• Richard Michell

On Q

Today the Quarantine Station is considered a very attractive place to stay. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has not always been the case.

Argyllshire soldiers prepare to march through the city, February 1919

When more than 1000 Australian soldiers set sail from England for Sydney aboard the troopship Argyllshire in late 1918, they were leaving behind the killing fields of Europe but sailing into a new horror, the Spanish ‘flu pandemic that would eventually claim the lives of at least 20 million people worldwide. The journey did not go smoothly. When the ship arrived at Albany in Western Australia there was a strike by coal-loaders, so the soldiers had to load 800 tons of coal. Their return to Sydney was further delayed by a stop over in Melbourne to offload commercial cargo. While stuck onboard, some officers were sent to inspect a potential alternative camp site at Broad- meadows but found no facilities. So, the soldiers stayed on the Argyllshire and eventually proceeded to Sydney.


Although the men had already served quarantine time in Albany, and again in Melbourne, the excursion by the officers to Broadmeadow had inadvertently broken quarantine regulations. So when the ship finally sailed into Sydney on 6 February, 1919, it was put into quarantine for another four days, anchored off Chowder Bay. But, on the promised release date of 9 February, in a development we would recognise from recent experience with Covid and cruise ships, a suspected case of the ‘flu was found on board and the soldiers were told a further period of quarantine was necessary.


In a bid to appease them, the authorities announced that they could go to the Quarantine Station at North Head where a camp had been prepared. However, on arrival they found that all that was provided was an area of bush. They had to clear it, dig drainage ditches and pitch their tents. Also, given their unexpected arrival, food was scarce, water distant and cooking and sanitation facilities non-existent. To top it off, the camp site was shared with some poisonous snakes.


So, the soldiers mutinied, albeit in a controlled and disciplined manner. On the morning of 11 February, 1919, about 900 men formed into ranks and marched out of the Quarantine Station. The police officers guarding the Station realised the hopelessness of trying to stop 900 angry soldiers and let them pass. Wearing the compulsory face masks, the soldiers and their NCOs marched down the hill to Manly. Alerted to the men’s action, the authorities sent the Manly ferry Bellubera to the cargo wharf at Manly to collect them and take them to Fort Macquarie, now the site of the Opera House. While the military brass understood the men’s grievances, they could not condone their disobedience and refused their request to be allowed to finish the remaining three days of their four-day quarantine at Victoria Barracks. Instead, they were offered the Sydney Cricket Ground.


The soldiers then marched from Fort Macquarie, face masks still in place, to the SCG. But again, they baulked and refused to enter. Their concern was that if even a single case was detected in the next three days they would all have to remain in quarantine. A delegation went to the State Government and it was agreed that they would be broken up into segregated groups of 50. This satisfied all parties. Fortunately, the three days passed without incident and so on February 14 – nine days after arriving in Sydney – the soldiers from the Argyllshire were finally demobilised. Not quite the homecoming that they had hoped for.

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