Q Station on Manly's North Head echoes with history of pandemics past

Upon arrival in earlier times at Q Station on Manly's North Head, your welcome would likely have involved a good scrubbing down with carbolic acid.

These days Accor runs the historic property as a hotel complex and guests are escorted to their quarters in a more genteel fashion; by shuttle bus.

From its establishment in 1835 until 1984, Sydney's Quarantine Station housed victims of multiple pandemics, natural disasters and other misadventures of history.

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Today the beautifully preserved quarantine buildings are still in their place, dotted through the Sydney Harbour National Park site; accommodation wings, isolation quarters, the "healthy grounds" and the former hospital perched on the picturesque headland.

It was likely from this vantage point that a lookout would once have spotted the plague ships as they rounded Sydney's heads, flying the dreaded flag of sickness, the yellow jack.

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Because it's been around so long, the history of Q station is not a single story. Over the decades the station has taken in victims of smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, measles and the bubonic plague. This was the early equivalent of today's hotel quarantine, and just as beset with controversy.

Many "guests" had come on the long sea voyage to Australia on the promise of a better life, only to have disease rage through their filthy and cramped cabins. Bodies were routinely thrown overboard and large families arrived with their numbers decimated.

Q Station was also a refuge for WW1 soldiers returning from the battlefields of France with venereal disease and tuberculosis, and by the end of the war, it was the city's major defence against the dreaded Spanish Flu.

Inside the old hospital, Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Inside the old hospital, Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

For those who endured the heartache and sorrow wrought by these plagues, the beauty of North Head may have been some consolation.

This was an area of abundance for the original Gayamagal people, who were renowned for their skills in medicine and healing.

Some of Australia's earliest interactions between first fleeters and the traditional owners occurred on these northern shores of Sydney Harbour, including one episode where Governor Phillip was treated to a spear in the shoulder while attending a whale feast at Manly Cove.

The golden sands and calm waters of Quarantine Bay belie the desperation that must have been felt by the sick and dying passengers arriving here into quarantine.

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

But evidence of the sorry history is never far away. The sandstone cut near the wharf is engraved with the markings of passengers, recording the date, which ship they came on, and expressing the desolation they experienced.

One example carved neatly on a stone in the bush behind our rooms read; "On the Mariposa many were our woes, it's a wonder we haven't turned up our toes".

Today, hotel guests and day visitors can walk through the sanitation buildings where passengers' lice ridden luggage was fumigated before being transported up to the accommodation via funicular, the remnants of which have been converted into a staircase.

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

The cemeteries remain, where 600 souls are buried, including 27-year-old Gunnedah nurse Annie Egan who died from Spanish Flu in 1918 while nursing returned soldiers.

It was Annie who fought for Catholic priests to be able to attend the quarantine station to administer the last rites to the dying, a battle that was won only after her death.

Gunnedah nurse Annie Egan: Photo courtesy Namoi Valley Independent.

Gunnedah nurse Annie Egan: Photo courtesy Namoi Valley Independent.

The modern history of Q Station is slightly less grim. During the 1970s it was used to accommodate Vietnamese orphans, and was a temporary home for women and children evacuated from Darwin after Cyclone Tracy.

Visiting Q Station in the times we now find ourselves in offer much to learn from a place where the layers of history are as deep and complex as the Sydney sandstone country on which it stands.

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe

Q Station, North Head, Manly. Photo by Kathy Sharpe