Death of Constable John Nevin in the typhoid epidemic of 1891

HOSPITAL SCANDAL the wrong body

Constable John (William John aka Jack) Nevin, ca.1880 photographed by his brother Thomas J. Nevin.
Copyright © KLW NFC Private Collection 2009 ARR. Watermarked.

Constable John (William John) Nevin (1852-1891), known to the family as Jack, was the younger brother of Tasmanian photographer Thomas J. Nevin. He was also his brother’s assistant at the Hobart Gaol, Campbell Street during his brother’s commission as police photographer in prisons during the 1870s. They jointly maintained Thomas’ old studio in New Town until the mid late 1880s when Thomas apparently ceased professional photography, although family BDM records show his occupation as “photographer” in 1907 (on the marriage certificate of daughter Minnie), in 1917 (on the marriage certificate of son Albert) and on his cemetery burial record of 1923.

The earliest date on record of Constable John Nevin’s service with the police is 1870 when he joined the civil service, aged 18 yrs, and was stationed at the Asylum, Cascades Prison for Males, Hobart. His service continued at the Hobart Gaol, Campbell Street, as “Gaol Messenger”, a rank which covered his duties as photographer, and as a hospital “Wardsman” until his untimely death while still in service, aged 39 yrs old. The registrar of his death gave his age as 43 yrs old; however, his burial records at Cornelian Bay Cemetery on 19th June 1891 listed his death at 39 yrs, i.e. born 1851, and this date is consistent with the sick lists of the Fairlie shipping records stating that he was a babe in arms, less than 9 months old, when he arrived in Hobart on 3rd July 1852 with his settler parents, John and Mary Anne Nevin nee Dickson, and his three older siblings Thomas James, Rebecca Jane, and Mary Ann. The Fairlie sick list recorded:

Folio 5: William Nevin, aged 6 months, Child of Guard; sick or hurt, convulsio; put on sick list 2 June 1852, discharged 9 June 1852 to duty.

Constable John Nevin was employed in administration at the Hobart Gaol under the supervision of the keeper Ringrose Atkins from 1874 until his death from typhoid fever during the epidemic of 1891. He was a resident on salary to H. M. Government at the Hobart Gaol by 1884 when he registered on the Electoral Roll for the district of North Hobart.

Last entry: the Electoral Roll of the Electoral District of North Hobart, North Hobart, year commencing 11th April, 1884 (Hobart Gazette)

NEVIN, William John | Place of Abode H.M. Gaol | Nature of qualification Salary | Particulars of Qualification H.M. Government.

1888: Dr Bingham Crowther’s Lecture on Typhoid
Arthur Bingham Crowther was 29 years old, a qualified doctor of medicine and a hospital sergeant when he enrolled with the Southern Tasmanian Volunteer Artillery on 10th May 1878. He resigned on 1st June 1879. On 8th March 1888 he delivered a lecture on typhoid fever at the Hobart Town Hall.

Name: Crowther, Bingham
Record Type: Employment Employer: Southern Volunteer Artillery
Rank: Hospital Sergeant
Occupation : Doctor of Medicine
Age: 29
Employment dates:10 May 1878
Record ID:NAME_INDEXES:1517096
Resource: COM1-20-1-1-p010
History – Tasmanian Defence Force – National Archives of Australia

On 8th March 1888 Dr Bingham Crowther delivered a lecture on typhoid fever at the Hobart Town Hall under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association..

Dr. BINGHAM CROWTHER delivered a lecture on typhoid fever, under the auspices of the Y.M.C. Association, at the Town Hall last night to a large audience. Mr. John Macfarlane occupying the chair. The lecturer after referring to the great probability of a contaminated water supply, and the open sewer or creek, and defective drainage as being, together with a sudden change from the cesspool to the pan system in summer, the probable cause of the presence of typhoid in Hobart, strongly advocated a pure water supply. Systematic filtration was a matter of the greatest importance, and as it had been adopted by other parts of the world with good results we should consider the wisdom of following their example. The creek and sewers should be preserved from contamination, and until we had some better arrangement for getting rid of faecal matter he recommended burying it several feet deep. He advocated a public wash house and oven for washing and disinfecting the clothes of poor people who were visited by typhoid fever. Water and milk were the most dangerous vehicles for conveying the disease from point to point. At Campbell Town they formerly had a wretched and polluted water supply and constant typhoid fever; but he and other leading residents there agitated for a pure water supply, and the result of obtaining it was that very little typhoid was heard of at Campbell Town now. They had all heard of many cases of the disease being carried in milk, most probably imported into the milk with the water frequently added. The question ” What is typhoid ?” he answered by describing it as a fungoid growth, the form of which he drew upon a black board. Though typhoid could be cultivated, it could not yet be inoculated either in man or animals. Probably the day would come when they would find how to introduce typhoid into the blood, and how to get it out again. What made him think that the water had something to do with the spread of typhoid fever in Hobart, was the general distribution of the disease, which forced the belief that it was something more general than a bad drain or a local nuisance. There was a prospect, however, of Hobart having a better supply of water. If typhoid were in the water it would be readily disseminated by the practice of spreading the water upon the street. If everyone with typhoid in their houses would take the trouble to destroy the germs by the use of the crude sulphate of iron, they would greatly prevent its spread. He condemned the surface drainage of the city, which, with our present dearth of water, could not but be full of decomposing matter. In the English cities the water supply and drainage system were so perfect that they enjoyed almost an immunity from typhoid. To avoid typhoid was to avoid all the things he had been speaking of, and to prevent its spread all faecal matter should be buried at once, clothes washed and deodorised, water should be filtered, milk boiled, and care taken to prevent the germs passing away in any form. Typhoid came on with a pain in the back of the head, followed by night heats. Purging was frequently a symptom, and sometimes resulted fatally. But sometimes constipation, as in the last season here, was a symptom of typhoid. The tongue was covered with a thick white fur, which later on became a light brown fur, the teeth were discoloured, the stomach became hard and drummy, and the body was marked by raised spots. Temperature was a very marked thing in typhoid, exhibiting a rise in the evening and a fall in the morning, which distinguished it from all other diseases, thus enabling people to be their own doctors. When the temperature rose to 105 and 106 the body was on fire, and like a house on fire it had to be put out at once. This matter of temperature required the most careful treatment and nursing, as to food and raising the patient. Bleeding of the bowels was once a frequent fatal effect of typhoid, but this was now overcome by the discovery of the hypodermic syringe, the use of which worked marvellous changes. Perforation of the bowels and nervous prostration were the most fatal effects of typhoid in many cases. Ulceration of the bowels almost always took place on the right side of the large bowel, where the pain was felt, and the ulcers frequently eat the bowels through, resulting in the hopeless cases of perforation. The duration of the disease was four weeks, and if the history was accurately known they might look for convalescence at the end of that period, but if care was not exorcised a relapse took place, and the fever went through all its development again. In treating typhoid fever the patient should he kept in a recumbent position at once, and sleep induced, if it did not come naturally, though opium should be avoided. A dose of calomel was good in the early stage, but the use of medicine afterwards was dangerous, Careful watchfulness was what was most required, and keeping the temperature down, using the ice cap if required. This was the circulation of iced water through a spiral india rubber piping placed on the head. Sponging with iced water, and the use of packs were tho best means of controlling the temperature, but baths should be avoided. A large cool room, with very little furniture, and bare boards should be selected for the patients, and heavy clothing avoided. The condition of the patient should regulate the amount of clothing, and it was a good thing to have two beds side by side, to that the patient could be removed from one bed to the other, and the clothing aired and changed. Windows and doors should be opened without fear of air, and patients should be kept quiet, all emotion avoided, and visitors kept away. The feet should be kept warm, and gentle purging should not be checked, but if it became excessive might be checked by an injection of rice water. The thanks of the community were due to Miss Holden for her very excellent advice on nursing of typhoid patients, but she was wrong in saying that the bowels might remain unrelieved for three or four days. He believed this was dangerous, and advocated the use of the enema without moving a patient. If the lungs were congested, sponging with turpentine was good, and if the kidneys were affected, dry cupping was successful in relieving the organ. A flannel wrung out and then mustard spread over the chest relieved pain, and was very comforting. As to diet, too much milk should be avoided. About a quart to a quart and a half was sufficient for an adult, but it should be given in small quantities. An unlimited quantity of cold water in small drinks could be given, and fresh coffee strained and bottled off made a good light stimulant. Liquid broths were good, but he did not think farinaceous foods were at all good. Strained juices of fruit were excellent, but pips and peels were dangerous to swallow. Lime and soda with milk was good, and a stimulant might be made with wine, eggs and water. As the spots left the diet might be extended. Medicines were but little good, though he gave a little as a matter of form, as people would think he was not doing any good without he did. Indiscriminate use of stimulants was highly dangerous, but they were useful in cases of tremour. With children and old people typhoid was not dangerous, though they should not be left lying in bed too long. Patients should not be moved from home if possible, and if they had to be removed they should be taken on a stretcher or comfortable cab. He ridiculed the idea of there being any contagion in the patient, the only contagion being what came away from the body. On the motion of Alderman ADDLESTONE, seconded by Mr. E. HAWSON, a vote of thanks was passed, in acknowledging which Dr. CROWTHER promised to deliver a series of lectures on medical and physiological subjects during the coming winter.

Source online: Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Friday 9 March 1888, page 3

A. B. Crowther, M.R.C.S. ENG, L.R.C.P. London Eden Photo Studios.
Publication Information: 1890.

Physical description: 1 photograph : sepia toned photograph mounted on card; 20 x 14 cm.
Format: photograph image (online)
Notes: Exact measurements 195 x 135 mm. ; card measurements 246 x 171 mm.
Title from card enclosed with photo.
Held in W. L. Crowther Library. Originally framed with W. L. Crowther and E. L. Crowther.
Conservation: Removed from frame ca. 1997.
Citation: Digitised item from: W.L. Crowther Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

1891: Death of Constable John Nevin
Although John Nevin snr settled his family in the bush setting of Kangaroo Valley, New Town (now Lenah Valley), a few kilometres from the centre of Hobart from their arrival in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1852 to his death in 1887, his eldest son, photographer Thomas James Nevin lived his entire adult life from 1865 to 1923, a period of nearly sixty (60) years in a densely populated urban setting and within range of just four city blocks, either on or closely adjacent to the main road, Elizabeth Street, apart from the four years on Macquarie Street while Keeper of the Hobart Town Hall (1876-1880). Thomas’ younger brother William John Nevin, known officially as John Nevin, and Jack to his family (not to be confused with their father John Nevin snr nor with his nephew William John Nevin 1878-1927), gave his address as Kangaroo Valley when applying to the constabulary in 1875 and again for renewal of his contract in 1881, but by 1884 he was residing full-time in the foul environment of the Hobart Gaol, a hot-spot of contagion during those years just as prisons today are sites of rapid infection from the current COVID-19 pandemic .

The Deaths in the District of Hobart for 1891 registered Constable John Nevin’s death on 17th June 1891 at the Hobart General Hospital (born Ireland) with typhoid fever as the cause of death, his age listed wrongly as 43 years [sic -39 years, see burial record below] and rank or profession as Gaol Messenger. But on the Register of Burials No. 8253 of 17th June 1891 his age was listed as 39 yrs, and his occupation as “Wardsman”. This might suggest that he was engaged in bed-side nursing at the Hobart Hospital, possibly in a prisoners’ ward in similar capacity to the position of hospital sergeant which Dr Bingham Crowther filled in May 1878 when employed by the Southern Artillery. As Collins and Kippen (2003) state, between the 1850s and 1880s it was a characteristic of hospitals to employ men to carry out bedside nursing. They were almost always referred to as “wardsman”, not to be confused with local council clerks who managed the electoral districts called wards within each municipality.

On the same day, Patrick McMahon, a Miner, from Victoria, 22 yrs old, also died of typhoid fever at the General Hospital, Hobart.

Nevin, John
Record Type: Deaths
Age: 39
Description: Last known residence: H.M.Gaol, Hobart
Property: Cornelian Bay Cemetery
Date of burial: 18 Jun 1891
File number: BU 8253
Record ID: NAME_INDEXES:1560150
Archives Office Tasmania RGD 35/13
Death of Constable John Nevin from typhoid fever 17th June 1891

HOSPITAL SCANDAL: the wrong body
The confusion over John Nevin’s age was the fault of the morgue at the Hobart Hospital. They had sent the wrong body to the Cornelian Bay Cemetery. John Nevin’s body was sent and buried in a pauper’s grave instead of another man who was to be buried as a pauper. The mistake was discovered by the undertaker only after the cemetery burial had taken place. Funeral mourners had to wait several hours while John Nevin’s body was exhumed from the pauper’s grave and re-interred. The shocking details of the body swap were revealed in this article published a day after his funeral:

John Nevin was buried twice: the body swap
Source: Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tas. : 1890 – 1922), Friday 19 June 1891, page 2


Hospital Scandal
(From our own Correspondent)
Hobart, June 18.

A remarkable case of mistaken identity or carelessness occurred today at the Hobart Hospital. Mr. A. Clark, undertaker, received orders for the internment of the body of John Nevin, who for many years was employed in the Hobart gaol, but who died recently in the Hospital from typhoid fever. The funeral was fixed for 10 o’clock this morning, and the Governor of the gaol had made arrangements for the presence of himself and staff at the funeral. Upon proceeding to the Morgue, undertaker Clark found that Nevin’s body had been removed, and another one left in its place. Enquiries elicited the information that a pauper funeral had taken place some hours earlier, the undertaker for which had taken Nevin’s remains in mistake for that of the pauper. The authorities immediately telephoned out to the cemetery, ordering the body to be exhumed and returned to the hospital. This was effected after nearly two hours delay, the friends in the meantime waiting, and the remains of Nevin was reconveyed to the cemetery.
When Mr Clark discovered the mistake he was prevailed upon to take the body that was left, but this he refused to do. It would appear that the person whose business it is to attend to the morgue has multifarious duties to perform, the consequence being that supervision is most defective. No doubt this matter will be enquired into by the Hospital authorities.

Source: Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tas. : 1890 – 1922), Friday 19 June 1891, page 2

Operating theatre, Hobart General Hospital]
Date [ca. 1910]
Citation: Digitised item from: W.L. Crowther Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

[Main block (males), Hobart General Hospital]
Publication Information: [ca. 1900]
Physical description: 1 photograph : sepia toned ; 9 x 14 cm.
Format: photograph image (online)
Citation: Digitised item from: W.L. Crowther Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

On this record (below), the Register of Burials for Hobart 1891, John Nevin’s occupation at death was “Wardsman”. If he was working at the Hobart General Hospital when he died, he may have been deployed from prison duties to hospital duties without needing to apply for the position of wardsman because he was already a salaried servant of H. M. Government. His successor Charles F. Franke, who was formerly employed at the Launceston Hospital, did need to apply. He was appointed to the position over 25 applicants when it was advertised and filled in December 1892 (Launceston Examiner 1 December 1892, p2). The position when John Nevin died carried an annual salary of £100 (one hundred pounds), but it was reduced to £80 soon after and then to £60 by the time Franke was engaged in 1892, even though his duties were more extensive due to the reduction of housemaid staff. His application to the Hospital Board for increased salary, reported by the Mercury, 14th January 1893, was rejected. Six months later, Charles F. Franke resigned and the position once again was advertised (Tasmanian Times 10th June 1893).

Third entry from top:
Register of burials: John Nevin, 39 yrs, Wesleyan, Wardsman
Below: burial record of Southern Cemeteries, Cornelian Bay, Hobart, Tasmania

OBITUARY 18th June 1891
John Nevin was finally laid to rest after the scandal in the morgue at the hospital with this short testimonial inserted in the press by his family and colleagues.

Obituary for Constable John Nevin, brother of photographer Thomas J. Nevin
Source: Tasmanian News (Hobart, Tas. : 1883 – 1911) Thu 18 Jun 1891 Page 2 LOCAL AND GENERAL


Obituary.—This morning the remains of Mr John Nevin, an old and well-respected Civil Servant were buried, he having died of fever in the Hospital yesterday. The deceased, who was 39 years of age, arrived here from Ireland when a child in arms. When 18 years of age he entered the Civil Service in the capacity of warder at the Cascade Asylum. After some years of service there he was appointed messenger at the gaol, which position be held up to the time of his death. He leaves no family, but a large circle of friends will hear of his death with regret.

1891: A Nervous Newspaper Reader

Sir,- Seeing so many of our worthy citizens being cut off by this fell disease, and fearing that I may be the next, I resolved to form myself into a committee of one, to inquire into the causes of this fearful evil. Choosing Sunday afternoon for my opportunity, I started away in the direction of Lower Collins-street, where the North Hobart creek joins the Hobart rivulet. Here I found a plentiful supply of stagnant water, wherein lay, in various stages of decomposition, dead cats, rats, and fowls. Near the junction, of Sackville-street and Park-street the tan bark told that the fell destroyer was doing his terrible work. I therefore hastened on to that portion of the creek where Short-street crosses it near Brisbane street. Here I found the seething liquor flowing lazily over old sugar bags, among which the usual quantum of dead cats and a dead goose or turkey lay rotting. Hastening on to that portion of the creek branching off to the west through the old Campbell street cemetery and up through the Chinese garden, I noticed that the smell from the creek was very sickening, there appearing to be large quantities of animal and vegetable matter decomposing therein. Here again the fell disease was in constant action, no less than six or seven cases having occurred within a few chains of this spot. Following the creek up I found that it percolated through a vast mass of roots of willow trees and debris lying between Elizabeth and Argyle streets ; passing up Queen-street I came across the same pestiferous sewer blocked with cabbage stalks and leaves, potato peelings, and something that smelt like night soil. Well, thought I, ’tis enough for one day. No wonder typhoid rages ; it would be a wonder if it did not. My next trip was along that sewer that leads up through Mr. Fred. Crisp’s mill, and in a parallel line with Elizabeth-street, crossing Patrick street and running through an open paddock, and I need only say that much of the former description applies to this. However a body of men calling them-selves a Board of Health can allow such an awful state of things to continue I cannot comprehend. Then, Sir, there are those street under-ground drains I believe they are as fruitful a cause of the disease as anything else you could name. The filth and refuse are carried down them and deposited in the beds of these drains ; and as there are no stench traps the sewer gas comes up and scatters death in all directions. You see we cannot get at them to wash them out as they should be. I believe in the cement or freestone dish surface drain : we can clean them. Then there is the city water supply system. I know of nothing more dangerous than the large quantities of sewer gas that get into the water in the mains. I am told that the Health Officer accounts for this by the fact of the water being turned off, causing frequent vacuity, which is doubtless the explanation to a great extent, but he does not allow for the fact that even if the pipes are full, and under any degree of pressure the sewer gas will get in and pollute the water even through watertight joints. In conclusion, I may say that if these parts of the city are allowed to remain as they are there will be plenty of typhoid.
Yours, etc., X.L.July 27.

Source online: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954)Wed 29 Jul 1891 Page 4

1891-1898: Mault’s Map of Notifiable Diseases
Mault’s map of Hobart, Tasmania indicated the location of diseases notified in 1898: typhoid is shown with a filled-in black dot; diphtheria with a blank circle; scarlatina with a blank circle vertically divided; and deaths of children under one year with a black cross.

“A typhoid epidemic led in 1891 to the establishment of the Metropolitan Drainage Board to improve the sewerage system for Hobart. This map was able to convince those who were opposed to the introduction of a levy how necessary it was”

Location of diseases notified in 1898 – Typhoid fever; Diphtheria; Scarlatina; and of deaths of children under one year of age by Mault, Alfred, 1829-1902, cartographer Date [1899].
View online

Author/Creator: Mault, Alfred, 1829-1902, cartographer
Publication: [Hobart, Tasmania] : [Government printer], [1899].
Physical description: 1 map : black ink on paper affixed to ; 37.2 x 31.4 cm within border on sheet 39.5 x 34 cm. + 1 manilla envelope ; 15.2 x 22.8 cm.
Notes: Title centred below map. “A. Mault” printed lower right on map and handwritten on front of envelope in a different hand. “A typhoid epidemic led in 1891 to the establishment of the Metropolitan Drainage Board to improve the sewerage system for Hobart. This map was able to comvince those who were opposed to the introduction of a levy how necessary it was”–
Explanatory note for exhibition.
Publishing information sourced from exhibition notes. Map affixed to brown paper backing. Alternate Title: Handwritten title on accompanying envelope: Health map, 1898. Location of diseases, 1898 Citation:
Digitised item from: Tasmaniana Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

1896: Royal Society of Tasmania
Epidemic Wave of Typhoid Fever
The health of Hobart : paper (with diagrams) read at a meeting of the Royal Society of Tasmania on the 28th May, 1896, and discussion thereon / by R. M. Johnston, F.L.S.
Physical description: 21 pages, [4] leaves of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm.

During the years 1887, 1888, 1889, and 1891, the City of Hobart, in common with the principal cities of Australia, was visited by a most severe and extraordinary epidemic wave of typhoid fever. Although, locally the General death-rate from all causes, and for all ages, was not materially increased above the years preceding the epidemic, still the mortality of persons in the prime of life, especially males between the ages of 20 and 35 years, was unusually large. The alarm caused by this severe visitation very naturally raised a keen enquiry into the sanitary condition of the city ; and many intelligent persons, believing that the epidemic was mainly or solely due to local causes, and particularly to defective drainage and other imperfect sanitary provisions, have since made vigorous and continuous demands for a drastic reform of our sanitary system. To aid in this praiseworthy endeavour, statistical comparisons with other Australian cities are by such persons frequently placed before the people with the object of showing that, but for our defective system of sanitation, the typhoid epidemic would not have appeared, or that its intensity, at least, would have been very much reduced. During the last three years, fortunately, the city has been free from typhoid in the epidemic form, and the death-rate from this and all other preventible causes have never been so low. Whatever may be the cause or combination of causes which, during the last three years, have raised the City of Hobart into a healthier state than that of any other period of its history, and have constituted it pre-eminently as among the healthiest cities of the world, it is obvious that local, artificial, or sanitary provisions have had very little to do with it, for a similar fall in preventible causes of death, if not so great, is distinctly traceable throughout Australia and Tasmania, generally during the same period, as shown in the following table:

Right click on to view large:
Source online:
The health of Hobart : paper (with diagrams) read at a meeting of the Royal Society of Tasmania on the 28th May, 1896, and discussion thereon / by R. M. Johnston, F.L.S.
Author/Creator: Johnston, R. M. (Robert Mackenzie), 1844-1918

Enthusiasts for reform or improvement of our local sanitary system, unfortunately, like all enthusiasts, are over prone to exaggeration, and many of them still continue to speak of the local sanitary condition and health as unexceptionally bad, and in both respects inferior to other Australian cities. These in-correct and unguarded statements have produced much alarm locally among: the naturally timid, and have done much harm to the reputation of the city as a health resort by scaring away visitors from other Colonies. The protest from our Premier, Sir Edward Braddon, against these inaccurate alarmist statements will, it is hoped, help to repress them, and draw attention to the fact already stated — viz., that during the last three years the city has never been in such a healthy condition, and that it now stands preeminently one of the healthiest cities in the world.

Although it is difficult to account for it, it is not the less true, that mistrust of statistics is very general. On all hands one hears the remark ” You can prove anything by figures.” “Figures can be made to lie.” But a similar retort can more justly be made to apply to all worded statements or arguments. The true and sufficient reply to this taunt is, ” Without accurate statistics or measures, you can know, compare, or prove nothing.” manipulating figures relating to currency, crops, tariffs, or causes of death.” Even then, in comparisons between different countries, he must he in possession of an up-to-date library of statistical reference, and be able by experience to determine readily good from bad authority, and have a wide knowledge of the best sources of information. The knowledge and exact signification of the current statistical terms are all essential ; for not a little confusion and conflicting opinion arise from misinterpretation of the true significance of terms in common use among statisticians. As the demonstration and acceptation of the truth of the statements made by me regarding the present healthy condition of Hobart largely depend upon clearly understanding the difference between a ” Total Death Rate” and a ” Health Standard Rate” ; in discerning and separating preventible causes of death from the non-preventible ; and in marking the difference, proportion, and effect which in age and sex determine a General Death Rate — quite apart from any consideration of health, — it is necessary at the outset that such preliminary remarks as have been made should be carefully weighed, and that a few simple illustrations should be given to enable the uninitiated to comprehend the difficulties of statistical comparison between different periods and different places, without which a true estimate cannot be formed of the comparative healthiness of different cities. No two cities, or two periods in the same place exactly, agree in the age or sex combination of their respective populations ; but, such is the remarkable influence ot these factors in the actual determination of a general death- rate that, unless such differences are strictly determined and allowed for, it is as likely as not that the healthiest period or the healthier place would be placed erroneously in the worst position, while the least healthy period or the least healthy city might appear erroneously in the best. The following illustration of the disturbing effect of great disproportion of numbers at different ages is taken from the two divisions of the Registration District of Hobart for the year 1894 :— * It is true that statistics are likely to be misinterpreted or mishandled by persons who lack the necessary knowledge of the subject to which they relate, or who lack training in statistical science. Almost everyone, however, thinks that he can understand figures, and easily read their true meaning. But the mere mathematical or arithmetical side of statistics, paradoxical as it may appear, plays a minor part in the statistical investigation of any subject. As Longstaff, the eminent statistician, well observes, ” The primary requisite is a logical mind and a sound logical training ; the second (and not less important) is a good general knowledge of the subject to which the figures under consideration relate. Only a chemist is likely to derive information from a new chemical experiment ; in like manner the statistician must be now a banker, now a farmer, now a merchant, now a doctor, according as he is …..

… Mr. W. F. Ward (Government Analyst) considered that Mr. Johnston’s paper could not fail to convince anyone who would take the trouble to read it carefully, that excluding the deaths of old people, which formed such a large proportion of the deaths, and the old must die, Hobart death-rate was lower than that of other Australasian cities. But even this was not sufficient to attract the attention of visitors, and so he suggested that the monthly statements might either be so modified as to emphasise every time the high rate from old age alone occurred, or that the vital statistics be published at longer intervals, with full details. The question, however, was not, he thought, so much one of figures as of the general health reputation of the place, and in this we had suffered somewhat, owing, in the first place, to a few conspicuous cases of diphtheria last summer, and in the second, to perhaps a greater degree, to a statement repeated again and again that the town smelt to quite an unusual extent ; that bad odours were, in fact, “frequent and painful and free,” the cause being the want of rain to wash the town. Now, the ordinary passer-by did not stop to investigate, but classed everything which offended his or her nostrils comprehensively as ” drains,” declaimed accordingly, and anticipated germs, although it might be no more than the powerful but harmless water in which a cabbage had been boiled. (Laughter and applause.) Yet the good name of the city suffered. (Hear, hear.) There was no necessary connection between bad smells and infectious diseases. Human beings could often, for long periods, eat, drink, and breathe more or less filth, and be apparently not much the worse until the specific germs are somehow introduced which then increase, multiply, and spread in the congenial soil, so that typhoid and diphtheria were known as “filth diseases.” It followed, therefore, that though offensive odours might in some cases be practically harmless, yet there was no reason why they should be tolerated if they could by any possibility be got rid of, and if enthusiasts had occasionally exaggerated their effects as well as the death-rate, yet enthusiasm carried most reforms, and had in this case great, if not full, justification. (Applause.)

Source online:
Source online:
Source online:

Photograph – Wardsmen at the Royal Hobart Hospital
Item Number PH30/1/9936
Series Miscellaneous Collection of Photographs. (PH30)
Start Date 01 Jan 1923
View online

Recent Books and Articles

COLLINS, Yolande and KIPPEN, Sandra A. 2003
The ‘Sairey Gamps’ of Victorian Nursing? Tales of Drunk and Disorderly Wardsmen in Victorian Hospitals between the 1850s and the 1880s
Health and History Vol. 5, No. 1 (2003), pp. 42-64

Source online:

KELLAWAY, RG 1989 , ‘The Hobart Typhoid Epidemic of 1887-88’ , Social Science and Medicine, vol. 29, no. 8 , pp. 953-958 .

Typhoid fever records for Hobart during the nineteenth century are examined and the summer of 1887/88 identified as the second year of a 5 year epidemic cycle. Three factors are used to explain the change from endemic to epidemic typhoid in the 1880s. Firstly, there was a sequence of hot, dry summers that affected water quality and the amount of water available for the cleansing of street gutters. Secondly, there were changes to the system of disposal of excrement from cesspits to poorly organised pail and single pan schemes which led to the casual disposal of sewerage in the street gutters. Thirdly the population increase of the 1880s followed 25 years of stagnation and led to overcrowding in existing, often deteriorated buildings and the placement of new dwellings on small internal allotments.

Source online:

MORAN, Frieda. 2018 ‘Poison in the Milk’: Typhoid, pure foods, adulteration and sanitation in Nineteenth-Century Tasmania [online]. Tasmanian Historical Studies, Vol. 23, 2018: 1-22.

In the autumn of 1880, an editorial in Launceston’s ‘Cornwall Chronicle’ noted that the ‘fair but dirty’ capital of the island colony was ‘”doing” another scare’. The cause was attributed to a ‘touch of typhoid’ with the suggestion ‘that the poison is in the milk’. Yet, the articled continued, Hobart ‘slumbers on in sanitary matters’. The editorial formed part of a heated exchange of words debating the connection between a recent typhoid outbreak and milk from a particular dairy. Although furiously contested by doctors, government officials, and concerned citizens, those involved were united in calling for increased government intervention and regulation. As one concerned citizen wrote, various perspectives expressed ‘the same sentiments in different language’, arguing that ‘the City Council or the Government are certainly responsible’, with a lack of regulation meaning that ‘Every one inclined to cheat and to poison… [could] do so with impunity’. The discussions around milk, typhoid, adulteration, contamination and sanitation played out in Tasmania’s newspapers, shaped by theories from overseas. The case reveals Tasmania to have been intimately connected to international sites through flows of ideas that shaped understandings of milk and food adulteration. Moreover, it is argued that this episode played a direct role in increasing government regulation and intervention, most notably in the making of the colony’s first broad legislation to protect food.

Source online:;dn=944697347141665;res=IELHSS;type=pdf

PETROW, S. 2013 (17:xii): Sanitary forum: The Royal Society of Tasmania and public health reform 1853–1911. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 147: 1–10.


Although by 1887 very few people doubted the efficacy of sanitary reform when it involved cleaning up the environment, Mault still found it hard going convincing Hobartians to accept the discharge of sewage into the River Derwent, but received encouraging support from the Royal Society when he delivered a paper on the topic in 1893 (Mault 1893). Support for sanitary reform was most certainly due to a series of typhoid epidemics that affected Hobart in 1887, 1888, 1889 and 1891 when the death of people in “the prime of life, especially males between the ages of 20 and 35 years, was unusually large” (Johnston 1896, p. 1). This resulted in the formation of pressure groups such as the Sanitary and General Improvement Association and the Women’s Sanitary Association to push for sanitary reform (Petrow 1995). But Johnston told the Royal Society in 1896 of a noticeable drop in deaths from preventable diseases like typhoid in 1894 and 1895. Johnston (1896, p. 13) asserted that this drop had little to do with “local, artificial, or sanitary provisions” and its low death-rate made Hobart “pre-eminently one of the most healthy cities in the world”. Johnston criticised sanitary “enthusiasts” for being “alarmists” who were “ever prone to exaggeration” and condemning the sanitation and health of Hobart as being “unexceptionally bad”, which scared away tourists and their much needed money.

Source online:

Nurses and Disasters
Global, Historical Case Studies
Edited by: Keeling, Arlene W., PhD, RN, FAAN
Wall, Barbra Mann, PhD, RN, FAAN Published June 2015

Hobart General Hospital nurse in uniform Elsie CAMERON
Item Number PH30/1/9862 Series Miscellaneous Collection of Photographs. (PH30)
Start Date 01 Jan 1896
Format photograph View online PH30-1-9862

Chapter 1: Typhoid Fever Epidemic, 1885 to 1887, Tasmania, Australia
DOI: 10.1891/9780826126733.0001

GREHAN, Madonna

In 19th century, Tasmania, an island 300 miles to the south of the Australian mainland, was one of Australia’s seven colonies. With many ports in this island colony, Tasmania was no stranger to infectious diseases. Unsurprisingly, typhoid was described as an “insidious foe”, because it was rather different from a natural disaster or other such calamity of scale. When typhoid was endemic in Hobart, mortality stood at around 15 cases per year. The nursing care of typhoid patients was constant; it required regular sponging, compressing, hydration, feeding, and recording the various treatments and stimulants given. Individuals with advanced typhoid could muster enormous reserves of strength, despite their delirium and underlying weakness. It is fair to say that Hobart General Hospital (HGH) had its fair share of administrative concerns during infectious disease challenges in the 1870s and 1880s, because the hospital failed to keep up with community expectations of health care.

Source online:


Automatic Disinfectant…
Unfailing Safeguard against Cholera, Diphtheria, Typhoid Fever, Scarlatina, Whooping Cough etc
Source online: Daily Telegraph (Launceston, Tas. : 1883 – 1928) Wed 25 Nov 1891 Page 1 Advertising

The Warwick St. Residence

Above: Thomas J. Nevin and family resided in this neighbourhood 1880s-1923
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
Title A view of Hobart, Domain and eastern shore taken from West Hobart
Item Number: NS1013/1/729
Start Date: 01 Jan 1900
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
Pretyman Family (NG1012) 17 Aug 1892

This view from Murray Street along Warwick Street, across Elizabeth Street and up the hill to Holy Trinity Church taken ca. 1898 might actually show Thomas Nevin with horse and cart out front of his residence at No. 82 Warwick St.

On the south side of Warwick St. at No. 82 was the residence of Thomas Nevin, his wife Elizabeth Rachel, and children – the house, garden and stables where he operated a coach and cartage business from late 1882 to ca. 1898. Alongside the house the cart path lead back around to the rear of the property formerly owned by George Augustus Robinson on Elizabeth St. The rear vegetable garden was laid over a filled-in creek known as the Pool of Aborigines in Robinson’s time because it was used for washing by the groups he confined on his property. The house and yard at No. 82 Warwick St. was originally part of George August Robinson’s 1836 grant on the south west corner of Elizabeth and Warwick Streets, purchased by George Salier and sold in lots in 1851. This house was built on Lot 6, purchased by Abraham Biggs who purchased another, Lot 2, from the same auction round the corner on Elizabeth St. (see Lowes’ Plan for Auction 1851 in this post). By June 1853, Thomas Nevin’s future mentor and family friend, photographer Samuel Clifford, was operating a grocer and tobacconist business built on Bigg’s Lot 2, advertised as No. 176 Elizabeth Street near Warwick Street and two doors from Ash’s Dispensary (now No. 248 Elizabeth Street). In 1853 Biggs was also building the properties further down at No’s 138-140 Elizabeth St. where Thomas Nevin conducted his commercial photographic practice from 1867-76 and Alfred Bock in the decade before him.

Above: detail of a photograph taken in 1890 of the common area behind the property where Thomas J. Nevin and family resided at No. 82 Warwick St. Hobart, 1885-1900. The house was built by Abraham Biggs on Lot 6 purchased in 1851 from the sale of George Augustus Robinson’s 1836 grant on the corner of Elizabeth and Warwick Sts. Robinson’s house, still standing here with its distinctive mansard roof, was demolished in 1894.

Detail of NS1013-1-522
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
Title: Hobart from from the intersection of Union Street and Devonshire Square, West Hobart, looking eastwards
Item Number: NS1013/1/522
Start Date: 01 Jan 1890
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
Creating Agency: Pretyman Family (NG1012) 17 Aug 1892

On Mault’s map (see above) of notifiable diseases in Hobart drawn in 1898, two cases of typhoid were notified originating from this creek known as the Pool of Aborigines back in G. A. Robinson’s time, together with one notified case of scarlatina, and one death of a child further along Elizabeth St. between Warwick and Patrick Streets. Three more cases of typhoid were identified in the same block on the Murray St. side of Warwick St.

Hypothetically, while tending her vegetable garden and watering her husband’s work horses at the creek behind No. 82 Warwick Street in these difficult years, Elizabeth Rachel Nevin might have come across various implements and utensils used decades earlier by the Tasmanian Aborigines confined on George Augustus Robinson’s property during the 1830s. By 1898, when the Nevins had moved from Warwick St. to the shop and residence at No. 236 Elizabeth St., the area behind No. 82 Warwick St which adjoined the rear of the property formerly owned by Robinson, was reported to run “about a ton of nettles and thistles to the acre” (Tasmanian News, 13 Nov 1900:2) and by 1907 the water course was described as an evil-smelling sewer (Daily Telegraph, 6 July 1907:9).

Rear of 82 Warwick Street Hobart Tasmania 7000
Offices of Morrison & Breytenbach Architects
Photos copyright © KLW NFC Imprint 2015

Area where the creek, pool and vegetables were located
No. 72 Warwick St, at rear of No. 82 Warwick St. Hobart, Tasmania
Photos copyright © KLW NFC Imprint 2015

The yard behind No’s. 82-84 Warwick St would have been used as stables and garden when Thomas Nevin and family occupied the property. No. 82 Warwick St. is now a modern office with glass frontage, but the back of the building shows its construction of sandstone dating back to the 1850s when Abraham Biggs built it.

If photographer Thomas Nevin’s dismissal from the position of Hall and Office Keeper at the Hobart Town Hall – and the concomitant removal of his family from the Hall Keeper’s apartment in December 1880 – had been a set up as revenge for reporting constables drunk on duty, who in turn reported him drunk and pretending to be a ghost terrorising the girls of the town in a white sheet, it did not deter him from working with the New Town Territorial Police as assistant bailiff and photographer using his New Town studio up to his retirement from professional photography in 1888, though there was the necessity of finding somewhere other than his father’s home to settle his large family. There was his father’s land grant of ten acres at Cradoc, south of Hobart, but neither Thomas nor his younger brother Jack showed any propensity for farming, so the land was sold to a member of the Genge family, in-laws of their father John Nevin’s second wife Martha Nevin formerly Salter nee Genge, daughter of his late friend Wesleyan lay-preacher William Genge. The family home and orchards at Kangaroo Valley occupied by John Nevin snr and family since 1854 sat on land belonging to the Trustees of the Wesleyan Church. With the death of John Nevin in 1887, and the resumption of the land by the Trustees of the Wesleyan Church, Thomas Nevin had to find suitable accommodation for his wife and five surviving children (Albert, born in 1888, was yet to take the number to six). He was possibly at his lowest ebb during those years they spent at No. 82 Warwick Street. His two sisters Rebecca Jane Nevin and Mary Ann Carr nee Nevin were dead, as were his parents John and Mary Ann Nevin nee Dickson. His only brother Jack now dying during the typhoid epidemic left him as the sole survivor of the original immigrant family. His niece Minnie Carr, daughter of his sister Mary Ann Carr nee Nevin who died soon after giving birth in 1878, had also recently died at just 20 yrs old. Despite these losses, in 1898 the family regrouped and settled at No. 236 Elizabeth Street where eldest son Tom “Sonny” Nevin managed a bootmaking business. Thomas with sons William and Albert then turned their attention to the fine art of training thoroughbreds.

Residences per MDB Plans 1907:

Source: Metropolitan Drainage Board City of Hobart
Detail Plan No. 16 Archives Office Tasmania 1907.

From south to north (right to left) running parallel off Elizabeth St. Hobart – Brisbane St., Patrick St. and Warwick St., the two key city blocks in the adult life of Thomas Nevin. The site of his studio and residence, formerly numbered No’s 138-140 Elizabeth St. three doors down from Patrick St. (looking south towards the wharves) is now numbered No. 198 Elizabeth St., and the home of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. The properties at No’s. 244 – 254 were built on George Augustus Robinson’s land grant (See Sprent’s map of 1841). Third from the corner, the original Robinson house, was demolished in 1894. Further down Elizabeth St. (looking from north to south towards the wharves) at the row of adjoining houses, No.236 was the shop and residence of Thomas Nevin’s family and bootmaking business by 1898 of his son Thomas “Sonny” J. Nevin, given his father’s same name at birth. The family remained there until ca. 1900.

Thomas Nevin’s residence at No. 82 Warwick St. Hobart ca. 1882-1898
Thomas Nevin’s residence at No. 270 Elizabeth St. Hobart ca.1900-1923
Detail of photograph ca. 1900
View of Hobart looking South east from the top of Murray Street
Item Number: PH30/1/165
Archives Office of Tasmania

Influenza pandemic of 1919
Thomas Nevin’s final move ca. 1900 with wife Elizabeth Rachel and four of his adult children was no further than half a block away, to the house and rear yard at No. 270 Elizabeth Street, a few doors north of Claremont House. Built originally on John Mezger’s grant in 1838 on the north-west corner of Elizabeth and Warwick Streets, across from G. A. Robinson’s grant on the same side, Claremont House was numbered No. 256 Elizabeth St. on the 1907 Metropolitan Drainage Board map and demolished in 1911 to make way for the new Elizabeth Street Practicing School.

Thomas’ wife Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day, died at No. 270 Elizabeth St. in 1914. With the onset of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, Elizabeth St. Practising School was converted to an influenza hospital. Thomas Nevin, now a widower, found himself once again in close quarters with a lethal disease practically at his doorstep.

Right click for large view
The Tasmanian Mail Illustrated Section
Influenza Hospital in Elizabeth St.
Published date: 28 August 1919 page 1
Photographs by W. Williamson

Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin’s eldest daughter, dressmaker Mary Florence Elizabeth Nevin, known to all as May, 50 years old and to all appearances not married, cared for her father in his last years at No. 270 Elizabeth St. until his death in 1923. On his passing, the adult children moved to Nos. 23-29 Newdegate St. North Hobart, the property they would occupy for the next thirty years with its two residences, stables, creek, and vegetable gardens, all except the eldest, Tom (T. J. Nevin jnr), known as Sonny, who was married by 1907 and living in California by 1920 and their youngest daughter Minnie who married James Drew, also in 1907. The residence at No. 270 Elizabeth St. was demolished in 1964 to make way for the Elizabeth College, now numbered as 256-278 Elizabeth St. Hobart, Tasmania. The old school building erected in 1911 still stands though not visible from the street. As shown in the photographs taken by W. Williamson in 1919, it had an entrance in Warwick St. as well as Elizabeth St. Hobart.

Caption: ” A group of Hobart boys idling in the streets owing to the schools being closed”
Schools closed due to the influenza pandemic, Hobart 1919
The Tasmanian Mail
Published date: 4 September 1919 page 3$init=1308497

The caption “a group of Hobart boys” ignored the fact that at least two of these ragged children were girls. Behind them, cinema posters on the wall advertised silent drama films starring glamorous Hollywood heroines – All Nazimova in Revelation (1918) showing at The Strand, Liverpool St. Hobart and Fannie Ward in Cry of the Weak (1919) showing at His Majesty’s, both running sessions in August 1919. The schools were closed, but not it seems were the cinemas.

RELATED POSTS main weblog