"He was in such a state that a coffin was absolutely necessary..."

Quarantine in the early days of the Victorian colony

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on April 29, 2022

The History of Medicine Library holds a fascinating collection of correspondence dating from August 1854 between Dr. James Reed, the Surgeon Superintendent of the Point Nepean Sanitary Station and William McCrea, Chief Medical Officer of the Colony of Victoria. It records an outbreak of smallpox and the quarantining of the passenger ship 'Great Britain' and provides a day by day description of the practice of quarantine in the early days of the Colony of Victoria. In the mid-nineteenth century, the importation of disease formed a very real threat to the fledgling colonies.

The SS Great Britain was making its third voyage to Australia when smallpox was detected on board. A sailor who contracted it and died was buried at sea “put overboard before daylight in the morning,” two days before the ship arrived in Melbourne.

Dr. Reed had only been appointed in the role of Surgeon Superintendent on the 10th August, a matter of days before the Great Britain arrived in the Colony flying its yellow flag to signify that disease was onboard. The ship was sent fifty kilometres away from Melbourne’s port, back to the Sanitary Station at Point Nepean. Previously under the control of the Immigration Agent, the Sanitary Station had only been transferred to the control of the Victoria's first Chief Medical Officer, William McCrea, in July, 1854.

In the depths of late winter August, Reed and McCrea were suddenly faced with hundreds of passengers being landed on shore at the Sanitary Station and their requirements to be housed, feed and treated, not to mention the possibility of escapees.

Although allocated the sum of £5000 by the Victorian Government in 1852 for its establishment, by August 1854 the Sanitary Station’s infrastructure was still "meager". To accomodate affected passengers and crew onshore, sails and other materials were taken from the ship to form tents and shelters. Reed quickly tried to procure more tents but was disappointed by the initial ones sent from Melbourne “as being more suited to a cricket field in summertime than for the Heads in a storm.” After it is discovered that a number of crew had come on shore one night and disappeared, a tender was hastily arranged for the supply of fencing materials to prevent further passengers or crew from leaving the Station. Pragmatically, Reed employs a number of passengers from the Great Britain to assist building the fence to prevent further escapes.

Highly contagious, smallpox spreads by contact with infected people and potentially also through contact with contaminated clothes and bedding. The disease is characterised by disfiguring blisters, lesions and scabs. After the death of a crew member, Reed notes:

"Last night Grey died at 10 o’clock of fluent small pox the 18th day after the first appearance of the eruption. He was in such a state that a coffin was absolutely necessary. And being a large heavy man I was obliged to hire Causens bullock dray to convey him to the new cemetery."

To combat further spread, Reed undertakes to vaccinate as many passengers and crew members as possible and insists on the use of boiling water and other methods to cleanse the clothes and linens of the infected passengers. He also enlists two children to assist with the vaccination process, paying them 2 pounds each, presumably to harvest their fresh vaccine material to vaccinate other passengers.

There was dissent among the passengers to deal with as well. Passengers on board wrote to the Lieutenant-Governor of the day, Charles Hotham, requesting that they be allowed to continue to Melbourne as they were “a separate and distinct body from the steerage passengers from whom the small pox outbreak has been wholly confined.” However, their request was refused “as the Law does not permit of any such distinction as that sought to be established.”

You can read the full account of the Great Britain's quarantining through the original correspondence here

Despite its remoteness and the challenges, James Reed worked with success at the Sanitary Station until 1860 and oversaw many improvements. He wrote in his report of January 1858:

“Our accommodations on the Sanitary Station, either for the purposes of ablutions, or for treating disease, or for providing for healthy immigrants, have been very meager. There is a prospect that before 1859 they will be ample. During my experience of above three years on the Station, we have succeeded in every instance in stopping and extinguishing the disease for which each vessel has been detained. With the improvements at present in progress, I look forward with considerable confidence to the continued efficiency of the establishment.”

These documents were donated to the History of Medicine Library by Sir Edward Ford who had originally received them from J.H.L. Cumpston, first director-general of the Australian Department of Health.