The Point Nepean Quarantine Station
At the tip of Point Nepean, south of Melbourne, is a sprawling reminder of a less advanced era; the city’s former Quarantine Station, where many thousands of sick people were interred on arrival.
The ‘Ticonderoga’ was a 19th century sailing ship, a clipper, built and outfitted in Liverpool, England.
In early 1852 the ship’s owner, Thomas Boyle, won a contract to carry 795 immigrants from Great Britain to Australia. To accommodate such a large number of passengers, the ship had two decks, an upper and a lower.
The upper deck was reserved for the better off passengers, and had the crew’s quarters, a hospital, and featured ablution facilities that emptied directly into the ocean. The lower deck had budget lodgings, and no toilets, beyond bedpans.
Nevertheless, the ship met the regulations of the day, and was even considered above average, in terms of health, safety and provisioning.
The Ticonderoga set sail on August 4, 1852.
The ship’s captain, Charles Ferguson, followed the standard route for such a voyage.
This took the Ticonderoga south from England, down the west coast of Africa, around the horn at its southern tip, and then on towards the coast of Australia. The most direct route for this last part of the trip was south east, through the Southern Ocean.
But by the time the ship reached the final leg, it was already in bad shape.
Disease broke out on the less hygienic lower deck about a fortnight into the voyage; passengers began to suffer from fever, diarrhea and vomiting. It was determined by the ship’s doctor to be an outbreak of typhoid, a highly infectious, often fatal illness, with no known treatment at the time.
The first death was recorded on August 23.
As the ship ploughed through the icy Southern Ocean, conditions on board dramatically worsened.
The ship was hit with unrelenting bad weather; storms, rain, and wind, that forced the passengers to huddle together below decks, and further enabled the spread of disease. The ship’s doctor became ill, and the crew refused to clean the lower deck any longer.
But the end of October, more than 300 passengers were afflicted.
The Ticonderoga reached the heads of Port Phillip Bay, on the outskirts of Melbourne, on November 1, 1852. During the 90 days at sea, more than 100 people had died.
By this time, word of the plight of the passengers had been carried ahead by other ships that encountered the Ticonderoga at sea. The local authorities sent a small vessel to meet the Ticonderoga, and ordered it to weigh anchor just inside the heads, to prevent the spread of disease into the city proper.
This was a hasty, ad hoc measure, and so disorganised that the passengers were disembarked directly onto the beach. Passengers spent several days sleeping rough, some referring to the location subsequently as 'Fever beach'. Eventually tents, supplies, and medical staff arrived from Melbourne.
Storehouses belonging to Patrick Sullivan, a local brick maker, were taken over by the authorities, and used to house the sick. And, as many of the Ticonderoga’s passengers were tradesmen, the able bodied were soon employed erecting additional buildings.
The initial ‘quarantine zone’ was marked with paint and flags:
‘I examined and marked off sufficient space for the quarantine ground, and erected two flags thirty feet high. I caused a number of trees to be marked with white paint as a temporary boundary line and intimated the same to all persons there. The space selected as quarantine ground is marked with red lines in the accompanying outline of the coast.’
- Captain Ferguson.
Victoria’s first quarantine station had been established. It would endure for 128 years.
The Ticonderoga would remain in quarantine for 6 weeks, during which time the ship was emptied, cleaned and fumigated. 68 additional people died during this time.
The story was heavily covered by the local press, and was so well known that the area where the ship anchored would be renamed ‘Ticonderoga Bay’.
The same month, the Victorian Government formerly established the Quarantine Station, and laid down the guidelines for its operation. By April of the following year, additional buildings at the site were under construction, including barracks, and a hospital.
Subsequent construction – a jetty, a cookhouse, and storehouses – were added over the next two decades. By 1875, all of the principal buildings of the station were complete.
Meanwhile, debate continued as to whether the station should be continued.
The expense of maintaining such a large facility, at some distance form Melbourne, was frequently cited as a reason to close the station. Proposals were put forth to quarantine sick arrivals on ships in the bay – a cheaper if less healthy alternative – or to simply refuse them permission to land.
Cost cutting measures were enacted, including the removal of permanent medical officers from the station. During this period, doctor’s that arrived on stricken ships were required to provide all formal medical treatment at the site.
Compounding the issue was that the station frequently sat empty. There were often stretches of time when no disease was recorded on ships entering Melbourne, and the facility went unused.
For those that were interred at the station, a kind of dull monotony quickly set in.
Inmates spent the days sitting on the verandas of the wooden barracks, reading, or watching the ocean. People who were well enough were free to walk on the beach, or swim:
‘The attraction par excellence is undoubtedly that portion of the beach within the precincts of the quarantine ground. A stroll along the beach, overhung with towering and cruel looking cliffs, is extremely interesting. Here are to be seen relics of at least one wreck; the ironwork of some ill-fated vessel, and strewn about are other grim trophies of storm and sea.’
‘Life In Quarantine’, The Argus, February 1897.
The accommodation at the station remained basic.
Second class passengers arriving in 1897 were surprised to find no dining area had been set up for them, and that they were required to take their supper in a kind of storage room (the first-class passengers, of course, had no such concern). And shortages of necessities – drinking water, soap, linen – was an ongoing problem.
But perhaps the worst issue of all was boredom.
Unable to leave, far from the city, and held from the business of their daily lives, people under the yellow flag of quarantine were simply required to sit and wait. This net even trapped people with no symptoms, who were probably not unwell. Even a clean bill of health for a well patient took around two months to be confirmed.
The final buildings added to the complex were the superintendents house – a smart, sizeable residence on a hill overlooking the bay – and a modern disinfecting station, both built around the turn of the century.
The disinfecting equipment was state of the art, and consisted of a large scale ‘oven’ and rail delivery system. Patients would be sent to the disinfecting area on first arrival, discard their clothes and luggage, which would then be run through the oven and heated, to destroy bacteria.
These improvements were the last undertaken by the state government; in October 1901, Australia’s new Federal government would assume control of the facility.
In 1917, as the First World War began to turn towards an Allied victory, a particularly virulent strain of influenza was recorded in France.
By the following year the illness, later dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’ amidst confusion as to its origin, had erupted into a full blown pandemic.
It would eventually engulf the entire globe – cases were recorded even on isolated Pacific islands – and cause between 50 and 100 million deaths, many more fatalities than the war that had just ended.
The first ship arriving in Australia with confirmed cases was the ‘Mataram’, which docked in Darwin in October 1918.
Melbourne’s quarantine station would see its busiest time, as local authorities attempted to contain the spread of the disease. 12 temporary wooden bunkhouses (shown above, bottom left) were erected at the site, to cater for passengers, many of them returning soldiers, who showed symptoms.
At the peak of the pandemic, several thousand people were interred at the station.
But just as rapidly as the pandemic started, it petered out again. By the end of 1919, Spanish Flu cases had dropped to negligible levels, on the back of rapid deployment of a vaccine, and the isolation of the afflicted.
Across the 20th century, the Quarantine Station would also be used for a variety of other purposes, to utilise the site when no sick people were present.
In the first decade of the century, it would be used as a summer school by the Victorian Department of Education.
‘The school this year was held in the quarantine grounds of Point Nepean, where splendid airy dormitories lie through the year happily unused; where there are fine buildings for lecture-halls – everything that student or tourist can desire. The spot is in all senses ideal. No fewer than two hundred and fifty of the state school teachers.’
- The Weekly Times, report, 1910.
Later in the century, the site would be co-occupied by the Army, which already used Point Nepean as a rifle range and training ground.
In 1952, a Cadet Training School was established at the station, which was used to train future Army officers. The defence department later constructed barracks on the high ground at the northern end of the facility, where several hundred troops lived during their training.
The Cadet School ran until 1984, when it was re-located to Canberra.
In 1970, a new international airport was opened at Tullamarine, north of Melbourne, which brought higher numbers of international visitors to the city.
At the time, part of entry requirements for Australia was a recent vaccination against smallpox. Any air arrivals found not in compliance with this regulation were sent to the quarantine station, much as ships arrivals suspected of typhoid had been done, 120 years before.
But this was to be the last of the station’s quarantine related functions.
In 1980, with the site largely disused, the Commonwealth closed the Quarantine Station, and returned the property to control of the Victorian Government. It was converted into a National Park and thrown open to the public, with a museum established in the remaining buildings.
In 2014, the Victorian Liberal Government approved a redevelopment proposal for the site, that would have seen the quarantine station privatised and turned into a health spa.
Many of the historic buildings were to be removed, and replaced with luxury accommodation, restaurants and a conference centre.
Amid community outcry, and organised protests, the project was placed on hold after approval. It was later abandoned after a change of Government in the state election that year.
The incoming Labor government later announced that part of the site would be turned over to Melbourne University, who planned to build an Oceanographic Study Institute on part of the property.
Work on this has not yet commenced. When visiting the site a few weekends ago, I was struck by the lost feeling of the place. History hangs tangibly on the empty buildings, the vacant corridors, the picturesque beach. Long may it continue to do so.