phase 1 - establishment of the Quarantine Station - 1835 to 1838

When the Quarantine Station was first established it was a makeshift and uncomfortable place to be. In 1835, 230 passengers and crew were housed in six bell tents and two larger tents. By 1837, 295 healthy people were crowded into 36 tents in the heat of summer. A wharf and four or five buildings were eventually erected, but the buildings themselves proved to be insufficient - people still had to sleep in tents. The operation was still relatively inefficient.

phase 2 - the Quarantine Station: immigration phase: 1839 to 1872

In 1847 immigration increased again and more buildings including kitchens, bathrooms and a hospital were constructed. By 1853 the Quarantine Station could accommodate 150 people, however, it received one thousand passengers at a time and a new building expansion was required.

In the 1860s to 1870s the world economy slowed down, slowing immigration and the need for quarantine operations and associated maintenance. Due to the lack of maintenance when the 1881 Smallpox epidemic hit Sydney and resulted in local residents being quarantined, complaints about run down facilities and draconian processes resulted in a Royal Commission.

phase 3 - the Quarantine Station: immigration phase - class definition: 1873-1880

The last part of the 'Immigration Phase' created class definition within the Quarantine Station. Wealthy and well-connected passengers who had purchased first class cabins on ships demanded equivalent standards in quarantine. They used their connections with very senior government people and the media to openly criticize the operation and to demand building, facility and service improvements; especially the introduction of class based accommodation, facilities, food, recreation facilities and freedoms.

phase 4 - the Quarantine Station: board of health phase: 1880-1909

Tents circa 1900

After the Royal Commission and the establishment of a Board of Health, the Quarantine Station was dramatically upgraded. Finally the operation was able to cope with the number of passengers. At the same time the link between disease and sanitation had been made, so health standards began to improve and the prevalence and impact of common diseases was reduced.

phase 5 - the Quarantine Station: federal phase: 1910-1950

Staff Circa 1935

In 1909 the Commonwealth government took over responsibility for the Quarantine Station and introduced the biggest upgrade the Quarantine Station had ever seen. This resulted in the Station reaching its maximum capacity of accommodation - 1,200 people. The upgrades also saw the construction of most of the brick industrial buildings still present today.

Ironically, even with all the upgrading, the capacity of the Quarantine Station was vastly over-stretched for one last time during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Doctor Jeffrey and Sister Hargreaves, both part of the medical team which treated influenza victims, were lucky enough to survive, but five of their fellow nursing staff died. As a memorial to the two an engraving was carved by William Kennedy, an amateur artist. The final irony is that having at last established a large and efficient operation, the Quarantine Station was never used to its maximum capacity again.

The success of public health measures and the improvements in medical science are shown by the fact that only two deaths occurred at the Quarantine Station after 1919; and from 1921 to 1975 there were only 55 ships quarantined, and only three between 1950 and 1975.

While quarantines diminished, the Station was still kept busy fumigating cargoes thought to be housing stock diseases and insects.

Other public health roles performed at the Quarantine Station included the breeding of bandicoots for a Commonwealth Serum Laboratories program designed to develop an anti-tick serum during World War II.

phase 6 - the Quarantine Station: aviation phase: 1950-1983

The impact of improved medical science, immunisation, and quarantine procedures in the 20th century is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the fact that although post-WWII immigration was vastly greater than earlier intakes, the number of ships and planes quarantined plummeted proportionately.

Sydney received nearly 700,000 assisted immigrants between 1946 and 1980, nearly double the number it had received between 1831 and 1940, yet only four ships were quarantined in that period, and at least one of those was a tanker.

The only large quarantine after the refurbishment was of 29 cholera suspects from an aircraft in 1972. The last ship to be quarantined was the tanker Sakaki Maru in 1973, whose crew was landed for a short period while a suspected infection was found not to be a quarantinable disease. After that time the only people admitted to the Station for quarantine were airline passengers who arrived without adequate vaccination certificates (78 people in 1975).

1984 to today

On 16 March 1984, ownership of the Quarantine Station was transferred from the Commonwealth to the State Government and it was reserved as part of Sydney Harbour National Park. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) established guided tours and a Conference and Functions Centre.

The Quarantine Station was not built to last forever. Because the site is rugged, the buildings light weight, and the landscape continually changing, maintaining the Quarantine Station is a constant and very expensive exercise.

Despite considerable work by the NPWS over the first 10 years of its management as a national park, many of the buildings and some of the cultural landscape surrounding them fell into disrepair. By 2006 aspects of the site required immediate conservation and / or upgrading. The NPWS had never had enough money to return the Quarantine Station to a fit condition that ensured maintenance comparable to its cultural significance. After a decade the NPWS judged that they could not raise enough funds to stop the decline, and that private sector funding through more creative and direct use of the site was essential to ensure long term conservation.

How Q Station began

The North Head site was chosen as the location for a quarantine station for three reasons:

  1. The site was the first safe anchorage point inside the Heads.
  2. The site was sufficiently isolated and, at the time, a safe distance from the centre of Sydney.
  3. The presence of natural springs to ensure a water supply made the site habitable

From the 1830s to 1984 migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious disease stopped inside North Head and off-loaded passengers and crew into quarantine to protect local residents from becoming sick.

After an average time of 40 days, most passengers were released to settle as Australian residents. Their experiences of quarantine varied. Some passengers experienced a first class resort, making new friends and sharing dreams of a bright new future. For others it was a far more frightening experience of disempowerment, disease and death. Regardless of the type of quarantine experience the spirit forged by the people at the former Quarantine Station helped to shape our nation.

The Quarantine Station evolved over 150 years, growing during periods of infectious disease and shrinking during periods of health and diminishing government funds.

Before the quarantine station

The Aboriginal heritage values of the former Quarantine Station site are integral to the cultural significance of the place. It is part of the richer history of Aboriginal occupation of Sydney Harbour and the wider district. There is little detailed knowledge of the Aboriginal presence on the Manly peninsula. The local clan associated with North Head were the Gayimai. North Head was also used by the powerful koradgee of the Cameraigal clan for healing and burial ceremonies.

North Head is the site of some of the earliest contact and formative interaction between Aborigines and the British invaders. On 29 January 1788 Captain Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley landed on Quarantine Beach during an initial survey of Sydney Harbour following the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson three days earlier.

Hoping to learn more about Aboriginal customs and language to foster contact, in December 1788 Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo at present day Manly Cove. He soon lived freely in the Sydney settlement. Nearly one year later in November 1789 Bennelong and Colbee were also kidnapped from the same place. They both soon escaped.

Governor Phillip was speared at Manly Cove the following year by Wil-le-me-ring, a friend of Bennelong. Phillip was trying to convince Bennelong to return to Sydney. It led to Bennelong re-establishing contact with Phillip when he went to inquire after his health. He became a regular visitor at Government House and a personal relationship between the two of them developed. Phillip had a hut built for him on the site of what became Bennelong Point where the Sydney Opera House now stands.

The local Aboriginal communities were the earliest victims of introduced diseases in the colony. Diseases such as smallpox swept through the local Cadigal communities. By 1791 smallpox alone had killed a large proportion of the Aboriginal population around Port Jackson. Arabanoo was one of the many victims, dying in May 1789. Some clans almost disappeared. This disaster could have been prevented or minimised had quarantine processes been in place from the time of the colony's establishment.

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