I have been a paying visitor on the Sydney Q Station Ghost Tour at North Head many times.
Yes, I am a self-confessed history geek and as each year passes, it deepens. The same tour on three occasions, but each time a different guide gives an alternate atmosphere and reveals more about its curious past. It was only on my final tour late in 2014 with family from the UK that prompted this scribble.
While standing in near pitch darkness on the veranda of the old Post Room the guide explained that if we looked up at the building opposite, people had seen on the balcony the ghost of Dr Reid; one of the most respected doctors associated with the Station (although involved more in its operations), stroking his beard and smoking his pipe. He would later die in tragic circumstances in the horrific Greycliffe ferry disaster in Sydney Harbour.
The guide’s subsequent tale about Dr Reid’s allegedly murderous Superintendent predecessor capped off by the final stop at the Morgue sealed the deal. I have always taken an interest in quirky history and my entire work life in Australia has always been involved in the medical industry.
I felt urgently compelled to write about the Doctors of the Quarantine Station.
With surprisingly little information available, the next day I began hours of furious internet research, emailed subject experts and purchased the “bible” of the Quarantine Station, In Quarantine, a 1995 book by Lady Jean Foley, of which there are few copies left anywhere.
At the risk of not doing the subject justice, this piece does not attempt to even come close to Foley’s meticulous overall history but I will take the risk of summarising where relevant. For example Foley’s book talks at great length about the Doctors that were part of health policy and had overall authority of the Station to varying degrees.
But my interest peaked at the very men that were at times tasked with the impossible at what could be a thankless and dangerous role.
The hands-on Doctors that physically worked at the Station tending (and touching) the ill, dying and dead. The result is this homage to those men.
My passage to Australia over six years ago involved kicking back on a flight for 24 hours of attempted napping, watching movies and documentaries with the occasional annoyance of a child screaming or being nudged by the stewardess’ trolley.
In the 19th and early 20th Centuries my ancestors taking the very same trip were not so comfortable. An arduous, cramped and hazardous journey by sail ship did not always end on entry to Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). For some it was only the beginning. The threat of Quarantine at the North Head Quarantine Station in Manly hung in the air.
When the facility officially opened in 1828 ships that entered Port Jackson previously were dealt with haphazardly. Officials also argued over the effectiveness of “Quarantine” and later who should be responsible for it. This would be a recurrent theme of indecision, unclear guidelines and confusion over many decades to come.
Doctors involved in Quarantine came in various forms. There were the Ship Surgeons tasked with traveling with the passengers, at first convicts and later assisted immigrants. From 1838 there were then Health Officers based in Sydney that would be tasked with greeting ships that entered Port Jackson and equipped to go on board to assess the extent of illness. And of course there were the unsung heroes that treated quarantined patients physically on shore at the Quarantine Station.
But were they are all heroes?
My research revealed far more than I expected, especially when I came across a recent article about a horror film based at the site. Although I could not for certain confirm this claim, one of the Directors explained: “We were told that euthanasia was quite common,” Ms Biasi said. “If there was an outbreak of disease, doctors would euthanise people to avoid an epidemic. It’s actually quite plausible that this little girl could have been murdered by her doctor.”
In summary below I have listed as extensive as possible, and where information has been available, just some of those named men and their contributions to the infamous Quarantine Station at North Head.
Dr Alick Osborne – 1835
Osborne oversaw the quarantine of Canton, the first ever immigrant ship to experience the process. On shore he vaccinated the 230 passengers where they slept in tents, some time before any buildings were deemed necessary. He would spend the rest of his career in his predominant role as a Naval Surgeon on immigrant ships returning to his birthplace in Omagh, Ireland before dying at 63 years old, having lost his wife a few years earlier and his 21 year old son two decades before.
Dr John Dobie – 1838
Before becoming the Port’s Health Officer, a position he eagerly applied for in writing before the role was officially created, Dobie spent a short time as a resident Doctor at the Station in July 1838.
Dr C. Inches – 1837
This “experienced Naval Surgeon” had the unenviable responsibility of caring for the victims of typhus fever from the ship Lady MacNaghten. Through poor and incompetent decision-making in selecting immigrants from Ireland the situation was dire, but Inches appears to have employed a steely reserve to retain order on shore. Inches would even protest at the arrivals of a Catholic chaplain and Anglican clergyman, sending the latter away and preventing some church services.
Dr James Stuart – 1837
One of the most respected of all the Doctors that would be involved in the Quarantine Station, Stuart was also a naturalist and talented artist, spending his spare time at North Head painting the dramatic landscapes of Sydney. Unjustly he died at 40 years old of typhus contracted from the patients he spent his life treating but left behind some incredible artworks that are under lock and key at the State Archives.
Dr James Browning / Dr Rogers – 1838
In times of disease epidemics, Browning seems to have laughed in the face of danger and even let a quarantined and heavily ill passenger stay in his house, a fact that was later reported to the authorities and to the media. Rogers replaced him and was said to have gained the confidence of his patients immediately, “…and if we may judge, by the vigorous measures already adopted, he will be able to enforce the due observance of the regulations without the assistance of a file of soldiers.”
Dr James Lawrence – 1838
A published letter sent to the Sydney Gazette suggests Dr Lawrence was a saint amongst men dealing with the heavy toll of the William Rodger quarantine, described as “a meritorious officer…who has been upon the quarantine ground, and has contended with the different forms of sickness and misery.” The Health Officer Dr Dobie is also praised in lesser terms for no doubt recommending Lawrence.
Dr James Aitken / Dr Ellis Bateman – 1841
Bateman took over the Station’s hospital from an inept Ship Surgeon called Dr James Aitken. Inexplicably he had that deemed on an-board illness was not too serious enough to separate from other passengers, causing three deaths. On arrival in Sydney claimed that the Smallpox had now dispersed. Worse still when in charge on the Station he allowed all to mix freely, a catastrophic decision that saw the disease spread like wildfire. He was only demoted and when Bateman took over he immediately reported on the traumatic conditions, documenting his actions and treatments and no doubt limiting further tragedy.
Dr A Cumming – 1855
With just a fleeting mention in the archives Dr Cumming’s impact on the Station’s quarantined guests is notorious. Widows of men that had died on the Constitution voyage were due to be taken to the Parramatta Immigration Depot by Cumming but ended up sleeping under the stars on the wharf when the Doctor decided getting gloriously drunk was more important.
William Walsh – 1872
Although not technically a Doctor, with just a basic Medical Assistant qualification, Walsh was paid a pound a day when smallpox was treated at the Station. It would appear he lasted almost a decade with backing from one of the most respected Port Health Officers, Dr Alleyne, until Walsh’s conduct when dealing with the 1881 smallpox victims was investigated at a Royal Commission.
Dr Samuel Hammond – 1880 approx.
A transcript of The Australasian Medical Gazette explains in brief note form that Hammond had taken over the role of Resident Medical Officer at the Station – as with many more Doctors that took on the role, little else is known about the man.
Dr S.M. Caffyn / Dr Michael Joseph Clune – 1881
After coming into contact with smallpox carriers in Sydney, this Doctor duo were literally forced to take on duties at the Station with Clune taking residence at the hospital and Caffyn on the “Healthy Ground”. With little external support both would suffer terribly but Clune more so as he descended into a “physical and mental breakdown” and “remained mostly in a state of great agitation and depression…” Subsequently his care of hospital patients barely existed as he remotely gave orders from the external windows. Caffyn on the other hand curiously allowed a sick passenger to see his family but not before placing an Onion between them for protection from disease.
Dr Eric Sinclair – 1881
Sailing from his home in Glasgow, Scotland, Sinclair was not put off by the Station’s reputation and his first position on arriving in Sydney was as the Resident Medical Officer. Sadly he died suddenly in 1925 whilst travelling on a mail train from Victoria to New South Wales.
Dr Henry Day – 1882
Reports show that Day was appointed as part of the reforms enacted after the chaos that ensued with the 1881 smallpox outbreak. There are no comments on his ability but it is certain the Quarantine Station would have been in safer hands than previous years.
Dr John Service – 1884-1885
A newspaper article notes that Service arrived from England to replace another Doctor and was appointed by Dr Mackellar, Health Officer of Port Jackson. Mackellar noted his experience dealing with smallpox and practising in the north of his home country.
Dr T.M. Harding – 1887
A fleeting reference to Dr Harding explains he was in charge of the Station hospital at a particularly “stressful quarantine” of the Preussen ship and it’s tainted gift of smallpox.
Dr W.F.M. Shells – 1900
When Plague hit Sydney at the turn of the century Shells earned much admiration for his performance. The records speak of “approving references” due to his duel medical qualifications in both England and Scotland and that he stayed in the “red-painted” or “red buildings” of the hospital enclosure.
Dr Henry Newark Featonby – 1913-1914
Working to limit and cure yet another smallpox outbreak, Featonby’s impact on the Station is unclear but a newspaper article mentions his sporting abilities and his many unfortunate ailments and surgeries soon after his time at North Head.
Dr Gedding – 1923
Gedding was placed at an important inspection along with his seniors when the Acting Premier of New South Wales, Dr Earl Page, came to inspect the Quarantine Station in 1923. Guiding the Premier around the site it was reported that: “Everything was in first-class order.” Perhaps due in part to Gedding or arguably because of the guest of honour.
Dr Bloomer – 1926
When a former “permanent resident” of the site was interviewed about her childhood experiences, just one line in the middle of her extensive memoirs may tell us a fair deal regardless: “Dr Bloomer had a motorbike he rode around the Station.”
Up until the Quarantine Station officially closed in 1984 there was little need for Doctors on site, except on the few occasions that and records of Doctors in the mid to later 20th century are equally as scarce.
If you know of any Doctors that worked on the site please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected]
Picture Source: Scratching Sydney’s Surface 2011 <https://scratchingsydneyssurface.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/28-october-2011-islolation-and-cure/>.
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