Headstone "John Harris"; 1881; QS2007.39


Sydney Quarantine Station Moveable Heritage Collection


Headstone "John Harris"

About this object

This is the headstone of John Harris, a Sydney resident who was quarantined at the Station during the 1881 smallpox epidemic, and who died, from smallpox, at the Station on 7 August 1881. He was buried in the Second Burial Ground.
The smallpox epidemic in Sydney lasted from May 1881 until March 1882, during which time 154 people became infected and 40 people died. Compared with other epidemics of the period, it was not particularly severe: for example, during the scarlet fever epidemic of 1875-1876, 8,000-10,000 people became infected, and there were 575 deaths. However, public criticism over the government’s handling of the problem was much greater than in any earlier epidemic, and the government’s response to this criticism marks an “important stage in the history of the Station and of public health administration in New South Wales”. Much of the criticism arose from the quarantine of Sydney residents at the Station. Between 16 June and 17 November 1881, 39 smallpox cases, at least three of whom were incorrectly diagnosed, and 65 contacts were taken from their Sydney homes to the Station, where 14 of these people died. The main criticism seems to have been mostly that the Station did not have the facilities or the administrative organisation required to cope with the situation and the demands placed upon them by the sheer numbers of people being quarantined there. The stories coming out of this situation are of mistreatment, neglect, and hardship (stemming from shortages of medicine, and poor standards of care and accommodation).
A Royal Commission was established on 13 September 1881, “to make a full, diligent and searching inquiry into the management of the establishment known as the Quarantine Station at North Head and the Hulk Faraway”. On 20 December 1881, the Commission was also requested “to inquire into and report upon the general management of the Quarantine Station from 1 January 1876 to 1 June 1881”. The Commission resulted in sweeping changes to the staffing and administration of the Station, and “a new era began in the history of the Station, in which there was closer supervision of procedures and greater accountability for the actions of staff”. Very early in January 1882, a Board of Health was appointed as a statutory body whose responsibilities included overseeing quarantine.
A little of the events of John Harris’ final days is known from evidence given at the Royal Commission by E. Verdich, who had been quarantined on the Hulk Faraway with him. The men quarantined on the Faraway were left under the care of William Walsh, a Sydney resident who had been employed to care for smallpox patients during the quarantine of the ship Hero, and at least four other vessels, in 1872. “Walsh’s only medical qualification was a certificate classifying him as a medical assistant, granted by the London Society of Apothecaries in 1838”, and during the quarantine of the Hero his “lack of formal medical qualifications was questioned by the New South Wales Legislative Council on 31 July 1872”. Walsh was already on board the Faraway in charge of a Chinese smallpox patient and three contacts when it was decided to use the Station for the quarantine of Sydney residents who were infected. Walsh was to take charge of any male smallpox cases sent to the Faraway from Sydney – all male smallpox cases were sent to the Faraway, while infected women and children went to the Station’s hospital under the care of Dr Clune, and contacts were housed on the Healthy Ground under the care of Dr Caffyn.
Verdich’s evidence … provided some insight into the pitiful last days of John Harris, 22, and George Dougherty, 73. Both men mostly lay helpless in their soiled beds, sometimes wandering naked and semi-delirious up to the top deck at night in search of the toilet closets. At one stage Walsh barricaded them below with an ice chest; on another occasion when Dougherty returned repeatedly to gaze at Harris’ coffin, which remained on board for nearly 24 hours [after he died], Walsh threatened to tie him to his bed.
Verdich’s evidence further illustrates the conditions and treatment experienced on board the Faraway:
Verdich had arrived without any change of clothing on the instructions of the constable who took him to Cowper’s wharf [,from where he was to be conveyed to the Station]. But from 10 July until about 10 August he was not given any other clothing and his only towel was “an old rag, greasy from the table”. Clothing was only supplied after he agreed to Walsh’s request that he place John Harris’ body in a coffin on 7 August.
John Harris’ story, as told in E. Verdich’s evidence at the Royal Commission, illustrates conditions on board the Faraway, and the lack of care given to the sick by those in charge.
John Harris’ headstone is historically significant as an artefact of this period of at the Quarantine Station, and as such has great interpretive potential for telling this story. Although it is one of the darker chapters in the Station’s history, being a time of mismanagement and poor treatment of the people quarantined there, it is also a very important part of the Station’s history, and the history of the health system in New South Wales in general, as the Royal Commission’s findings resulted in changes to the way health was administered in New South Wales, and in improvements to the management structure of the Station.
This headstone is fairly rare, being one of only three headstones in the Quarantine Station collection that commemorate Sydney residents who died at the Station during the 1881 smallpox epidemic, out of a total 40 Sydney residents who died there at this time.
This headstone is representative of headstones of this historical period, as the wording of the inscription appears to be typical for this period.
It holds social, or spiritual, significance not only for people at the time it was erected, but also today. For the people who erected the stone, it was socially/spiritually significant as a personal memorial to a loved one. However, headstones, or grave markers, continue to be socially significant to later generations who never knew the person, as demonstrated by the fact that this headstone (along with several others) was removed from the ground and placed under shelter to protect it from weather damage. Additionally, descendants of persons who died at the Quarantine Station remain in contact with the Station to this day, enquiring after the condition of their ancestors’ grave and headstone, and seeking to arrange a visit.

Date Made


Medium and Materials


Inscription and Marks

who died Aug 7
(aged 22) years

Object Type


Object number


Copyright Licence  

All rights reserved



Include tags such as place names, people, dates, events and colours. Use commas to separate multiple tags. e.g. Pablo Picasso, Madrid, red, 1930s.


eHive copyright disclaimer

It is the responsibility of the eHive Account Holder to gain copyright clearance for any images or content published on eHive. If you are concerned about the copyright status for any content in eHive or would like more information on using or ordering copies of content, please contact the Account Holder of that content. For further information see our Copyright Claims page.