A little-known nurse death at North Head: 1838

In January 1838 Minerva was quarantined at North Head due to an outbreak of typhus fever on board. It carried Scottish immigrants and a group of German missionaries.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of 10 March 1838 reports 16 deaths in quarantine. One of them was an unnamed nurse. Her burial would have taken place in what is known today as the First Cemetery, now completely overgrown with the gravestones already all removed during the 19th century.


Champion, Shelagh & George Champion. The ship Minerva in quarantine 1838. Killarney Heights, NSW: Shelagh Champion & George Champion, 1993.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 March 1838, p. 2.


Sydney residents in quarantine: the 1877 and the 1881 smallpox cases

It is commonly known that the North Head Quarantine Station was established in 1832 to isolate sea passengers carrying a dangerous infectious disease or suspected of carrying one. The Station’s powers dealt with those coming from without – they were put in place to deal with external threats. It is also commonly known that the bubonic plague that started in the Rocks area of Sydney’s harbour precinct in January 1900 resulted in the necessity of removing patients and contacts to the Quarantine Station. However, the first case of removal of afflicted Sydney residents to North Head occurred in January 1877. It involved three of the four young daughters of the Holden family from Miller’s Point in the Rocks area, who all suffered from smallpox and did not recover from it. The first to be infected died at home. The other three died on the double-deck, 30-bed hospital ship Faraway. It was moored in Little Sirius Cove on the other side of the harbour in Mosman, because SS Brisbane, which came from China and was believed to be the source of the smallpox outbreak, had already been in Spring Cove at the Quarantine Station since December (Foley, 1995, p. 67). The gravestone of Catherine Holden, who was the first to die at the age of 19 on 6 January 1877, is today preserved in the museum at the Luggage Store Visitor Centre (A14-17) in the Wharf Precinct of the former Quarantine Station, now operating as a hotel called Q Station. The museum is on the waterfront of Spring Cove. For information on her gravestone, see https://ehive.com/account/3671/object/35963/Headstone_Catherine_Holden_.

After Catherine Holden’s death her body was taken to the Quarantine Station – hence the gravestone mentioned above. The third Holden death took place on 13 January 1877, with the second death some time between the 11th and the 13th. The fourth death took place on the 27th. The girls’ father became ill with smallpox on the 15th but survived.

The four Holden girls were buried in the Second Cemetery, which came into use in June 1853. It was situated on a hill behind the Second Class Quarters, which later became the Third Class Precinct.

Although not mentioned by name, Catherine Holden was the smallpox patient referred to by Dr T H Gillman in his letter to Sydney Morning Herald; it was dated 1 January 1877 and was published in the same newspaper the following day. Dr Gillman first attended to Ms Holden at 6.30 pm on 30 December 1876, who was lying ill at home. The Millers Point residence of the Holden family was close to Summerbell’s Wharf, where SS Brisbane was moored. Realising the urgency of a potential epidemic, on the same evening Dr Gillman visited Dr Haynes Gibbes Alleyne, the Health Officer at Port Jackson who was in control of the North Head Quarantine Station. Dr Alleyne immediately ordered the Holden residence to be placed under watch. Dr Gillman did not mention in his letter whether Catherine Holden was removed to quarantine. That she actually died at home while in Dr Gillman’s care was mentioned at a Legislative Assembly hearing that was reported in Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser on 23 January 1877. Dr Gillman visited the patient daily until her death. On 9 January 1877, two other Holden girls became sick with smallpox. Instead of Dr Gillman, it was Dr Louis Foucart who treated the Holdens this time, who also discovered that two more family members, too, had smallpox. On 12 January 1877 the four Holden family members – presumably the father and his three daughters – were all removed to the hospital ship Faraway.

Significantly, as observed by quarantine historian Jean Foley in Foley (1995), the removal of the Holden girls to quarantine possibly prevented a smallpox epidemic from taking place in 1877.

A meticulous study of smallpox in the Australian history of medicine that is Cumpston (1914) mentions the case of the Holden family but not the quarantining of four of its members aboard Faraway (Cumpston, 1914, pp. 10-11). In fact Cumpston is not sure whether the first female who got sick was a Holden or whether she died or recovered. By evaluating the information from the different sources mentioned above, we can state quite confidently that it was Catherine Holden. An important finding is, however, made on the same pages in Cumpston (1914), in that the outbreak was caused by a case of smallpox on board SS Brisbane, which was discovered on 12 December 1876 with the patient dying the following day; and that the Holden family resided within the “shipping zone” of the Brisbane, which was anchored in Sydney Harbour. The Brisbane was removed to the Quarantine Station as a result of the first and fatal case of smallpox. Another case of smallpox was discovered on the vessel on 18 December, while it was already in quarantine. The quarantine effectively stopped any further spreading of the disease from SS Brisbane. The steamship was eventually released from quarantine on 27 January 1877 (Cumpston, 1914, p. 10).

During the smallpox epidemic in Sydney in 1881, which began in the month of May, North Head was again used as a destination for Sydney residents infected with smallpox and their contacts. Dr Cumpston (1880-1954), appointed in 1921 as Director-General of Health and Director of Quarantine after many yeas of distinguished service in public health and in the quarantine service, observed that laxness at a quarantine station is a key factor in the spread of diseases:

It is interesting to note that amongst those persons removed to the Quarantine Station seven developed small-pox after arriving at the station, and it is quite clear that the carelessness of the authorities in permitting free contact between some of the patients and some of the others isolated was directly responsible for some, at any rate, of those cases (Cumpston, 1914, p. 20).

During the 1881 smallpox epidemic the total number of deaths was 40, which represented 25.9% of those suffering from the disease (Cumpston, 1914, p.13). Vaccination against smallpox was widely available since 1840 in England, when it completely replaced the earlier, and less effective, practice of variolation (Riedel, 2005, p. ?). However, revaccinations were necessary to ensure lifelong immunity against smallpox.

50 of the estimated 572 burials at the Quarantine Station were Sydney residents who died either before or during quarantine.


Cumpston, J H L (1914). The history of small-pox in Australia, 1788-1908. Melbourne: Albert J Mullett.

Foley, Jean Duncan (1995). In quarantine: a history of Sydney’s quarantine station 1828-1984. Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.

Riedel, Stefan (2005). Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center), 18(1), pp. 21-25.