Brisbane Open House: Lytton Quarantine Station

Visiting Lytton Quarantine Station has been on my ‘must-do’ list for too long. Thankfully, this weekend was Brisbane Open House, an annual event that sees select buildings open to the public. It is also a wonderful opportunity for people to engage with Brisbane’s heritage through self-guided or guided tours. It will probably come as no surprise, but I am fascinated in the history of disease. I have been researching the Spanish Flu lately so to see a place that would have quarantined those who suffered from the disease was quite remarkable. Before delving into our visit, here is some more information on the Station.

Lytton Quarantine Station

Prior to the construction of Lytton Quarantine Station, there were human quarantine facilities at Dunwich and on Peel Island (a place that was also a lazaret or leper colony). Those arriving into Brisbane had to first go through a quarantine facility to lower the risk of spreading any infectious diseases. From 1913 to 1914, Lytton Quarantine Station was established, consisting of buildings such as an arrivals area, bath house, disinfecting block and a dining hall. I was quite surprised to learn that the facility operated until the late 1980s. In 1990, the area was declared a Historic National Park, along with the Fort Lytton Military Precinct.

Out of the eight criteria for being inscribed on the Queensland Heritage Register, Lytton Quarantine Station meets seven: criterion A, B, C, D, E, G and H.

Criterion A – The place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

The history of the site, including the buildings, illustrates the evolution of attitudes towards the management of infectious diseases.

Criterian B – The place demonstrates rare, uncommon or endangered aspects of Queensland’s cultural heritage.

Although not every building has survived, those that have provide evidence of an early Australian quarantine station.

Criterion C – The place has potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of Queensland’s history.

I didn’t realise this during our visit, but the Quarantine Station had a cemetery onsite during its period of operation. Because of this, the site contains a substantial amount of archaeological information.

Criterion D – The place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places.

The cultural place being a marine quarantine station. Lytton is characteristic of quarantine stations from this time including its isolated location, building material, grounds and services offered. It was the largest of three established by the Federal Government in Queensland (the others being at Thursday Island and Cape Pallarenda).

Criterion E – The place is important because of its aesthetic significance.

The site can illustrate the experience of the quarantine process almost from start to finish. We planned our visit following this path – starting at the arrival reception and working our way through the buildings logically.

Criterion G – The place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

Considering this is the first place many immigrants experienced coming into Queensland, the site does have a strong association with many groups.

Criterion H – The place has a special association with the life or work of a particular person, group or organisation of importance in Queensland’s history.

Lytton Quarantine Station was designed by Dr JSC Elkington, someone who would later develop much of Queensland’s early 20th century public health infrastructure. Dr Elkington was also an expert on quarantine practice during the early 20th century.

Our Experience

I want to start by saying a huge thank you to all the wonderful volunteers who were working today. As we went into each building, there was someone super passionate waiting to answer any questions and give us a brief overview of the building. This really enhanced our experience and made the day even more enjoyable.

As I said earlier, we wanted our visit to basically follow the path of someone newly arriving at the quarantine station. Here is where we visited.

1. Reception House

If you arrived in Queensland and authorities discovered someone was sick onboard your ship, there is no doubt that you were going to spend some time in quarantine. You were taken to this wharf pictured below and walked to the Reception House.

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Here, you were divided depending on your class (or class of passenger). Your details were noted and belongings taken to be sterilised. Your next stop was the bath house. I’ve also included a picture of some rules and regulations that people had to follow during their quarantine period.

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2. Bath House

This is where you would shower and ensure that any bugs, dirt and debris was removed.

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3. Disinfecting Block

While you were showering and getting ready, your belongings would be going through an autoclave (a device that uses steam to sterilize objects). The one pictured below is just over 100 years old.

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4. Boiler House

The boiler house provided steam that generated enough electricity for the quarantine station. Steam was particularly important for the autoclave and for the bath house to heat the water.

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5. Dining Hall

Fortunately, the Dining Hall building has survived. Many others, such as the hospital and sleeping quarters, are no longer standing.

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For Brisbane Open House, the Dining Hall was transformed into the hospital, allowing for an insight into medical care during the Spanish Flu. This was pretty much my favourite part of the entire visit. Especially seeing old medical instruments not behind glass, but laid out on a table as if they were shortly going to be used. There was also someone in a early 20th century nurses uniform walking around which was quite atmospheric. On the other side of the room were some artifacts from the early 20th century including a coke bottle and tin of corned beef (see photograph below).

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Final Thoughts

Our overall experience of the day was overwhelmingly positive. I had a couple of great opportunities to delve into some history of disease and treatment in the actual heritage buildings where quarantine procedures took place. Seeing this has most definitely added a new layer of understanding to my research.

On their website, it does mention Fort Lytton (the military precinct) is open on Sundays and public holidays. I am not quite sure if this includes the quarantine buildings, so would definitely check before heading out. It is well worth visiting and seeing such an interesting part of Queensland’s history.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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