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Not long after South Australia was settled by Europeans it became clear that there was a need to segregate seriously ill new arrivals from overseas away from the general population. The management of diseases such as smallpox was not well advanced, and a practical solution was to quarantine affected passengers for as long as was necessary.
Early on a hulk was moored off Semaphore but it was quickly found that this was not a desirable long term solution.
In 1879 a quarantine station was built on Torrens Island - about as remote as you could get while still being in Adelaide. The modest cost of £25,000 to build it was well spent, as the facilities were used for the next hundred years. In 1909 disease control and quarantine became a Commonwealth responsibility, and more money was spent between 1912-1915 to upgrade the station. It included dormitories for singles and cottages for married couples. There was provision for medical care with a doctor's residence, a small hospital and a morgue.
The Jetty Leading to the Torrens Island Quarantine Station
By all accounts it was a humane place, offering a good standard of food and medical care comparable with what was available in Adelaide. Despite that there were a number of deaths, and a cemetery became necessary.
A Grave Marker for a Passenger Who Did Not Survive
The passengers and crew disembarked via a jetty (re-built in 1923) when they arrived, and proceeded to the Waiting Room were they were questioned and their medical details assessed. Passenger luggage was inspected, fumigated and stored safely pending their discharge from quarantine.
There was a large boiler house to provide hot water and steam for cooking, bathing and the laundry. It originally burned coal but in 1967 was converted to use oil.
In 1879 thirty prefabricated Oregon and redwood cottages were imported from the US to South Australia for use as accommodation. The rooms measured from 14 feet x 12 feet to 14 feet x 16 feet and were designed to accommodate around 8 people each.
The heritage listed Torrens Island Quarantine Station remains state government property for the present. While access to the Island is not possible normally due to security for the neighbouring power station, we are lucky that the Port Adelaide Maritime Museum has been hosting occasional tours. Check their website if you are interested in seeing this unique piece of history, or contact the Maritime Museum.
Tours cost $25 per person, take around 2 hours, and are very informative, including time to take photos and do a little exploring. A handout is also supplied containing lots of relevant background information. I highly recommend the tours for anyone with an interest in our history.
The National Trust of SA has listed the quarantine station on its Heritage at Risk list because of concerns about environmental protection and damage to heritage listed buildings through poor maintenance.