The Hong Kong Plague, 1894-95
Whilst the 1st Battalion of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry was stationed in Hong Kong, the colony was hit by a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague - the notorious "Black Death" which had ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages.
Thousands of people had already died of the disease as it swept across mainland China and approx. 3,500 were to die in Hong Kong before the epidemic faded away.
The 1st KSLI in Hong Kong 1892 - 95
The Battalion had been made up to approx. 1,000 officers and men by the time the plague broke out in May 1894.
Disinfecting houses during the Plague
When the plague broke out, volunteers were called for to work on plague relief. Approx. 600 men of 1 KSLI served at various times. The work was unpleasant in the extreme - searching narrow backstreets and overcrowded houses for plague victims, tending the sick in makeshift isolation hospitals and disinfecting the houses and streets with chloride of lime and whitewash.
"The Whitewash Brigade" - Soldiers of 1 KSLI disinfecting "plague houses".
One of the most unpleasant tasks faced by the volunteers was the location and removal of the dead, searching dark houses and carrying away the bodies to be buried in mass graves.
The volunteers of the KSLI lived in quarantine in separate tented camps and were given extra rum rations to help them cope with the work.
Remarkably, only one officer (Capt. G. C. Vesey) and nine men of the regiment fell ill with the disease and only Capt. Vesey and one man actually died of the plague.
The contribution of the KSLI in fighting the plague was greatly appreciated by the local community and the regiment was given gifts of all kinds. Shown is the silver shield recording the names of the Non Commissioned Officers who served as plague volunteers. It now hangs in Shrewsbury Castle.
Other items of Chinese silverware were also given to officers and to the officers' mess. Some of this is also on display in the Regimental Museum.
Officers of the battalion during the Hong Kong plague, Capt G.C. Vesey (who died of the disease) is seated in the front row, third from the left. Standing, second from left, back row, is Capt. Welman, whose gold Hong Kong plague medal is displayed in the Regimental Museum.
A grateful Hong Kong community paid for the manufacture and presentation of a special "Plague Medal" to all who had volunteered their services. These included local doctors, nurses, colonial administrators, civilians and men drawn from the garrison. A few were awarded to men of the Hong Kong Police, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Navy, but the largest number went to the KSLI.
The Other Ranks received the medal in silver (approx. 600 to the battalion) and Officers in gold. Only about 42 gold medals were awarded in total.
Hong Kong Plague medal in gold : obverse
The dramatic obverse shows a soldier or doctor fending off the figure of Death, whilst a nurse, symbolic of Charity, tends a Chinese victim of the plague.
There is no surviving complete roll of the recipients of the medal, but see "The Whitewash Brigade" by Platt, Jones and Platt (DNW, London, 1998) for a very full account of the plague, the medal and its recipients.
Since the medal was unofficial (i.e. not derived from the monarch or British government) the volunteers were allowed to keep the award as a commemoration of their services but were not allowed to wear it in uniform. For this reason, many are found converted and adapted e.g. to wear as brooches or as watch-fobs.
The Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury castle has a fine collection of the Plague Medal - in all its manifestations.