Heritage on the edge

13 August 2015

Watch historic inscription recording @ North Head Quarantine Station

1:50 minutes

North Head’s historic inscriptions are slowly disappearing in all manner of ways. Carved into sandstone comprising varying levels of hardness and exposure, many epigraphs become blurred, then faint, before they weather away entirely. Others, especially those on horizontal surfaces, can be overtaken by encroaching soil and leaf litter, then by more dense vegetation that creeps inexorably forward. And as with the Quarantine Station’s forgotten buildings, roads and cemeteries, some inscriptions simply fade from communal memory, until nobody even suspects their presence.

The large and long-forgotten SS Eastern inscription

The large and long-forgotten SS Eastern inscription

Sometimes several processes operate together, as was the case with the large concrete memorial to the quarantine of the SS Eastern for smallpox in 1902. Hidden under less than a centimetre of soil right beside the Q Station’s dramatic staircase, we only rediscovered this impressive 1m x 1m panel in June 2014, via a mixture of chance, intuition and curiosity.

Another process entirely has rendered nearly 70 carvings at Old Man’s Hat effectively invisible in plain sight. While they can be seen from the nearby flagpole, these inscriptions – dating mainly from the decade 1910–19 – populate a precipitous ledge directly over the crashing ocean. Carved a century ago, access was clearly safer then: the ledge was wider and at less risk of collapsing entirely. Alongside evidence of rockfalls, it is clear that many of the inscriptions have suffered considerable weather damage, while others are impressively ornate. To record them, however, required a significant safety regimen for our field team.

With permission from the National Parks and Wildlife Service NSW, we secured the services of a specialist safety harness company, Ropelab. Ropelab trained our recording team – Dr Ursula Frederick, Dr Peter Hobbins and Iain Johnston – and then laid out a safety line. Designed not to harm the rock surface and to prevent us from falling, this system required wearing cradle-type harnesses and remaining carabiner-clipped to the line at all times.

The precautions were worth it! This ledge, long inaccessible, features many carvings created just before, during and after World War I. Undertaking our recordings in April 2015 – with the ANZAC Day centenary looming – heightened our sense of their history. In addition to a loveheart and an attractive kangaroo motif, we recorded many individual names, most likely soldiers and sailors. More ornately, a precisely carved circle and shield commemorated the smallpox quarantine of TSS Karoola in July 1914. Only a month later, the war began and the vessel was impressed as No. 1 Australian Hospital Ship.

Marking the other end of the war are several mementoes of the troopship Medic, quarantined for Spanish flu on Christmas Eve, 1918. Sadly some of those aboard this ship – which was turned back en route for Europe once the Armistice was declared on 11 November – died from influenza while in quarantine. They still lie in unidentified graves at the nearby Third Cemetery. More cheerfully, the process of recording an impressive shield from the quarantine of RMS Morea connected us directly with its creator. Carved in April 1915, we stood on the same spot exactly 100 years earlier – albeit in our safety harnesses.
This balance of history and place, past and present, creation and commemoration, is what continues to make the Quarantine Project a unique – if sometimes hair-raising – experience.