Set on a picturesque headland overlooking the harbour, Sydney’s quarantine station housed close to 16,000 people from 1835 to 1984. it served as a holding station for passengers on inbound ships to New South Wales arriving from well-known hotspots for contagious diseases. Interned for diseases that terrified the community, people held in quarantine left their mark on the local sandstone – or on forlorn headstones. These inscriptions remain a lasting legacy of Australia’s maritime past and immigration history.
More than 570 people died there. By the early 1880s the existing Quarantine Station cemeteries were overcrowded, produced offensive smells and were suspected of contaminating the water supply.
The third quarantine cemetery was established in 1881 for victims of a smallpox outbreak which lasted through until 1882. It was later used for victims of the bubonic plaque outbreak in 1900 and the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. The graves were dug 10 feet (3 metres) deep and the burials covered with lime as an extra precaution against the spread of disease. The cemetery was closed in 1925 and is thought to contain 241 graves.
For over 100 years it served as the gatekeeper between potentially sick immigrants – as well as some sick residents – and the colony and country beyond. Of those who went in, some recovered and were released, while others never made it out. During those years the soft sandstone that the station sat on served as a permanent diary as patients who had arrived from all corners of the world began carving unique messages and images into the surrounding rock
In 2006 the cemetery was added to Australia’s National Heritage List in recognition of the important role the North Head Quarantine Station played in the establishment of the colony of NSW and the evolution of quarantine practices in Australia.
At his talk at our museum on Saturday, 4th August, Peter Hobbins, a co-author of the book “Stories from the Sandstone”, will convey the compelling personal stories of lives lived not just in despair, but also in hope for the future.