The North Head Quarantine Station is one of the oldest surviving quarantine facilities in Australia. Between 1832 and 1984, thousands of people were quarantined at the station, isolated from their homes for an undefined period of time. More than 570 people died there. PhD scholar Carmel Kelleher has used records held by the Archives to shed light on some of those buried at the quarantine station.
North Head Quarantine Station’s third cemetery
The North Head Quarantine Station is situated on Sydney Harbour, at North Head near Manly. To protect Australia’s early settlers from ship-borne disease and epidemics, it was established in 1832 as a place of quarantine for people entering the colony. It was also used to isolate residents of the Rocks after a bubonic plague outbreak at the turn of the twentieth century. Local residents and soldiers returning from France were quarantined there during the post-World War I influenza outbreak. The station ceased to operate as a quarantine facility in 1984, and is now part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.
One of three cemeteries at the North Head Quarantine Station, the third cemetery grew out of the need for an area to bury those who died as a result of the smallpox epidemic of 1881. It was situated outside the main quarantine area where it was not visible from the station’s accommodation areas, and the soil was of sufficient depth to allow the graves to be dug to at least eight feet.
On this exposed, windswept and isolated headland 241 people were buried. There was no segregation by religion or status, and the bodies were placed in rows in the order in which they had died. These burials clearly represent the effect of the smallpox, bubonic plague and influenza epidemics on both incoming passengers and local Sydney residents from the early 1880s to the mid-1920s.
Register of deaths
The register of deaths for the quarantine station’s third cemetery, held by the Archives, contains personal details of those who died, as well as administrative arrangements relating to burial. From 1881 to 1899, deaths were mainly from smallpox, scarlet fever and respiratory diseases.
The greatest number of burials occurred as a result of the bubonic plague of 1900 – of the 104 buried, 102 were local residents rather than ships’ passengers. Of the 67 people buried during the 1918–19 influenza epidemic, 13 were soldiers and nine were Italian reservists who had returned to Australia on the SS Medic. (An Italian reservist was an Italian national living in Australia who was sent to serve in Italy during the war.) Others included crew from SS Atua, SS St George and SS Pacifique, and passengers from SS Makura and SS Manuka. The deceased were buried as soon as possible after death, often at night.
Annie Egan and Hector Hicks
The most well-known burial was that of 27-year-old nurse Annie Egan. She had been nursing the soldiers from the Medic and had contracted influenza. On 26 November 1918, she was admitted to the hospital at the Quarantine Station. By 3 December, Annie was dangerously ill and died later that day. Despite her repeated requests for a Roman Catholic priest to visit her and administer the last rites, the Commonwealth authorities refused to allow a priest in the quarantine area. This resulted in a public and political outcry.
This event overshadowed the stories of the servicemen who were also buried at the third cemetery during the influenza epidemic. They were all young men under the age of 35. One of them was Private Hector Fraser Hicks, a mechanic who was born on 22 February 1900 in Albury, New South Wales. He enlisted on 9 September 1918, aged 18 years, with the consent of his father. Hector embarked from Sydney on 2 November 1918 on board the Medic, but the ship was recalled due to the signing of the Armistice. Hector contracted influenza, was quarantined on 25 November, and died at the station on 30 November 1918. He was laid to rest at the third cemetery.
Tending to the cemetery
During the inter-war years, concerns were expressed by relatives and official agencies about the care of the graves and the respect due to those buried at the third cemetery. Grave markers were installed, but in 1929 the Department of Defence was still concerned that the graves of servicemen were not being maintained to the standard laid down by the Imperial War Graves Commission. As a result, headstones were erected and the quarantine staff cared for the graves as best they could. The rugged nature of the site and the growth of native vegetation have, over time, obscured these graves. However, now through work by volunteers of the North Head Sanctuary Foundation, the graves of Annie, Hector and others buried with them are being tended.
View Archives records relating to this article:
- Register of deaths at Quarantine Station, 1881–1925
- North head graveyard, 1917–49
- Hector Hicks’ defence service file, 1918
Fact sheet 143 – North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney
Fact sheet 228 – Torrens Island Quarantine Station, South Australia