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Torrens Island Quarantine Station
Acknowledgements: We are most thankful to Dr David Buob for allowing us to use his presentation about the history of the Torrens Island Quarantine Station.
Quarantine derives from a Venetian practice of 40 days detention or compulsory isolation for ships and people to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
12 Quarantine stations were established at each of the major ports of entry to Australia in colonial times, and for many migrants the quarantine station was their first experience of a new life in Australia.
Early Days - A tent City
Need for a Permanent Station
Despite the objections, the Quarantine Commission & the Medical Board uniformly decided in favour of Torrens Island rather than the other options of Kangaroo Island and Wauraltee Island because it was:
Finally, on 21 June 1878 the Government of South Australia began construction. Torrens Island officially became a quarantine station in 1879. The Architect was EJ Woods.
Thirty prefabricated wooden houses from America provided passenger accommodation, doctors' residences, an infectious diseases hospital, mortuary and kitchens. Only one of these houses remains, the rest the Commonwealth sold off in 1980 at Public Tender.
The Quarantine Station had a village like, semi-rural atmosphere and was set up to be virtually self-sufficient. Roads were set out and named, gardens landscaped and station records recall tall blue gums and pines being planted to 'add character' to the flat low lying landscape. Rain water was stored in 4 1000 gallon underground tanks and fresh ground water was used to top up supplies. The windmill was used to pump water and elevated storage tanks supplied water for fire fighting.
At this time the station covered 222 hectares (551 acres) and had accommodation for up to 224 people with 56 being located in dormitories and 168 in 23 cottages.
These buildings were constructed of wood and iron supported on jarrah blocks with ant capping. There was also a 6 bed isolation hospital, nurses' quarters and 2 four bed observation wards.
In 1912 WJ Getting became Chief Quarantine Officer. Development during the period of 1910-1924 was considerable. The Commonwealth foresaw the need for more quarantine facilities as immigration increased and built accordingly.
The World War 1 Internment Camp
In its first few months the Torrens Island internment camp was uncomfortable, but not harsh. The internees were housed in tents and made to cater for their own cooking requirements, including growing their own food. Despite these hardships, the inmates managed to organise cultural events and entertainment, and even published a number of editions of a camp newspaper.
In about March 1915 under a new commander, Cpt GE Hawkes, the camp was shifted to another location further south away from the Quarantine Station, on the southern end of Torrens Island. Captain Hawkes was to prove extremely unsuitable for the position, and under his command treatment of the internees deteriorated.
The camp was quietly closed in August 1915, many of the internees were released, and others were transferred to a more humanely-run camp at Holsworthy in New South Wales. Captain Hawkes was dismissed from the service, and in 1916 a Court of Enquiry was held into his conduct. The official records of the Torrens Island camp were destroyed, and today virtually all that is known about the incident comes from the only wartime records that survive, principally the typescript and evidence from the Court of Enquiry.
During 1918 & 1919 a number of people from vessels, including troops returning from WW1 aboard the Hospital ship TSS Boonah, were quarantined.
After World Wars 1 & 2 the Quarantine station was used to treat soldiers who had contracted influenza and venereal diseases abroad. In 1921 a special VD hospital and compound was built to the south of the main buildings. Six self-contained Besser block huts (32) were built during the 1950’s to provide accommodation for medical & veterinary staff. The last period of human quarantine was in 1954 when passengers and crew of the P&O British cruise ship the Strathaird reported small pox.
In 1979, 2 years after the WHO declared an end to smallpox, action was taken to close Torrens Island as a human quarantine station. 1,023 cases of human quarantine were dealt with between 1923 & 1970. Ten deaths had been recorded by 1932 on the island and none since.
Animal quarantine continued but closed in the mid 1990's, and the avian egg hatchery will be moved to the Eastern States in the near future.
In 1987 203 items were removed from the quarantine station and sent to the National Museum of Australia. Most of the collection dates from the period beginning with the influenza epidemic that followed the Great War (1914-1918) and was used through to the end of post World War migration in the 1960's. Two obvious 19th century exceptions to this are the book Mayhew's German Life, dated 1864 (seven years before the creation of the German nation) and a mid 19th century government issue bed believed to have come from the Port Arthur penal establishment in Tasmania. The closure of Port Arthur and the establishment of Torrens Island Quarantine Station were barely 12 months apart and it is possible that government stores were transferred from Port Arthur for use at Torrens Island Quarantine Station.
Quarantine Procedures 1910 onwards
The passengers walked through a Fumigation chamber (demolished) at the end of the jetty.
Their belongings were taken along a tramline to the luggage and disinfecting block [(16) 1913] for fumigation in the single large autoclave. Clean luggage was then sorted and stored in the Eastern section.
It was vital to separate infected and 'clean' passengers, and sick people were taken directly to the hospital in the isolation compound. Staff would enter & exit through the building now referred to as the part isolation block.
Other more healthy passengers were guided to the waiting rooms [(4) 1915] to be received, questioned, review health records, and distributed the passengers & crew to allocated accommodation. They were separated into first, second & third class and provided with single men, single women, or married quarters.
All passengers, even though they were not sick, were sent through the bathing block [(7) 52ft by 39 with 10 first class plunge bath units on one side & 13 shower bath units on the other. Each bath unit had 3 cubicles, 1 for undressing, one for the bath & last for dressing]
They then received clean linen from the Linen Store [(8) 1916 ]
and proceeded to their accommodation.
Once cleared of infection (2-3 weeks) people would move into the 'clean' areas that had their own kitchen, bathrooms and accommodation.
The steam boiler [(13) 1916] powered the luggage store, bathing house and laundry. The chimney and incinerator burnt items that could not be satisfactorily disinfected.