North Head Quarantine Station has been a place of quarantine for those wishing to enter Australia since the 1830s. Situated on a headland to the North East of Sydney Harbour, it is ideally sited to monitor maritime and naval traffic. During the deadly ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 it was particularly heavily used, to quarantine both military and civilian vessels and personnel. While held here, many passengers engaged in an activity that had been happening at this site for decades; they marked their time and presence there by inscribing on the sandstone cliffs.
The R. M. S. Niagara was one such quarantined vessel. First hand accounts of the pandemic, gathered in the 1970s by historian and journalist Richard Collier and held at the IWM archives, recall the events on board this vessel clearly. William L. ‘Bill’ Ferguson was a ship’s steward on the Niagara. He recalled the devastation wreaked by the virus after they left Vancouver and travelled via Honolulu towards New Zealand.
‘…it spread through the ship like wild fire and…80% of the crew and quite a number of the passengers went down with it. They…had to use the Music Room as a Hospital with mattresses all over the decks. A nurse returning from the war was the first one to die I think then the ships’ carpenter, and last a steward, an Adelaide boy…the nurse and carpenter were buried at sea’
During the voyage from New Zealand to Australia, the crew and passengers endured yet more sickness due to the pandemic. On the Niagara’s eventual arrival in Australia, the ship was quarantined at North Head, where its passengers carved messages into the sandstone cliffs. Bill Ferguson recalled one particular example being made, noting that a visit to the site would reveal, ‘a flag carved on a rock there…it was carved by one of the passengers, an old chap’.
Another inscription created by a passenger of the Niagara was dedicated to a nurse and a chemist, Sister Hargreaves and Mr R. E. Jeffrey. It was created in recognition of their efforts in helping passengers and crew during the pandemic on board ship. In a letter of appreciation to Mr Jeffrey, held at the State Library of New South Wales, the passengers wrote:
‘We all recognise that your assistance and services were invaluable to the Patients - Crew and Passengers – and our sincere regret is that through your exertions you yourself became a victim of the malady. We trust that you will soon be restored to perfect health, we hope too, that these brief lines will, in some small measure, express our good wishes and acknowledgement of your prompt and fearless acceptance of duty, in the interests of your fellow voyagers.’
Medical staff at North Head Quarantine Station were not always so lucky. Mrs D. Shirley recalled how ‘the few doctors and nurses there, soon died, and had to be replaced, but most of the caring for the sick was done by anyone who was still able to stand up’. Nurse Annie Egan was one such individual, who died aged 27 on 03 December 1918. She was buried there at North Head, where her headstone still looks out towards the sea and reads, ‘Her life was sacrificed to duty’.