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Early settlers in Australia recognized that the continent was free of the epidemic diseases of Europe and were conscious of the potentially devastating impact infectious disease could have on the nascent colony. The first Quarantine Act was passed in New South Wales in 1832 in response to the threat from a cholera epidemic in Europe and a quarantine ground was established at North Head, near Sydney. Subsequently the other colonies established quarantine stations at their respective ports of entry.
In Victoria quarantine powers existed initially under the 1832 New South Wales legislation until 1850 and were later enshrined under the Victorian Public Health Act 1865 and the Health Act 1890. In Australia five Sanitary Conferences were also held between 1884-1909 and during this period a federal system was developed, with Victoria taking a primary role in shaping this system. The Commonwealth, however, did not exercise its powers to make laws for quarantine until 1909 when the Federal Quarantine Act came into force.
The Victorian Scene
The history of quarantine in Victoria – or the Port Phillip District as it was then known – began in 1840 when the barque Glen Huntly arrived in Port Phillip Bay with fifty cases of typhoid fever. Superintendent La Trobe hastily made arrangements for a hospital camp to be established at Red Bluff, now Point Ormond.
Although there were only three deaths in the camp after its establishment, it was not regarded as suitable for its quarantine function, and nor were subsequent sites in Hobson’s Bay. Detention was difficult to enforce, primarily as the sites selected were too close to the existing settled areas.
With a sharp increase in immigration to Port Phillip, particularly in the early 1850s after separation from New South Wales and the discovery of gold, the need became more pressing. When ships were quarantined in these years, those who were ill stayed aboard and those who appeared well were landed. It is also the case that those who were able-bodied generally immediately decamped to the gold fields.10 It therefore became a priority to find a new quarantine site, particularly as more and more overcrowded ships arrived, with passengers housed in unsanitary conditions, thus increasing the likelihood of bringing disease to the colony.
Settling on a New Site
In the early 1850s the peninsula of Point Nepean was inspected and subsequently found to be acceptable as the location for a permanent quarantine station. The Port Phillip District Health Officer, Dr Thomas Hunt, had the following to say about the selected site:
The Sanitary Station is admirably adapted for the purposes required; its position isolated, its anchorage good and easy of access both from inside the Heads when a vessel takes a pilot there and from Shortlands Bluff. The soil is sandy and at all times dry, the air pure. Water is procured by sinking wells to the depth of 12 to 15 feet, in abundance and sufficient purity, although somewhat aluminous and impregnated with lime. A root resembling sarsaparilla, wild parsley, a root known here as pennyroyal, grow wild and cure scurvy in a short time.11
In early 1852 the new Victorian government allocated the sum of £5000 for the erection of a ‘sanatorium’ and the establishment of the quarantine station was put in train.
At the time of its selection for quarantine purposes, the area was occupied by a few inhabitants who lived on the proceeds of lime burning and fishing. James Sandle Ford was one of the first to settle permanently in the area in 1842, followed by Edward Skelton and in 1843 by Daniel Sullivan and Richard McGrath. Ford supplied fresh food to ships anchored temporarily off the Head, with all four families, however, also engaged in lime-burning. Ford and Skelton occupied areas of the present Portsea while Patrick Sullivan, a son of Daniel Sullivan, took up under license land which comprised the central area of the future Quarantine Station site. Ford had also been preceded by an overlander, Edward Hobson, who arrived from Parramatta in 1837 and took out a grazing licence for the area from Borneo to Point Nepean, where he was permitted to graze stock for an annual fee without tenure.
By 1852 Patrick Sullivan had erected a number of buildings on his holding – a stone house, a wattle and daub three-roomed cottage, and a small underground dairy. Sullivan had also sunk two stone-lined wells. At the western extremity of the future station ground another lessee, William Cannon, had erected two wattle and daub buildings and had also sunk a well. Both men had additionally constructed a kiln each for the burning of lime.12
In October 1852 Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe wrote to the General Surveyor Robert Hoddle enquiring as to the date of the expiration of the inhabitant’s leases. He was duly informed that the leases were renewed annually and were set to expire at the end of the year.
In Reply came the following nominal roll from Hoddle on 27th October, 1852:
Daniel Sullivan £12
Robert White £12
William Devine £12
John Devine £12
James Ford £12
H. G. Cameron £12
La Trobe’s response was to direct the Harbour Master to:
Take such steps as may be found desirable in withdrawing from licenced occupation such portion of land as may be required for the purpose of the immediate formation of a quarantine station at the Heads.13
However, an unexpected event was to overtake this measured process of negotiation and establishment of the station.
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