Peter Hobbins, Ursula K Frederick and Anne Clarke’s Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past is a unique take on the long- documented history of Australia’s first immigrants.
From early on in Australia’s history, Old Man Hat in North Head was the landing point for many an immigrant looking to make a life in this young country. Set up as a quarantine station from 1835 to 1984, housing those who were suffering – or at risk of serious infections such as small pox, Spanish flu and typhus fever – often all these hopeful “refugees” would see of their new nation was makeshift hospital beds and the rigorous routines of many a doctor or nurse before succumbing to the afflictions of their plague.
So too, those who travelled overseas for business were subjected to a certain amount of treatment to rid them of potential infection before they could (hopefully) return to thefir friends and family. When the nation was afflicted by the dreaded bubonic plague, many Australians were sent to these quarters for treatment or to live out the rest of their painful days surrounded by those looking to make a life in Australia – a culmination of nationalities from all over the world including Britain, Greece, Japan and other Asian countries, Egypt and Ireland.
The 1600 people who passed through these quarters – however briefly – often shaped and impacted the way in which Australia grew as a nation, and would literally leave their mark upon the stone of their surroundings as evidence of their presence. But who were they? What happened to their families? What happened to those who survived? How were they impacted by their enforced stay in Quarantine prior to calling Australia home and beginning their new life as promised?
Stories of the Sandstone is a credit to the authors, who have no doubt worked tirelessly over a number of years to provide us with this informative and accurate tome of work, bridging a gap in Australia’s history we never really knew existed until now. From the outset, it’s easy to read and captivating in the tales it tells, and the characters unravelled within its pages are just as captivating as those in a novel.
Take Daniel Yeates for instance, whose story could have easily been lifted from historical fiction. Migrating to Australia in August, 1858 with his family – a heavily pregnant wife and children – who embarked on their journey with excitement and anticipation. But the Yeates’ dream of a new life together was not to be.
Their two year old died on the journey and though Yeates’ wife, Maryann survived giving birth on the voyage, she was not strong enough to fight the scurvy and malnutrition bred from the ship’s less than ideal conditions, passing away shortly after arriving in North Head.
This left Yeates and his children heartbroken, but they were determined to make the best of their circumstance, and after serving their “sentence” were released to finally begin their life in new surroundings.
Then there’s Nellie McCann, whose unmarked grave is among the many whose final resting place was this North Head quarantine station. In 1900, she was one of the first Australians to succumb to symptoms of bubonic plague, and at the age of 14 perished at the quarantine station only days later, having been removed from the care of her family.
That’s Stories from the Sandstone’s main purpose – to look at the marks which have literally been left behind by those who have come before us, and delve into the story behind them.
While the content of the stories told within these pages may be slightly more horrific and confronting than those first heard in a classroom, they are nonetheless just as important in the way they worked to shape the society and culture we now know as Australian. Whether you delve into the book every now and then – such as the coffee table style allows – or immerse yourself in it cover to cover (as I did) – this book will captivate and enrich your understanding of Australia’s migrant history.
Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History (from the University of Cambridge) says, “Stories from the Sandstone offers much more than a glimpse into this past. It is a whole world that we see. As Sydney’s dramatic weather inevitably wears away the sandstone, this team’s work, and this arresting book, will endure as a most significant record. [It] gives us not just deep archival and close archaeological analysis, but years of intimate connection with a remarkable cultural landscape on Australia’s edge.”
Honestly, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past by Peter Hobbins, Ursula K Frederick and Anne Clarke is published through Arbon Publishing. Copies are available via their website or through your local bookstore and online.