National Archives of Australia

Issue 4 October 2011

Death register sheds light on those laid to rest

Annie Egan’s tombstone, North Head Quarantine Station. Photographer: Jenny Wilson

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.  

Houses and tents at North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney, 1932. NAA: C535, 5A

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.   

Entries in the quarantine station's register of deaths during the 1918–19 influenza epidemic. NAA: C526, REGISTER OF DEATHS AT QUARANTINE STATION

Annie Egan and Hector Hicks

Hector Hicks’ death certificate, 1918. NAA: B2455, HICKS H F 67885

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.

Hector Hicks' tombstone in the North Head Quarantine Station's third cemetery. Photographer: Jenny Wilson

Carmel Kelleher is undertaking a PhD at the Modern History Department of Macquarie University.

Want more?   

View Archives records relating to this article:   

Fact sheet 143 – North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney   

Fact sheet 228 – Torrens Island Quarantine Station, South Australia   

4 comments on "Death register sheds light on those laid to rest"

  1. Dr Ian Lavering says:

    If you want to speak to someone who actualy lived at the Q station then here I am (1963-75).

  2. Ian – thanks for getting in touch. We would love to hear about your experiences of living at the quarantine station. Perhaps you could post them here?

  3. Kathryn White says:

    Pte. Hector Hicks Service Number 67885 Unit 27th Bn. Rnfts. was my grandfather, Frank Chirgwin’s, best friend who was serving overseas at the time news of his death reached him. Hector’s mother presented my grandfather with a photograph of Hector in his uniform taken at Crown studios prior to his embarkation – when my grandfather returned to Australia. I can send this photograph to the National Archives and others of Hector as a civilian – if given email address. Hector’s tombstone reads:

    Pte. Hector Fraser Hicks – In affectionate remembrance
    Of our beloved son & brother – 27th General Reinforcements
    Died 30th November 1918 aged 18 years and 9 months

    Greater Love Hath No Man Than This
    That he lay down His life for his friends
    Erected by his parents T.H. & J.M. Hicks
    sisters Clarice & Jean and brother Wearn

    In my grandmother Doris Amy Speechley’s letters to my grandfather who was serving overseas in the AIF, she wrote of the memorial service held at St Luke’s church on December 8th, 1918… “Rev. Price preached a memorial service… and it was a very good service indeed, though very sad. The church was packed and for seating accommodation chairs were borrowed from different people near the church. We got there 10 minutes before starting time, thinking to get a good seat, but we had to sit behind the choir, but never mind, we were there. Mr Price had for his text Revelations and he spoke very nicely. It is one great comfort we all have, we will all meet again at the golden shore. Mrs Hicks and Clarice were not there. Last week we put in an insertion in both papers for Hector, you will be able to see it dear, when you come home….”

    My grandfather had written previously: “I had a dozen letters from Aussie yesterday so I’m still getting news very well. I have heard from Jacky Hind that my pal, Hector, has died of influenza, but I can’t believe it at all. The news is too incredible. If it is true (as I suppose it is) I have lost one of my best and most gentlemanly friends. The loss to me is very great indeed, for we spent so much time together that we were like brothers. I am praying that the news is all a mistake. Poor old Hec. I pray for his family……”
    Letter 7: Dated 30th January 1919 “Abroad”

    HMAT Medic: The following all died from the pneumonic influenza from the troopship Medic in quarantine at North Head during the same time.

    23rd November 1918 – Pte. Walter MacCroanan (13.11) (last date when first contracted)
    25th November 1918 – Pte. George Wilson Ridley (17.11)
    25th November 1918 – Pte. John Henry Petherick (17.11)
    25th November 1918 – Pte. Fred Thomas Morgan (15.11)
    26th November 1918 – Pte. Harry McKay (17.11)
    27th November 1918 – Cpl. Thomas Henry Treacy (13.11)
    27th November 1918 – Pte. James Michael Cahill (19.11)
    27th November 1918 – Pte. Robert Fairley (17.11)
    30th November 1918 – Pte. Hector Fraser Hicks (21.11)
    1st December 1918 – S/Sgt.Percy George Edwards (21.11)
    6th December 1918 – Staff Sgt. Joseph Stock (25.11)
    14th December 1918 – Pte. Alfred Ernest (Broadley) Brown
    (21.11)

    Nurse Annie Egan is buried next to Hector Hicks. I have a photograph of her, from a newspaper article as well. Her tombstone reads:

    Nurse Annie Egan
    Died 3rd December 1918
    Aged 27 years RIP
    Her Life was Sacrificed To Duty
    Erected by her parents
    brothers and sisters

    Kathryn White – grandaughter of Frank and Doris Chirgwin – Photographic and letter records available.

  4. This is great information Kathryn. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. It adds a whole new layer to the article. We will be in contact with you shortly regarding your letters and photographs.

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