Sailing to Australia in 1835, 16-year-old John Dawson watched in alarm as three of his sisters developed smallpox. Although all survived this dreaded disease, their faces bore tell-tale scars for the rest of their lives. Yet John left an even more enduring memento of his family’s perilous voyage in the soft sandstone of North Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
Carving a lengthy message proclaiming that the Dawsons had ‘landed here to perform quarantine’, John began a tradition that continued until Sydney’s Quarantine Station finally closed in 1984. During its 150 years of operation, nearly 16,000 people were held in isolation on this beautiful headland. Interned for days, weeks or even months, many followed John’s example, leaving an extraordinary gallery of more than 1600 carved and painted sandstone inscriptions.
Combining intensive archaeological investigation and historical research, Stories from the Sandstone illuminates Australia’s past through the portal of these intriguing and often evocative inscriptions, as well as North Head’s numerous headstones. Drawing upon historical records, diaries and other writings, the book highlights the dramatic personal and social effects of diseases – such as bubonic plague, typhus fever, ‘Spanish’ flu and smallpox – that once terrified the community. We learn where the authors of the inscriptions came from, why they left their homeland and what became of them.
With well-researched text and fascinating contemporary and historical images, Stories from the Sandstone conveys the compelling personal stories of lives lived not just in despair, but also in hope for the future. The result is a captivating and intensely felt picture of the making of our society.
Hardcover, 304 pages, 23cm, 200+ colour throughout
Peter Hobbins, Ursula K Frederick and Annie Clarke
Arbon Publishing, 2016