The ‘prevention of contagion through quarantine’ was one of the earliest public health initiatives to be carried out in NSW. The northern headland at the entrance to Sydney Harbour was set aside for quarantine purposes in the late 1830s. Known as North Head Quarantine Station, it was the first quarantine station in Australia. It remained in operation through until 1984.

North Head – named because it is the northernmost headland at the entrance to Sydney Harbour – was chosen as a quarantine ground and hospital because it was relatively isolated. Although difficult to access by road, one of the reasons for choosing this site is that it had water access, and a place where ships could berth.

From the 1830s, any ship entering Sydney Harbour with infectious diseases on board – either suspected or diagnosed – had to be quarantined at North Head for up to 40 days. The Quarantine Station was intended for the containment and treatment of people who had infectious diseases as well as those who came in contact with them. Once cleared of disease, the new arrivals were able to move into society.

In the period from 1788 through to the 1820s, the quarantine of ship stock, crew and passengers in NSW had been at the discretion of the Governor. Its application had been ad hoc and informal, largely because most of the ships coming to Sydney were convict transports. This all changed when free settlers arrived to NSW in greater numbers.

In 1825, the English Parliament had passed quarantine legislation which automatically became law in NSW. But in 1832, NSW passed its own Quarantine Act. With this new legislation in place, quarantine became a statutory requirement for all ships entering Sydney Harbour.

The new legislation streamlined the process for preventing the spread of infectious disease through quarantine. This was a time when most of the ships arriving to Sydney carried either free settlers or commercial cargo, and delays in disembarking passengers and cargo meant lost time and money. The shipping companies sought to recoup these losses by charging a compensation fee known as demurrage.

North Head Quarantine Station 1909 (National Archives of Australia)

NSW maintained its  policy of quarantine for identifying, separating, containing and treating those with an infectious disease, or those who had come into contact with them, throughout the 19th century. In comparison, quarantine was phased out in England as a public health measure during this time.

This difference in practice was largely because the only way to travel to Australia was by boat in the 19th century. The long travel time from England or Europe meant any shipboard diseases could be detectable. The types of diseases prevalent in this period included whooping-cough, typhoid, smallpox, measles and cholera.

Doctors & nurses at Quarantine Station dressed for protection in 1919 (Manly Local Studies Image Library)

As commercial shipping to NSW increased over the 19th century, and as more people immigrated here, the Quarantine Station at North Head expanded to meet the need. In 1909, quarantine became a Commonwealth responsibility, and two years later, the Quarantine Station at North Head was transferred to the ownership of the Commonwealth Government.

There were a number of outbreaks of infectious disease in the early 20th century, which added to the pressure for space at North Head. These included the annual outbreaks of Bubonic Plague from 1900 through to the early 1920s, a smallpox epidemic in 1913-16 and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1919.

From the early 1920s until the mid 1980s, there was a dramatic drop in the number of people sent to the North Head Quarantine Station, even though arrivals to Australia had increased. This change was in part due to a better understanding of the aetiologies (or causes) of infectious disease, and how its spread was related to hygiene and sanitation. As well, vaccines had been developed for some infectious diseases by this time. In more recent times, travellers to Australia arrived by plane. Between the 1830s and 1984, around 580 vessels were quarantined at North Head, as compared with only four ships between 1946 and 1980.

North Head Quarantine Station was closed in 1984, and the land and buildings here reverted to the ownership of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. A fancy hotel and conference centre now occupies the former quarantine buildings, and there are regular nightly ghost tours, if that sort of thing takes your fancy…