Portsea quarantine station bleak isolated landscape
Portsea quarantine station bleak isolated landscape, Australia

Have you heard of a quarantine station for infectious diseases? Australia has several heritage sites. It is an exploration of how society managed infectious diseases and the obvious fear of infection from patients. Isolated and alone these quarantine stations are a testament to the past and the present. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane historic quarantine facilities are open to visitors and everyone should go. A must visit bucket list place for heritage buffs and people wondering if 2020 covid19 is a new event.

Portsea, Port Nepean National Park

Did you know Melbourne has an historic quarantine station where international arrivals were processed? For heritage buffs and, perhaps all of us, the place to visit, after the 2020 pandemic covid19 lockdown is Portsea, Port Nepean National Park, Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps the visit should be compulsory. Yesterday’s quarantine station is a lesson for all us about today’s convid19. Check out the emotional banner about the 1919 Spanish flu. A reminder, the past does come back to haunt us. The exhibits are excellent at measuring the impact of contagious disease and the fear the government had of transmission. The use of space between large transparent banners and floor messaging is a vivid replication of the physical distancing patients had to abide by. You were isolated physically and mentally from the outside world.

Stand by the enormous machine which disinfected the arrivals suitcases and wonder how individuals felt being disinfected and scrubbed. The individuals were stripped of all clothing, naked they showered in santising showers, perhaps the patients wondering if they would ever leave a place where identity was marked by what disease you had.

The exhibits are excellent at measuring the impact of contagious disease and the fear the government had of transmission. The use of space between large transparent banners and floor messaging is a vivid replication of the physical distancing patients had to abide by. You were isolated physically and mentally from the outside world.

Immigration and quarantine regulations led to individuals being housed at Portsea while their health was evaluated. Personal stories are narrated through interactive, emotive exhibits. While the focus of the Park’s artefacts and buildings is about European settlement there is reference to the Aboriginal land use practices, Europeans who landed on the headlands, shipwrecks and pastoralists thought the land was suitable for sheep farming. Sorrento was home to one of the largest sheep farms in the Victorian era. The continuous story of the peninsula is covered. This is apparent when you walk the perimeter of the Park and a narrative emerges with the who and why the place you are standing is of historic importance.

And you are very grateful that covid19 in 2020 has not led to Melbourne reopening the Portsea quarantine station. Let’s leave the isolation and solitary nature of nineteenth century confinement to the history books.

Where is Port Nepean Quarantine Station


  • Opening hours Point Nepean National Park is open daily
  • Vehicles can enter from 8am–5pm (6pm in daylight savings) and exit at any time
  • Pedestrians and cyclists can enter any time
  • The Point Nepean Information Centre is open daily, except Christmas day, 10am to 5pm
  • Wheelchair accessible to ground floor exhibits
  • No dogs allowed.
N Quarantine Station, Sydney

A perfect beach with golden sand, a secluded bay bathed in light is the home of Sydney’s quarantine station. N Quarantine Station Sydney is not usually on the must visit list of visitors. It is a hidden gem of natural beauty with an interesting, sombre history.

Why would you want to visit a Quarantine Station?

It is part of the Australian narrative, a place where immigrants hopeful of new beginnings never made it past a small exquisite cove, in the Sydney Harbour. Their final resting place was N Quarantine Station, Sydney. One of the evocative places on the station is the sandstone engravings recording the name, social background and date of arrival of the people arriving at the station. The carved stone is a roll call of the diverse class, gender and race of quarantined passengers.

Death, disease and the fear of a rapid spread of infectious illnesses encouraged the government to look for sites that were isolated as well as far enough from the growing settlement of Sydney being assessed. North Head, out of site and out of time was selected as meeting the gold standard of isolation, yet accessible enough for officials to supervise that, in 1832 it was selected for development of a quarantine facility. The site was isolated, able to be fenced and quarantined without difficulty, had sufficient draft that anchorage was not an issue, an independent fresh water spring and proximity to the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The potential of disease entering Sydney was controlled and managed primarily by physical segregation.

The site is rugged, with the local sandstone and trees providing the building material to house the newly arrived occupants. Constant maintenance of the buildings has proved to be a challenge for the owners, Sydney Harbour National Park. Despite considerable work, many of the buildings and some of the cultural landscape surrounding them fell into disrepair. A creative and direct use of the site was required to raise funds to support the restoration and maintenance of the site. A hotel and conference centre provides a steady income as well as raising awareness of the site’s significance in the history of Australia.

North Head was continuously occupied by an Aboriginal clan, Gayimai. It was a place for ceremonial practice and teaching. North Head marks one of the sites of earliest contact between Aboriginal clans and the British military surveying the harbour. This is recorded in Captain Hunter’s journal. Custodians of the heritage of the station collate oral history records, journal records, newspaper reports of the time as well as official documents describing efforts to continue the spread of typhoid and other infectious diseases from entering Sydney. The site has 65 heritage buildings reflecting the life of its inhabitants.

As well as luxury accommodation guided tours the Quarantine Station conducts well thought of educational programmes making the site a favoured destination for school groups. Immigration and the control of infectious diseases is a hot topic that the world is still grappling with how to isolate without infecting everyone.

History buffs have an opportunity to visit the Third Quarantine Cemetery. The cemetery was created due to the large number of deaths in 1881 from a smallpox epidemic. There are over 240 burials which is a good indication of the very real possibility of death from the diseases now hopefully consigned to the history books. The cemetery closed in 1925 with more than 240 interrments. Influenza, bubonic plague, and scarlet fever being recorded on tombstones and markers.  The heritage site is a place of natural charm  with panoramic views of the Sydney Harbour. Tours of the cemetery are organised by volunteers, the Harbour Trust check the website for tour details and opening hours.

Besides its glorious beauty and somber history, the Quarantine Station also has the reputation of being haunted. There is even a nighttime tour for sceptics and ghost aficionados to explore and find the Station ghosts, of course after dark.

Where is it?

Opening hours & facts:

  • Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
  • Friday, Saturday: 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
  • Public holidays: 11:00 to 15:00
  • Very limited wheelchair accessibility
  • No dogs allowed

And there is an interesting read about N Quarantine Station – The quarantine station book.

And Brisbane had a quarantine station established in 1912… the fear of disease carrying immigrants sparked the building of…

The Lytton Quarantine Station

Isolation again was the guiding principle influencing the proposed location of the Lytton Quarantine Station. The mouth of the Brisbane River meant ships did not have to enter the inner Harbour. Quarantine means you are barred from society in general, the immigrant is contained and inspected before a free pass is given to rejoin society.

A ranger guide explained, The Fort Lytton Quarantine Station replaced earlier quarantine stations at Dunwich (1840s) on Stradbroke Island and on St Helena Island (1860s). At Fort Lytton’s quarantine station ships to Brisbane were met by health authorities who checked for diseases and literally sorted out immigrants by race.

Asian immigrants stayed in tents until their health was verified. Segregated accommodation in tents or troop huts was constructed for Asians, with separate kitchen, dining room, shelter shed, lavatory and bath blocks. This was due to the prevailing opinion that Asians were carriers of diseases that were unknown to Europeans. The fear of race contagion made newly arrived Asian passengers’ lives very difficult. The gold mining rush and the flood of prospectors with dubious health simply raised the stakes for many passengers to be detained at Lytton.

A venereal diseases clinic was set up. Immigrants suspected of having diseases were “fumigated” according to historical records. Fumigation involved discarding all clothes, which were burnt, and stepping into chemical baths and soaking for a required amount of time required to cleanse the skin of all noxious diseases. The gigantic Autoclave unit is similar to the unit installed at Portsea Melbourne. Deep cleansing via the autoclave was standard operating procedure until its closure in the late 1980’s. 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic saw the Lytten Quarantine station as particularly busy with over 300 suspected patients.

It is considered possible that some of the buildings associated with the isolation hospital established at Colmslie in the early 1900s were relocated to the Lytton Quarantine Reserve. This was a considerable cost saving at the time of construction. A Commonwealth fund was established to support the building of the new station. The last patients to be received at the site were as late as the early 1980’s.

The site became a National Park in 1989.

The premises are managed by the Open House Trust Brisbane under the auspices of  Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.


  • Saturday: 10:00 AM TO 4:00 PM
  • Sunday: 10:00 AM TO 4:00 PM
  • Limited wheelchair accessibility
  • No dogs allowed

The journey is worth it.

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