P for Point Nepean

PEver since I wrote in the 2017 A to Z about John’s great-great-grandparents’ experience at the Quarantine Station in Melbourne we have both been keen to see it for ourselves. Here is an extract from the blog:

The ship’s record on the “Percy” shows John aged 39, a miner, Margaret aged 42, Andrew 17, Ellen Curry 14 (listed as a servant), James 12 and John aged 9.
There had been nine deaths on the voyage from suspected typhus, fever and the effects of overcrowding.  The ship was placed in Quarantine at the Sanitary Station on arrival in Melbourne on 17th April 1870 until 25th April.
We noted on the shipping list that four people were detained for another week after the rest of the passengers were towed on board the ship to Hobson’s Bay. Two of those were Margaret and John Curry!  We found from other sources that on the 21st April Margaret gave birth to a baby girl, Margaret.  I wonder what happened to the rest of the family while the parents stayed at the Sanitary Station?

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It was Sunday, 10th February 2019 when we arrived in Rosebud, on the Mornington Peninsula. The Foreshore Camping Office gave us two options for our campsite in the bayside town of Rye. As we were reversing onto a flat area in amongst stunted gums and banksias, three men came over and demanded we move as we were on their access road. Moving to the second site before an argument broke out we found a reasonably flat area surrounded by less hostile campers. It seemed that people camped here for months every summer and were very possessive of their piece of dirt.

Beach at Sorrento

The next day we set off for Point Nepean National Park, not quite sure what we would see. On the way, we passed the historic seaside town of Sorrento, with an ocean beach on one side and Port Phillip Bay on the other. Next town was Portsea was where our former Prime Minister Harold Holt once lived (more about him later). We pulled into the carpark at the Quarantine Station and spoke to the ranger at the Tourist Information Centre.

We were told it is the second oldest permanent quarantine station in Australia (1852 – 1980). In amongst the 50 plus heritage listed buildings, we were able to identify where John Curry and his family would have slept and even where the baby would have been born. We saw the outside kitchens where the family would have prepared their own meals.

The accommodation used by the Curry family in 1870
Kitchen building out the back
Inside the hospital


Standing on the beach we imagined them being rowed ashore from the “Percy” and feeling dry land under their feet after three months at sea. Margaret would have been pleased she was to give birth in a hospital instead of a lurching, damp and smelly ship.

The beach where they landed

Eighteen years before the Currys arrived, a notorious ship called the Ticonderoga appeared off the heads of Port Phillip Bay, flying the yellow quarantine flag. It had left Liverpool with 795 passengers and 48 crew. During the voyage around 100 passengers died of typhus. As the ship was moored off Point Nepean, the headland was turned into a makeshift quarantine station with 70 more dying after they reached the land.

Michael Veitch wrote the book Hell Ship – The true story of the plague ship Ticonderoga, one of the most calamitous voyages in Australian history, in 2018, and developed a one-person play from it.

Fumigation of belongings
Boiler for sterilizing clothes

Construction of the Quarantine Station proper began not long after the Ticonderoga incident. Five large accommodation blocks were constructed in 1858-59, one for sick passengers and four for those unaffected but quarantined none the less. Following Federation in 1901 control passed to the Commonwealth Government. In the period November 1918 to August 1919 almost 12,000 passengers were quarantined here during the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic.

With advances in modern medicine, the need for a Quarantine Station declined and in 1952 the Department of Defence took over some of the buildings. Nowadays it is a popular tourist destination.

IMG_2587We noticed that a bus left for Fort Nepean every hour. After exploring the Quarantine Station for several hours and eating our picnic lunch (there is no food available there) we paid our $10 and set off on a further adventure. Not knowing what to expect we learnt the fort had been built in 1878 to guard against enemy attack.

Above and below ground we found gun emplacements, barracks, tunnels, ammunition magazines, an engine house and a bomb-proof room. I liked the story about the first shot of the British Empire in WWI coming from here.


The first shot fired after WW1 was declared
Fort Queenscliff at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay

On 5 August 1914, the German ship SS Pfalz attempted to escape from Port Phillip. Within minutes of being notified that war had been declared, Lieutenant-Colonel Sandford at Fort Queenscliff gave an order to Lieutenant C Morris, the Fire Commander at Fort Nepean, to “stop her or sink her”. After the Pfalz ignored signals to halt, the B1 gun fired across her bow. The Pfalz then turned around and the crew was arrested at Portsea. I wondered what happened to the German crew after their arrest. Apparently, they were released into the community, with the condition that they register at a police station once a week.

In March 1915 they were interned in camps with other Germans and German Australians.  The officers were sent to the old Berrima Gaol and the crew sent to Holsworthy near Liverpool, NSW. (More on that in Y for Yerrinbool)

Fort Nepean

In World War 2 Point Nepean made another first. At 1.30am on 4 September 1939, within hours of war being declared, the A1 gun fired across the bow of a ship which failed to identify itself. The ship then identified as the Australian freighter SS Woniora. I would think the crew would have reacted very quickly after that lapse of protocol.

John and I were thinking we would get off the bus at the Harold Holt Memorial and then wait for the next one but our driver anticipated our thoughts. He announced he would stop for fifteen minutes to allow people to walk to the site, take a few photos and wonder, “What did happen to Harold Holt?”

Cheviot Beach where Harold Holt drowned

It was December 1967. I was in 5th year at High School. We all tuned in to the television to hear the news that our 59-year-old Prime Minister had gone swimming in the treacherous waters at Cheviot Beach and drowned.

Soon, the conspiracy theories began to fly. Had Mr Holt been assassinated by the CIA because he intended to pull Australian troops out of Vietnam? Had he committed suicide? Had he been spirited away by a Russian submarine because he was a spy for Moscow? Or had he faked his drowning – as the former British MP John Stonehouse did in 1974 – to join a lover in the south of France?

Harold Holt on the beach with his daughters-in-law, circa 1966.
Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

As a Prime Minister, he is remembered not for what he achieved but for getting himself drowned. John was in England at the time and recalls the newspapers featuring Holt and his three bikini-clad daughters-in-law standing on a beach.

Now we were able to stand on a cliff overlooking Cheviot Beach where all those years ago Harold dived into the surf and was swept away, never to be found.

It was the end of another amazing day in our search for the stories that make up the history of our land.

3 thoughts on “P for Point Nepean

  1. After getting to the end of this fascinating post I feel that I’ve been on quite a journey. Can only imagine how you must have felt by the end of that eventful day. Imagine giving birth to a baby within days of arriving in a new land. You point out that it must have been a relief not to have to give birth on board ship; I’m sure that you are right about that; and it wasn’t Margaret Curry’s first child, neither was she traveling alone. Still; brave, these ancestors of ours!
    Love the strong and lithe young daughter-in-law of Henry Holt; I wonder what did happen to him? I hadn’t heard his story before.

    Liked by 1 person

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