Sydney’s Hidden Gem

About two hundred years ago, the island nation known as the colony of New South Wales, was relatively defenceless against ship born diseases. Medical science was struggling to understand what the diseases were and where they came from. Often convict ships arrived with sick passengers and because of the overcrowding and cramped unhygienic conditions, they were spread amongst the passengers easily which resulted in a serious threat to the colony’s existence when they disembarked.

The Need for Quarantine.

This problem was highlighted in 1828 when a ship – the Bussorab Merchant arrived with most of the passengers sick from smallpox. Convict ships like this one, only needed an informal command from the Governor to place her in quarantine.  However the increasing shipping trade and the arrival of many free settlers that followed in the 1830’s, meant that diseases were an increasing risk. So in 1932 a formal statutory regulation for quarantine in NSW was passed.  Under this regulation, people arriving in Sydney with a disease were initially held on board the ships in which they arrived, but this was dispensed with after the experience with a particularly long and costly detention of the Lady Macnaghten in 1837. After that time,  the sick were housed ashore while the ship was fumigated and scoured for return to the owner with the minimum delay and cost to the government.

A Permanent Arrangement

So a decision was made to construct permanent accommodation and stores and other buildings on the North Head. Those arriving with a sickness were kept there until they were passed the time of contagion for their particular disease. Some of course, never left and are buried in the cemetery at the station.

The Problems with Travel

Today, with luxury cruise ships with big motors and satellite  navigation its hard for us to imagine the difficulties faced by people travelling on ships in this period. One NSW review from this time, said there was insufficient checks of the health of the boarding emigrants; there was insufficient concern with diet during the voyage, especially for the needs of children; and that the formula of three children equalling one adult when allocating food and berth space required change. Finally, it said that the surgeon-superintendent aboard ship required more authority to regulate and promote good health and good order among the emigrants. A following reorganisation of the system meant after this time all passengers were interviewed and had medical checks before they were allowed onboard; they were vaccinated for smallpox and improvements in diet and hospital accommodation aboard meant less overcrowding and fewer health issues.

The result was the mortality rate decreased dramatically. By the 1840’s the death rate for children, for example, fell from one in ten to one in seventeen. The rate of quarantine declarations also fell. In 1839, there were three ships out of 43 needing quarantine. In the following year only one out of 40 ships arriving needed quarantine.

Things Stop for a While.

As a result of an economic recession in the colony, immigration was at a standstill from 1842 until 1848, and only one ship was quarantined in this six year period. However the arrival of the ship Beejapore in 1853, with over one thousand passengers changed things considerably. The Beejapore was an experiment in trying to reduce migration costs by using two-deck vessels. Fifty-five people died during the voyage, and a further sixty two died at the Quarantine Station, from the illnesses of measles, scarlet fever and typhus. At that time the Quarantine Station could only accommodate 150 people so the majority of the passengers and crew had to be housed in tents. 

The Moral Issues

Another issue at the station was a concern for the morals of women at the station with 200 single women “let loose in the bush”. So, besides the use of a hospital ship for the sickest patients, a barracks for the single women was constructed, surrounded by a double fence, with a sentry stationed between the fences.

With the ebb and flow of quarantine requirements, the station when through several phases of neglect where the low occupancy meant the buildings deteriorated through to rebuilding phases where the facilities expanded. In the 1870’s when the first class passengers found the accommodation to be inadequate, com[laints were made and new facilities were built especially to house them.

Improvements Over Time.

The Commonwealth took control of the station after 1909 and they tried to diversify the quarantine operations to other areas such as Albany in Western Australia, Melbourne and Thursday Island in Queensland. However with improvements in shipping and medical science in the 20th century, the need for quarantine decreased dramatically. So much so that in the post war immigration period, when 700,000 people arrived in Sydney only four ships required quarantine facilities and at least one of those was a tanker. 

Today the Quarantine Station is a heritage-listed attraction including a hotel complex, some restaurants and some out buildings from former times. The station is an extensive collection of old buildings rather than a high rise hotel you find in the rest of Sydney. A 24 hour mini bus service takes you to and from your room or to the restaurants or to the reception area near the carpark. So you are like to stay in a heritage listed building for your accommodation. You may find yourself in the first class quarters or the single womens barracks or even the hospital area. However, what you find today and what the passengers experienced last century is two different things. You can still visit the old shower block, the old laundry, and the decontaminations rooms.

North head is situated at the entry to Sydney Harbour. The Quarantine Station is on the western side of North Head, on the natural amphitheatre of land above Quarantine beach. The beach area can be reached by ferry from Manly and there is a museum and a cafe adjacent to the ferry terminal for those who are desperate for coffee or tea and stories from the past.

From the grounds of the hotel on the top of a large sandstone bluff there are extensive views of the harbour, the city and the Manly area. To get there from the ferry terminal requires a walk up the long staircase or a bus ride on the hotel mini bus. The phone to call for the free bus is on the wall of one of the buildings there.

A day or two stay in the hotel can be a great break from the hustle and bustle that is Sydney. You might also meet some of the locals.

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