History came alive for my 10-year-old nephew, Cyan, when he went on a school excursion to the Quarantine Station at Manly, Sydney. It’s where immigrants and local people were treated for infectious diseases from 1828 to 1984, including those affected by the smallpox outbreak in the early 1880s.
Here, Cyan tells us about what he discovered.
Liani: How did you get to the Quarantine Station?
Cyan: We went there by bus. But in the past the people who arrived at the Quarantine Station came by boat [from Britain, Europe and North America], which took months. I think our guide said three to eight months.
At the Visitor Centre there are reconstructions of passenger cabins from the ship RMS Niagara (quarantined for influenza in October 1918). When you saw the difference between the first-class and third-class cabins, which did you choose?
I put my hand up to go into the poor [third-class] cabin.
Wouldn’t you have preferred the first-class cabin with the nice furniture and bedspread?
I still put my hand up for the poor cabin because I wanted to feel what it was like.
And what was it like?
On the top bunks there were rats under the pillows – not real ones, just fake ones to scare us. When we saw the rats, we were like, “What?!”
What else did you see when you arrived at the Quarantine Station?
We saw the wharf, where there’s a railway track that was used for getting the cargo off the boats and pushing it along. And in the side of the hill there are carvings done by [immigrants to Sydney] who stayed at the Quarantine Station.
Tell us something about the Ghost Boy tour inspired by Felicity Pulman’s novel, Ghost Boy, which is partly set in the past of the Quarantine Station.
[In the Visitor Centre] we saw gravestones from 18-something [the 1800s]. Some of the names of the characters in the book are on those gravestones, like Mary-Anne, Charles and Joseph.
Did you do any activities at the Quarantine Station?
Smallpox is spread by saliva. [To show how easily and fast it spread] we played a game. Going around the class – there were 26 kids – we said “pox”. It took 14 seconds to do the whole class!
And what about the call-and-response Quarantine Station 1881 Marching Song that you chanted with your guide?
Don’t want smallpox in all us
Don’t want pustules full of pus
Don’t want fever, burning dry
Don’t want blindness, nor to die
I looked around and a couple of the girls were making faces at “pustules full of pus”!
What part of the Quarantine Station will stick in your memory?
We saw the shower block where people had acid showers. We saw these big tubs – kind of like mini water tanks – where they mixed the acid with the water to go into the shower block. After the people showered, their skin felt hot and started to peel. But they thought that it might get rid of disease.
Did you see the hospital rooms?
Yes, we went to the hospital, which is on top of a hill. I remember standing there, looking out. If you were sick it would have been very hard getting up that hill!
What were you surprised to see?
We saw the morgue, where they cut up people who’d died from a disease [to help find a cure]. I think the tour guide tripped over a metal bucket to scare us!
Would you recommend that other kids visit the Quarantine Station?
Yes, it’s a great place to learn about history.
Why do you like learning about history?
Because I want to know how the world was built.