Saturday, 31 August 2013

Rat Plague in Western Queensland

In September 1950, The Northern Miner reported that rats had begun to invade Julia Creek in ‘rather large numbers’.  It stated that for some time prior to this, reports had been coming in from the country areas that rats were very numerous, and now they had reached the town of Julia Creek.  A report from Muttaburra in January 1951 stated that ‘hundreds of starving rats are invading homes and gardens at flood-bound Muttaburra’ and that residents there were ‘killing an average of 15 to 20 rats a day in their homes or backyards’.

A mob of sheep on Eddington Station, near Julia Creek, Queensland.
Image:  State Library of Queensland.

My late Grandmother Evelyn Wilder told me her memories of the rat plague on a sheep station near Julia Creek in 1951:

“I went out west with Al in 1951 when he went back shearing.  To Quambetook Station in the Julia Creek district.  I was going to cook for the shearers.  I wasn’t feeling too good at the time, because I was pregnant with our second child.  I remember getting there this first night in a hard-backed old lorry.  I heard this dreadful noise as I got off the truck.  I said, ‘what’s that noise?’  Nobody answered me, but it was rats.  Hordes and hordes of rats - millions of them.  Somebody said there was a rat plague.  All I’d ever seen was plagues of grasshoppers.  What a shock I was in for!  Those rats were about a foot long.  Every step you took you had to kick them out of the way.  It was horrible.  It was impossible for me to sleep at night.  I’d look over and see Al sleeping, and the rats were on his face, chewing on him and he was sleeping through the lot.  I’d wake him up and say, ‘the rats are chewing you’.  He’d say, ‘go to sleep’.  I said, ‘I can’t sleep, we’ve got a baby here, they’ll chew her’.  I wasn’t game to sleep, you see.  So I got to be a nervous wreck.

The rats would chew through everything.  They’d get in the pantry - it didn’t matter that it was locked up - they chewed through boards and everything to get to the stuff in the pantry.  All night long you’d hear peas and other stuff dropping.  You know, they used to get into the bread.  They would get right inside of it and there’d be nothing left of it next day.  You’d get up in the morning and there’d be no food in the pantry.  Of course, I was supposed to cook for the men – prepare five meals a day, seven days a week.  And there was no refrigeration on Quambetook in those days.  The going was very tough with 120 degree heat.  We had canvas water bags to cool off the water. 

In the end we put a piece of tin up, so they couldn’t get into the pantry.  We had a bit of peace after that.  I’ve never seen rats like them.  They used to shriek and squeal, it was indescribable.  In the end, the baby got very sick.  We had to get the Ambulance out and we went in to the hospital at Julia Creek.  After that I brought her home (to Townsville).  She was on a diet for a long time of dry toast and Vegemite.  I think it was the rats.  I’ve never seen anything like that and never want to again.  They’d eat the country out as they went along. The rats were like a carpet, all the rats going along.”
The Nothern Miner, 30 September 1950, p. 3.
Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 21 January 1951, p. 1.
Townsville Daily Bulletin, 4 July 1950, p. 2.
Interview with Evelyn Wilder, private collection of Trisha Fielding.