Life and death in the Quarantine Station’s moveable heritage collection

7 December 2015

The historic value of the Quarantine Station headstones provoked curiosity even in the 1940s

The historic value of the Quarantine Station headstones provoked curiosity even in the 1940s

Curating a collection of heritage objects which reflects the history of the Sydney Quarantine Station entails a great responsibility. The site’s collection is of local, national and international significance, reflecting changing approaches to health and medical treatment between the 1830s and 1984. The collection furthermore offers a window into how those interned or employed at the Station experienced both their time at North Head and the rigors of quarantine.

Much of the collection’s significance lies in its ability to reveal everyday life on site, providing insights into its patterns of operation. Unlike many museum collections, a large proportion of the Quarantine Station’s moveable heritage collection is made up of multiples: dozens of seemingly identical egg cups, salt and pepper shakers, dinnerware and medical uniforms. As well as representing the employees and short-term internees, the collection also represents many individuals whose lives ended at the Quarantine Station.

The task of curating the heritage collection is therefore made all the more significant by the inclusion of objects such as headstones and plaques which memorialise the people who died on site, or toward the end of their voyage to Sydney. The collection contains over thirty-five headstones and engraved stone blocks, which were taken from the site’s first burial ground in 1853 and second burial ground in 1928.

The removal of these relics, many of which date to the 1830s, was instigated by Dr Arthur Metcalfe, NSW’s Chief Quarantine Officer at the time, in an attempt to slow their deterioration. After many years kept under the balcony of various buildings on site, the headstones are now housed in the Quarantine Station’s Museum, located on the harbour adjacent to Quarantine Beach.

As with the historic inscriptions, each headstone has also been carefully sketched

As with the historic inscriptions, each headstone has also been carefully sketched

Via the Quarantine Project, the stories of those memorialised on the stones are beginning to be told. A family tragedy unfolded in the case of the Jane Aberdeen, aged just seventeen months, memorialised in stone by her father Alexander, who arrived on the ship Lady Macnaghten in 1837. Another headstone memorialises the commitment of the ship’s young Surgeon Superintendent, Dr James Hawkins, who died during the quarantine.

Interestingly the Quarantine Station’s headstones also reveal a great amount about the craft of stone masonry and memorial engraving. One such example is the memorial to Elizabeth Logan erected by Robert Cragie in 1838. This elaborately decorated headstone contains unexpected errors such as an incorrect recording of Elizabeth’s age at the time of her death (she was 34 rather than 43), perhaps a slip made as the stone was being engraved. This mistake, like many other grammatical and carved errors visible within the headstone collection, in no way detracts from the sadness conveyed by the loss of the individual represented.

Recent interest has also resulted in their display in exhibitions around Australia. Three headstones from the Quarantine Station collection are currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery for Sideshow Alley, an exhibition curated by Joanna Gilmour. A replica of another headstone recently featured in an exhibition curated by Lindl Lawton at the South Australian Maritime Museum named Rough Medicine: Life and Death in the Age of Sail, due to travel around Australia in 2016.

One of four markers to the many who died aboard the ship William Rodger in 1838, including the capta

One of four markers to the many who died aboard the ship William Rodger in 1838, including the captain.