended by-laws and decided that they could simply ‘read the Riot Act’ if necessary and that there was ‘no chance of bubonic plague in this city’ [viii].
Mrs Risk, living at White Hills, had her house ‘infested with rats’ in 1911 which found their way into her four-month-old daughter’s cot and bit the baby’s face and tongue, leaving numerous teeth marks and requiring medical attention [ix].
Again in 1927, rats invaded the City – one man claimed his Fox Terrier had killed 300 rats, and those who kept chickens found it impossible to keep the rats out of their pens and feed [x].
In 1938, a deputation from the Citizens’ Welfare League approached Council demanding more effective measures for the control of rats across the municipality. In response, the Council determined that they needed external advice and wrote to the City of Essendon who had suffered their own rat plaque in the previous winter.
They responded with details of their bounty program which paid out 3d on each skull or tail presented to their Holmes Road destructor in Moonee Ponds. The Council’s own Medical Officer submitted a report on dealing with the local issue and recommended against a poisoning campaign. Ralph Farnbach explained that unless it was well-organised and continuous over a wide area, it would be futile.
Regardless, the Council resolved that the Medical Officer, Health Inspector and City Engineer would commence a program of poisoning in rubbish tips sited at Nolan Street and Williamson Street ‘continuously for a reasonable period’ [xi].
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 Bendigo City, VPRS 16269 Council Minutes, P01, Unit 12, 1937-1939
The problem continued to recur, with another major outbreak of the furry pests in 1943. The Bendigo Advertiser ran with the headline, ‘North Bendigo rats live on fish and egg flips’, reflecting the problem that was believed to be driving this new scourge.
Ground zero this time was the Finn Street tip and again a deputation of concerned citizens approached council about the rodents who had bred into ‘hundreds of thousands’ and overrunning nearby houses. R Beattie told council that the rats were getting ‘fish and egg flips’ from the nightly dumps of fish offal from the city and egg shells from the pulp factory [xii].
A report from acting City Engineer, Frank Day, noted that 18 drums of trade offal were dumped per day from the egg pulp factory, mostly shell which was bulky and difficult to bury and impossible to burn without creating a strong, offensive odour. In addition one drum of fish offal and waste food was delivered from a local café daily and twice weekly from the fishmonger.
This time, quick action was taken by Council, who made arrangements for trade refuse to be barred from municipal tips and instead be carted to the Bendigo Sewerage Authority (BSA) depot at Wellsford to be treated as nightsoil or ploughed in. Logistics were considered and recommended that a BSA vehicle be commissions to undertake such collections.
Further, it was recommended that the Williamson Street Tip have sand applied to new rubbish brought in; the Thunder Street tip be fenced and locked so that the tip-man could check deliveries for prohibited offal, as well as sand applied to dumps; the Atkins Street tip was to be used for clean fill only and suggested a new site needed to be found in the Ironbark area and White Hills gravel reserve.
The report was adopted by council and a new sub-committee established to further investigate the rat problem as it applied to the abattoirs.
Not all rats were deemed destruction-worthy: a farmer on the Loddon River near Bridgewater issued an order that no ‘kangaroo rats’ were to be killed on his land, after he discovered the native species was highly effective in killing thistles by eating their roots [xiii]. It seems likely that these were Eastern Bettongs (Bettongia gaimardi), now extinct; the other Tasmanian subspecies, Bettongoia cuniculus is a threatened species.
Despite their early boast, Ballarat did not avoid rats in the long term – in 1900, a rat that measured two-feet in length was captured and in 1956, rats ‘bigger than cats’ were reported to be ‘terrifying women and children’ near Sutton Street tip with a local baby also being attacked by a rodent [xiv].
[i] ‘North Bendigo rats live on fish and egg flips’, Bendigo Advertiser, 1943
[ii] ‘Loddon’, The Herald, 4 Aug 1871
[iii] ‘Rat plague at Ballarat’, The Argus, 28 Feb 1956, p5
[iv] ‘Eaglehawk’, Bendigo Advertiser, 25 Apr 1900, p3
[v] ‘Rats in rifle targets’, Ballarat Star, 6 Sep 1906, p6
[vi] ‘Bubonic plague’, Bendigo Independent, 16 Feb 1907, p4
[vii] ‘Precautions against plague’, Bendigo Independent, 23 Feb 1907, p8
[viii] ‘Vicious rats attack infant’, Mount Alexander Mail, 12 Apr 1911
[ix] ‘Rats invading Bendigo’, The Argus, 6 Oct 1927
[x] ‘Bendigo’, The Age, 27 May 1938, p14
[xi] ‘Precautions in Strathfieldsaye Shire’, Bendigo Independent, 18 May 1900
[xii] ‘Precautions in Strathfieldsaye Shire’, Bendigo Independent, 18 May 1900
[xiii] ‘Rats!’, Bendigo Independent, 16 May 1900
[xiv] ‘Rats on Bendigo, The Age, 5 Mar 1858, p5
First published February 2022.