The Bubonic plague which started in 1894 China was first identified in Cape Town in 1901 when a dock worker, E.A. McCallum was admitted to the Rondebosch and Mowbray Cottage Hospital as suffering from the plague. The source was among the rats in the stored horse fodder which had arrived from South America, to be used by the British Cavalry fighting in the Boer War. Within a few weeks 38 cases had been identified.
Initially those in contact with the plague were housed in tents on the beach and in Ebenezer Road. However, the government was not a happy with the progress made by the local municipalities and took over co-ordinating the response to the plague. The Public Works Department erected a wood and iron hospital, The Uitvlugt Plague Hospital, on the farm Uitvlugt, with tents and marquees used as contact camps for those in isolation. The tents were protected by a wire fence, to prevent the occupants from having contact with others. The tents were situated adjacent to the Imperial Yeomanry Camp Hospital which was on Mackenzie’s Farm.
As there was a shortage of suitable medical staff, the Colony recruited 20 nurses and six “medical men” from England. One of the nurses that volunteered was Emily Blake who arrived on the Tantallon Castle in Table Bay on 7th May 19 in thick fog. The ship ran aground in the mid-afternoon on the northwest of Robben Island. Although the thick fog hampered efforts, 120 passengers including Emily were taken off by lifeboat. This resulted in fog horns being placed on Robben Island, Mouille Point and Dassen Island.
Another volunteer, Ella Maria Keyser was assigned to the Uitvlugt Plague Hospital on 9 February to look after E. McCullum, the first diagnosed case. A month later she was made matron. Her sister Nurse Minnie Keyser joined her and both were inoculated. Minnie showed signs of the plague on 18 March and died five days later. Ella had a violent reaction to the inoculation resulting in her death on April 16. In all, eight nurses and one doctor, Dr. Dunlop, died from the plague while serving at the Uitvlugt Plague Hospital. Dr. Dunlop died in November after conducting a post-mortem without gloves. All nine are buried in one area in the Maitland Cemetery.
When Rudyard Kipling stayed in Cape Town, he visited the Uitvlugt Plague Hospital and was moved by the deaths of the sisters to write a poem: Dirge of Dead Sisters” in his book “The Five Nations”. Part of it reads:
Yet their graves are scattered, and their names are clean forgotten
Earth shall not remember but the waiting angels know
Them that died at Uitvlugt when the plague was on the City
Her that fell at Simon’s Town in service on our foes.
The last civilian case was diagnosed on 21st October 1901. The Uitvlugt Plague Hospital eventually closed at the end of 1901. Elderly Cape Town residents were moved into the empty huts. In 1916, Valkenberg Hospital acquired some of the huts. The remaining huts continued as a medical centre for Ndabeni. In March 1938 the few remaining elderly residents were transferred to the new Conradie hospital.
The abandoned huts remained as ruins on the outskirts of Pinelands except for the superintendent’s wood and iron home at the top of Woodside Drive which became the office for the Pinelands Bus Company and was renamed Halfway house.