Quarantined! A Visit to Torrens Island

CALHN Health Museum staff recently popped “hand sanny” in our bags and visited the Torrens Island Quarantine Station thanks to the SA Maritime Museum. Nursing and medical staff from the former Royal Adelaide Hospital worked at the quarantine station, so it was an interesting research trip, especially in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

From the very early days of the South Australian colony, quarantine and isolation were used to halt the spread of contagious diseases. Upon a ship’s arrival, the state’s Colonial Surgeon would inspect its passengers for signs of disease, and if discovered, the passengers would remain on their vessel, anchored off the coast, until they were no longer contagious. Later, passengers were quarantined in tents along the Port River.

In the 1870s, the SA Government constructed a purpose-built quarantine facility on Torrens Island, which was taken over and refurbished by the Federal Government in the 1900s. Passengers identified as carrying a contagious disease were sent to an isolation hospital on the island, separating them from other passengers, and the remainder were accommodated in a ‘contact’ only section. No need for contact tracing in those days, the whole ship was locked down! The boat, its passengers, and their luggage were disinfected or sterilised at the island. An enforced holiday of around two weeks began – sound familiar? As one wise man said “there is nothing new under the sun”.

The Boiler House, Torrens Island Quarantine Station.

The facility closed in 1980 due to the success of a global smallpox vaccination program, and was State Heritage Listed in the 1990s.  We enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings including the passenger disinfecting block and accommodation, baggage fumigation equipment, and even the morgue. Examples of how the quarantine process functioned can still be seen.

If you worked at the quarantine station, we would love to hear from you! There are gaps in the historical record about island life which you may have the answers to. You can reach us via the web form on our contact page or email us directly at Health.RAHHeritageOffice@sa.gov.au

During the cooler months, the SA Maritime Museum conducts guided tours of the quarantine station and entry to the museum is included with your ticket purchase. Visit https://maritime.history.sa.gov.au/ for contact details.

Don’t forget to take your camera – it is a photographer’s paradise!

Written by Jacquelyne Ladner, CALHN Health Museum.

Entrance to the quarantine station.
Storage facility for ‘Zyklon B’ cyanide.

Photographs by Jacquelyne Ladner.