Peter Hobbins is an historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Sydney (who has recently written an entry for the Dictionary on naturalist JS Bray – stay tuned for that one!). For the last three years, he has been part of the team working on the University’s Quarantine Project which has been recording the many carvings and paintings made in the rock by people held at the Manly Quarantine Station at North Head over its history.
The book Peter has written with archaeologist colleagues Ursula Frederick and Annie Clark about the stories they’ve uncovered during the project, Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past, has just been released and Peter came in to the studio to talk to Nic about the project and the history of the Quarantine Station.
The Quarantine Station these days is known to many people more as a ghost hunting area rather than an historical landmark, but it has a long and fascinating past. North Head became a Quarantine Station in 1835 and operated that way until 1984 when it was turned over to the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The Station was very active until the 1930s when the number of people who needed to be quarantined dropped dramatically. It wasn’t the case that every person who arrived in Sydney had to be automatically quarantined, and unlike places like Ellis Island in New York City, it wasn’t an immigration processing centre, where you had to go on arrival and wait for permission to enter the country. Rather, if there had been an infection on your mode of transportation, whether that was a ship or later a plane, anybody who’d been sick or in the vicinity was taken to North Head for treatment and/or observation.
There were real peaks of activity at the Quarantine Station, reflecting the waves of immigration. The 1830s were very busy, then a slower period as immigration dropped off in the 1840s, a boom in the 1850s as people joined the gold rush, another peak in the 1870s, and then, in 1881 & 1901, a different kind of quarantine occurred as residents of Sydney were forcibly sent to the Quarantine Station because of epidemics in the city. Altogether about 16,000 people were quarantined at North Head in the 150 year period that the station was in operation.
Over this time there were roughly 600 burials on the site. Although there were this many deaths, the Quarantine Station was not really a place of mourning – it was hard to get to, and if you knew somebody who had died there, you had to ask for official permission to visit the grave (and risk catching an infectious disease while you were there). There were three distinct cemeteries at the station. The precise location of the First Cemetery is unknown as it was covered up in the 1850s, and the other two were neglected to the point where it is difficult to find remaining headstones but some do still exist which you can still visit.
The Quarantine Project team have spent the last three years looking for and documenting the carvings made in the rocks over the last 150 years by those people who had been quarantined. The inscriptions they’ve found include initials, pictures and often detailed panels with frames and names or pictures of ships and words about people who’d been on board. In all they’ve found over 1600 inscriptions, and the book relates just a few of the stories they have uncovered through their research.
Originally, there would have been more inscriptions of course than those the team have been able to document. Sandstone is easy to carve, which means it also crumbles easily and the salt laden air of the coast has been an element in the erosion of many inscriptions. When the Station was active, it was also in a fairly constant state of development as new buildings and facilities were needed, so many carvings would have been destroyed or covered up, and since 1984 when the site became a National Park, there has also been a lot of revegetation covering the remaining carvings.
So there could definitely be more out there waiting to be discovered!
An historian’s usual sources are in archives and libraries where documents and records are neatly bundled up and stored on a shelf, well away from their original physical context. These records are in situ, and you can stand exactly where the person who did the carving stood, imagining what they were going through as they made a very physical record of their existence in that place.
To find out more of the stories behind these stone records, get your copy of the book and head out to the Quarantine Station to explore the site yourself.
Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past can be ordered online and in stores now.