ALMOST 100 years after the last great global pandemic, a reminder of its deadly toll is getting some much-needed TLC.
Tucked away in a beautiful patch of bush in Coogee, Australia’s oldest crematorium boasts a brand new paint job and a shroud of scaffolding around its chimney in preparation for some much-needed work to replace missing bricks and repair the tuckpointing.
The crematorium is part of the Woodman Point Quarantine Station, built in 1900/01 while WA was going through a serious outbreak of bubonic plague that killed 33 people.
But it was during the Spanish Flu at the end of WWI that the station and its grim morgue were really put to work, helping earn a reputation as one of WA’s most haunted sites.
In October 1918 the HMAT Boonah was the last troopship to depart from Fremantle, with 1200 soldiers of the First Australian Imperial Force on board.
A month later the Boonah landed in Durban, but the Armistice to end the war had been signed three day earlier and her captain was ordered to turn around and sail home. Influenza was rife in the South African city, and dockworkers preparing the Boonah for the return journey infected some of the crew; in the cramped conditions, the disease tore through the ship and soon 300 cases were reported.
Another troopship, the HMAT Wyreema was asked to land 20 nurses at Woodman Point in preparation for the influx of sick soldiers. The Wyreema’s troop commanding officer PM McFarlane said despite the obvious dangers there was no shortage of nurses offering to help.
“Volunteers were called for and there was not only a ready response but so many offered that it was necessary to place the names in a hat and draw the 20 required,” McFarlane later wrote.
Sadly, four of the nurses contracted the flu and died, along with 27 soldiers, who were initially buried in the station’s cemetery before being reinterred later at Karrakatta.
These days the site has been rebadged as the Woodman Point Recreation Camp and hosts school trips, but its medical heritage is preserved by a passionate Friends group which runs a museum and hosts tours.
President Gary Marsh has a strong connection; his father was the station’s last officer-in-charge and despite the serious side of that job, he spent an idyllic childhood running through the bush and down to the beach with the other 10 kids who lived on site.
His encyclopaedic knowledge makes a tour a real eye-opener; his ever-present smile sometimes at odds with the ghoulish subject.
Marching down a section of the original “Plague Road” built in 1901, he recounts how a cart would be hauled all the way to Fremantle, its yellow flag a signal for people to bring out their dead and the driver warning the grievers to stay upwind before he made the long, bumpy trip back to the crematorium.
The story behind the crematorium’s construction is also one to put the squeamish on edge. Bodies were initially burned on the beach when the plague hit, but Freo residents started complaining about the smell of burning flesh. An alternative was to take them out to sea, but that almost killed off the fishing trade because people started worrying they might get a chunk of diseased flesh with their serve of sardines.
Another haunting story from the crematorium involved his own father, who was checking on a couple of bodies which were being burned, when suddenly one sat up. It was only gases moving the body around, but Mr Marsh says there was a previous case where a soldier was moments from being cremated when his hand moved; he was rushed back to the station’s hospital where he went on to make a full recovery.
With the crematorium now a century old, Mr Marsh says the Friends found time had taken its toll.
“The crematorium was one of our busy bee projects and we planned to paint the front door; but when we looked at the condition we thought it needed a bit of love,” he says.
They gave the interior a new coat as well, but that showed up the exterior so they applied to Cockburn council and got a grant to cover a spruce-up. A local painting company helped to spread the money a little further by making it a bit of a labour of love, but while working they noticed the poor state of the chimney, which was missing bricks and had seriously eroded mortar.
Mr Marsh says the group was pretty down in the dumps at the news because it was an expensive fix and their reserves had already been drained by the painting, but when they put the feelers out to the local business community, the response was overwhelming.
An engineer did their report for free, a scaffolding company gave them scaffolding gratis and a refractory company has said they’d be happy to redo the bricks and tuckpointing for nix.
With the crematorium covered, Mr Marsh’s tour continues on to one of the station’s cemeteries (the exact location of the other has been lost over time) where one of the nurses from the Boonah tragedy is still buried. Hilda Williams had been released from Fremantle Hospital to assist her hard-pressed military colleagues, but sadly succumbed to the flu.
For 100 years her grave had been marked by a simple timber cross, but it was also starting to deteriorate and last year the Friends replaced it with a new granite headstone. Ms Williams still has two surviving great grandnieces who were going to attend a rededication ceremony earlier this year, but in a great irony it had to be cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The tour continues along the site’s many winding tracks, with important sites – some of which are still really being rediscovered – marked by the Friends’ recent sign project.
We end up at the museum, which is packed full of artifacts, information and recreations. The walls are lined with pictures from many of the 350 ships which were quarantined at Woodman Point until its closure in 1979.
One of the pictures features the Friends’ treasurer Mike Poore’s grandfather Herbert (Bertie) Poore who one of the rooms is named after.
Mr Poore said his grandfather tried to sign up for the Australian army in WWI but was knocked back because he was just 5’3”, so he travelled to England where they weren’t so concerned about his height and signed him up.
Bertie was a trained engineer, but after the war he served as senior nurse at the station from 1921 to 1957. On his retirement, he planned a trip back home to England, but in another of those twists that seem to infect this site, he was refused entry because he couldn’t prove that he’d been vaccinated against smallpox.
The Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp run tours every third Sunday of the month.
by STEVE GRANT and COOPER BYERS