Summer Reading: The Woodman Point Quarantine Station’s Fascinating history

AUTHOR IAN DARROCH was born in Fremantle in 1944 and has written several historical books on the local area. His latest tome is about The Woodman Point Quarantine Station. In this fascinating excerpt he reveals that it was used as the first line of defence against the bubonic plague, and that the English cricket team touring Australia for the 1920/21 Ashes were quarantined there. If you are interested in getting your hands on Western Sentinel: A History of the Woodman Point Quarantine Station 1851-1979, email friends@woodmanpointquarantinestation.com

AS early as January 1832 Governor James Stirling, fully aware of the dangers of disease carried by sailing ships, instructed his legislative council to take action to protect their fellow Swan River colonists.

Plans to use Carnac Island as an off-shore quarantine station were hampered by the island’s lack of a reliable source of water, but any suggestions to move to the nearby mainland met with fierce opposition from the citizens of Fremantle who feared the spread of disease. So much so, it was not until 1885 that the decision was taken to establish a permanent quarantine station at Woodman Point.

By the turn of the last century the new isolation hospital was in constant use when both Perth and Fremantle were subjected to bouts of deadly bubonic plague.

Between 1900 and 1925 twelve major outbreaks occurred in Australia when visiting ships brought with them waves of infected rats, whose fleas transmitted the disease to humans.

Another ship-borne disease to reach our shores at that time from south–east Asia and the subcontinent was small pox, which would continue to blight the local community until almost the middle of the 20th century.

Although by no means prevalent, leprosy was greatly feared at that time because it was wrongly believed to be highly contagious and virtually incurable. The unfortunate victims, mainly Chinese market gardeners, were locked up at Woodman Point in isolation for the rest of their lives.

Disposal of the remains of patients who died at Woodman Point soon resulted in the establishment of a small cemetery within the station grounds.

But public concern was raised when it was revealed a victim of contagious disease had been buried at sea off the coast of Fremantle.

To overcome fears of contamination of the local food chain via the Fremantle Fish Markets, authorities chose to cremate all such cases in future.

Sadly, their first attempt did not go according to plan. The coffin was placed on top of a funeral pyre made up of bush wood and sprayed with tar before being set alight.

Later it was reported the ashes had been retrieved for the bereaved family, but huge embarrassment followed some days later when a casual passerby reported the wind had revealed the skeleton still perfectly intact.

No doubt the experience prompted authorities to press on swiftly with the building of the state’s first crematorium at Woodman Point which opened in 1901.

The immediate end of World War I saw the local quarantine station faced with its most deadly threat.

In December 1918 the Australian Troopship Boonah carrying more than one thousand men arrived off Fremantle with more than 300 passengers suffering from deadly Spanish influenza.

Tragically, the men began to die soon after their arrival and the death toll continued to rise during the next six weeks, claiming the lives 26 soldiers and four nurses.

One of the nurses was civilian Hilda Williams, who had been released from Fremantle Hospital to assist her hard-pressed military colleagues at Woodman Point.

Luckily, most patients survived their quarantine experience. These included such well-known dignitaries as the founder of the Salvation Army general William Booth, the US consul to WA, Mr PR Porrit, and the entire English cricket team touring Australia for the 1920/21 test series.

Following Pearl Harbor, Woodman Point became an armed prison camp complete with guard towers and barbed wire, to house Japanese enemy aliens rounded up in the state’s north and brought to Fremantle by the state ship Koolinda.

The Japanese were soon transferred to the eastern states and for a brief while Woodman Point’s only prisoner was notorious fifth columnist, Nancy Rachel Krakouer.

She was a member of a small pro-Nazi group “Australia First Movement” which planned to destroy vital local infrastructure such as the Midland Workshops and Mundaring Weir, before offering their services to the invading Japanese as ‘intermediaries’ between their administration and the local population.

Rounded up along with all her associates, she spent a brief spell at Woodman Point before being sent to Loveday Camp in South Australia for the remainder of the war.

Increasing improvements in medical science which allowed modern hospitals to fulfil the traditional roles of quarantine stations, led to the closure of Woodman Point in 1978. T

The following year the property was taken over by the state government and is now maintained as a recreational area, while the original station has been preserved as a fascinating reminder of our state’s first line of defence against disease carried from overseas.

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