Inscriptions at Old Man's Hat

New book reveals 150 years of Sydney’s quarantine history

30 November 2016

A new book with University of Sydney authors has revealed the sandstone engravings of those who found themselves detained at Sydney’s Quarantine Station during its 150-year history.

Reading an inscription at the Quarantine Station

Recording an inscription covered by vegetation: over 1600 inscriptions were carefully recorded across the 3-year project. Image credit: Ursula K Frederick

From the early 1830s until 1984, nearly 16,000 people passed through the doors of the Quarantine Station in North Head near Manly.

For over a hundred 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.

The book, Stories from the Sandstone, is the culmination of a three-year project run by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney, which integrated the work of archaeologists, historians and heritage practitioners to investigate these engravings left behind at the Quarantine Station.

Dr Peter Hobbins, a historian at the University of Sydney, co-wrote the book alongside Associate Professor Annie Clarke, also of the University of Sydney, and Dr Ursula Frederick from the Australian National University.

Dr Hobbins said the Quarantine Station provided a unique connection to the past.

“Being a historian, I'm used to dealing with records that exist in repositories often far away from where they were created,” said Dr Hobbins.

“Our project focused on carvings, or inscriptions, left in the sandstone of North Head by people held in quarantine from 1835 until the station closed in 1984.

“With over 1600 such inscriptions, it's effectively one huge archive, where you can still stand in exactly the spot where the original author made their carving 50, 100 or even 180 years ago.”

Inscription of in loving memory of Irish stew

Among the archaeology team’s favourite inscriptions is this ‘headstone’ from the RMS Cuzco in 1895, ‘In loving memory of Irish stew’. Image credit: Ursula K Frederick

Tales of tragedy and success

The project uncovered countless journeys, many linked to Australia’s immigrant past, including stories from Scots, Finns and New Zealanders, alongside Chinese, Turkish and Indonesian arrivals.

Dr Hobbins said the stories ranged from the tragic, such as the death of 14-year-old Nellie McCann from the bubonic plague in 1900, to more uplifting moments of resilience, humour, mateship and success.

But one in particular stood out.

“We were always drawn to an impressive carving created in 1879 by Scottish stonemason, John Howie,” said Dr Hobbins.

“Through a mixture of historical and archaeological research, we were able to connect this major work with a series of related carvings by Howie and another immigrant arriving on the same ship, John Gentleman.

“We are convinced that Howie carved an impressive message branding Gentleman a 'scoundrel', but we've never been able to establish why.

“Their voyage is one of the best documented of many quarantines in the age of sail, yet this interpersonal animosity remains private - at least in the historical record.

“This carving branding Gentleman a ‘scoundrel’ is therefore the only trace of that long-forgotten quarrel.”

While the station is long closed, and now the site of the Q Station boutique hotel and function centre, Dr Hobbins says that uncovering stories like these are important to remind us of the benefits of living in more modern times.

“Thanks to a combination of extensive immunisation campaigns, effective antibiotics and our public health system, infectious diseases, such as smallpox, scarlet fever and the bubonic plague, don't decimate our population in the way that they did in the 1870s, 1900s or during the flu pandemic of 1918-19.

“We now take our health for granted, and can't imagine being locked up for a week, or a month, because we have a disease.

“Understanding the Quarantine Station story is therefore about more than just medical progress; it's also a way to realise that the lived experience of everyone in Sydney was dramatically different in the past.”

Stories from the Sandstone is published by Arbon Publishing.

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)