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HomeLifestyleSpectres of the Quarantine Station

Spectres of the Quarantine Station

Manly Observer joined a nocturnal ghost tour around the Quarantine Station on North Head, hosted by fearless ‘ghost host’ Deb, and experienced more spine-tingling chills than anticipated.

Graveyards are often thought of as locations where the tormented souls of the departed are loitering. But considering cemeteries are where the deceased are interred, it seems more likely that restless spirits are lingering elsewhere, perhaps in the environs where their living bodies inhaled their last breath.

Ghost-hunters and those with the gift of ‘sensed presence’ have more success spectating spectres when visiting sites that historically hosted high human casualties. Examples include battlefields, castles, nursing homes, old psychiatric hospitals and… quarantine stations.

Sunset on the Quarantine Station. Hospital (centre-left) and the arrivals jetty. Photo: Alec Smart

The Heritage-listed Quarantine Station on the west side of North Head consists of an arrivals jetty, sterilisation facilities (showers and disinfection chambers), administrative buildings, dormitories and a hospital, all spread out across an isolated region above North Harbour.

Historically, the premises were utilised to intern those arriving by sea to Sydney if they were infected (or suspected to be infected) with contagious diseases.

Here the infected recovered or (sadly) succumbed to their illnesses, many of them children.

Quarantine Station Third Cemetery. Victims of the 1900 bubonic plague are buried here. Photo: Alec Smart

There are 572 recorded burials at the Quarantine Station’s three cemeteries, however, no records exist for the first nine years of its operation, so the number of deaths on site may exceed 600.

From 1828, when it began as tents pitched above the beach, until its closure as a maritime hospital precinct on 16 March 1984, the government-run facility quarantined an estimated 16,000 people. They treated diseases ranging from bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid and typhus.

Ghastly ghosts

The tour guide, Deb, who hosted the trek this reporter undertook, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Quarantine Station history. Whilst leading us around the site and unlocking hidden rooms, she reeled off dates and statistics with ease.

When describing the various hauntings that recur around the site – and there are numerous paranormal phenomena, from whispered voices to unexplained apparitions – she enlivens these incidents with anecdotes of encounters experienced by herself and others.

Sunset on the Quarantine Station, North Head. Photo: Alec Smart

The ghost tour party, around a dozen of us, met just after sunset near the shower block adjacent to the jetty. Here, new arrivals were historically doused with skin-scorching poisonous phenol before entering the shower cubicles.

Once inside, guards peeped at them through spyholes to check their hair was wet, to prove they’d fully immersed themselves beneath the water jets, before allowing them to proceed to baggage retrieval and onward to first, second or third class dormitories.

Thankfully we weren’t subjected to the same treatment! However, we didn’t enter the shower cubicles until the end of the spooky trek, around midnight, which made for a very creepy finale.

Autoclaves used to sterilise luggage at the Quarantine Station. Photo: Alec Smart

Instead, we were initially guided through the laundry and autoclave disinfecting chamber (here our guide switched off the lamp and invited us to sniff the mysteriously hay-scented air), followed by a steep descent to the haunted hospital atop the hill.

A very creepy wander through the wards ensued, with Deb playing spine-chilling recordings of whispered voices she claimed to have recorded amidst the original patient beds!

After visiting the doctors’ dwellings, we trekked outside again and around a dark path past the original First Cemetery (unmarked, since the headstones were removed in 1840, although the bodies remain in the ground below) and on to the ghoulish gravedigger’s cottage.

Hospital, Quarantine Station, North Head. Photo: Alec Smart

This was perhaps the scariest part of the tour, because there are numerous anecdotal reports that a malevolent male phantom inhabits the tiny building and has a habit of expressing his displeasure at uninvited guests by scratching female visitors.

Here our guide suggested trying out the EMF sensors we were issued with at the start of the tour, which pick up changes in electro-magnetic fields. Several of the younger female members of our party left the cottage visibly shaken after tip-toeing into darkened rooms and detecting unexplained activity.

Haunted Gravedigger’s Cottage, Quarantine Station. Photo: Alec Smart

We passed the third class dormitories (principally reserved for Asians during Australia’s racist past of separating Sino immigrants from Europeans) and saw their communal outdoor cooking and dining facilities, a stark contrast to the relative luxury of first class facilities higher up the hill.

Phantom stalker

It was here that I became separated from the tour party for several minutes while I paused to take photos of the lamplit dormitory buildings. As I descended the steep path down towards the morgue, someone on a parallel path started whistling and rustling the bushes between us to gain my attention.

I assumed it might be a prankster, perhaps someone similarly separated from the tour party, but they remained hidden, albeit in close proximity.

Following this, the tour group crowded together in a somewhat morbid morgue (complete with a headless store window dummy lying on the autopsy table), then toured the aforementioned showers, eventually departing on a shuttle-bus.

Autopsy table, morgue, Quarantine Station. Photo: Alec Smart

I remained awhile to swap ghost tales with the tour guide. However, as I unlocked my bicycle for a post-midnight ride alone up the dark, steep slopes homeward, the unidentified stalker reappeared and flashed a torch light a few times to alert me they were still loitering nearby.

Whomever it was probably chuckled to themselves afterwards about how they spooked someone separated from a haunted outing. Nevertheless, I kept a safe distance from where they hid in the bushes, and cycled quickly away…

Q Station ghost tours, info + booking: https://www.qstation.com.au/ghost-tours.html 

Night falls on the Quarantine Station as the ghosts begin to stir. Photo: Alec Smart


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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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