HMS Wolverene in Sydney Harbour

HMS Wolverene in Sydney Harboour. Photo by Allan C Green. Image: State Library of Victoria.

21 October 2015

Two of the more unusual inscriptions carved into the cliffs at North Head hail from Royal Navy vessels. Found in the wharf area of the Quarantine Station, both date from the same moment in February 1877 when Her Majesty’s Ships Wolverene, Sappho and Conflict were detained for smallpox.

This was a remarkable incident for several reasons. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy had been a vanguard of vaccination against smallpox. Naval surgeons were well aware of the dangers of this disfiguring and often fatal disease, and its ease of spread within the confines of a small ship on a long journey. Trained to care for their crews for years at a time, they often took great pride in their skills in ‘public health’ and preventive medicine. Yet almost from its first introduction in 1796, Royal Navy doctors embraced vaccination, urging sailors to undergo the procedure. Indeed, they also pressed it upon convicts, immigrants and colonists who came under their care.

Historic spelling mistake - carved by the ship

Historic spelling mistake - carved by the ship's butcher George Towers in 1877, this inscription refers to HMS Wolverene but actually reads 'WOLVENE'

On ‘Anniversary Day’ – 26 January – 1877, Sydney Harbour was crowded with sailing vessels of all shapes and sizes. They were there to farewell the departing flagship of the Australia Station, HMS Pearl, and to welcome the Wolverene as its replacement. From 1859, the Royal Navy had based a squadron of warships just off Farm Cove to patrol a vast area of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The ships on the Australia Station were intended to prevent invasion, deter piracy and capture ‘blackbirders’ who illegally brought indentured labourers from the Pacific into the Australian colonies.

HMS Pearl had barely sailed through the Heads before the Wolverene hoisted a yellow flag: it had an infectious disease aboard. It was soon found that both this corvette and another warship moored nearby, HMS Sappho, had found cases of smallpox aboard. Another naval schooner, HMS Conflict, was enlisted as a hospital
ship to hold the infected seamen while awaiting transfer to the Quarantine Station.

Catherine Holden

Catherine Holden's hand-carved headstone

The three vessels remained moored off Garden Island for a week, while two other ships cleared quarantine. The steamer SS Brisbane had arrived from Hong Kong via Brisbane late in 1876, but only a few days after docking was it announced that one of its crew was sick with smallpox. He died and was buried at North Head, while the ship and those members of its crew and passengers who could be rounded up from the city were also detained. Meanwhile the SS Australia, sailing from San Francisco, also declared that one of its crew had died from smallpox while at sea. As one Parliamentarian pronounced, “the disease in the course of one month had been brought here by three vessels from three different directions, by way of Brisbane, from California, and from England”.

Whichever ship had brought smallpox into Sydney, the disease luckily did not become an epidemic. Nevertheless, it afflicted a number of people near the wharves in the Rocks district, including the family of wharf worker William Holden. Although he survived, his four daughters – Mary Ann (20), Catherine (19), Hannah (16) and Elizabeth (6) – all succumbed and were buried in North Head’s Second Burial Ground. A sad reminder of their fate remains the crudely hand-carved headstone marking Catherine Holden’s demise – the first Sydney resident to be taken from her home and into enforced quarantine. Removed from its original location, her headstone now resides in the Q Station’s Visitor Centre – just a few steps away from where members of the Wolverene and Sappho’s crews carved their names into the sandstone while awaiting their return to duty.