Torrens Island Quarantine Station Tour

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Looking for something different to do in Adelaide? How about this Torrens Island Quarantine Station tour?

“Quarantine” has recently hit the headlines with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But this is not the first time quarantine has been a thing when entering Australia.

These latest events have piqued the interest of those questioning what quarantine was like in the past.

The Torrens Island Quarantine Station tour has garnered new interest and become popular with locals and visitors alike. Here is my review of that tour.

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About the Torrens Island Quarantine Station Tour

This is Refshauge House, the Administration Block, but also the dispensary and where any immunisations were done

The Torrens Island Quarantine Station Tour (which I am just going to call “the tour” for the sake of brevity) is run by the people from the South Australian Maritime Museum.

While they have been held for the last ten years, they have not been regular tours, but rather ad hoc special events.

The tours run only between April and October, to avoid the summer heat and some of the potential creepy crawlies that could come with it.

With the increased interest, and because the limited number of tours always sell out, the plan is to run the tours more regularly .

The tours can be booked through the South Australian Maritime Museum website, but with demand so strong, I recommend giving the museum a call to go on a waiting list for the next availability.

With more tours being offered in the future, hopefully, they will become easier to book online.

The tour fee not only includes the ninety minutes spent with a guide out at Torrens Island, but it also gives you entry to the SA Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide on the same day.

This is very good value, considering the tour is $30, and museum access alone is $21.50.

Torrens Island today is home to two of Adelaide’s biggest power stations and is a restricted area. The only access only the island for tourists is through one of these tours. To start the tour you will need to make your way to Torrens Island.

Access to the island is via a bridge at the southern end. You will need to stop at the boom gates and give your name before being given directions for finding the quarantine facility towards the top of the island.

The island is 6km long, so while not huge, it is big enough to worry about getting lost along the way. It is fairly straightforward though.

I have been trying to do one of these tours for a while Every time I checked the website, the tours were all sold out. In frustration, I gave the Maritime Museum a call, which led to me being offered a place on a private tour.

While this is not the norm, and I don’t suggest you try it, it is important to note that if you have a group of more than 10 people, they will consider putting on a tour just for you. Get in contact and discuss your needs.

The tour I was doing was the last of the year, so now look out for dates starting again in April. You can find them here.

The Torrens Island Quarantine Station Tour Experience

The Torrens Island Quarantine Station was originally built in 1879 to stop people arriving from other countries from bringing smallpox into the colony of South Australia.

The facility could house 128 people, and unlike today, they had plenty of space and fresh air during their 14-day quarantine period.

It was officially closed down in 1980 after the World Health Organisation officially declared smallpox eradicated, but it hadn’t seen a passenger since 1966.

The Quarantine Regulations when many pf the passengers arrived

The tour began with a rundown on the general history of Torrens Island. I had no idea that it has been used for so many different purposes over the years.

Along with quarantine for people, it has been the site of animal quarantine for South Australia too. It hosted a Wilderness Camp for a few years and was a popular site for many annual picnics during the late 1800s.

As mentioned above, today it is the main electricity hub for South Australia.

Sadly it was the site of an Internment Camp during the world wars and is also a sacred Kaurna site as the final resting place for approximately 70 skeletons that were many years ago exhumed from the adjacent Le Fevre Peninsula.

The tour took us through about eight of the remaining buildings on the site. It starts with the Waiting Room, which is where new arrivals would start.

They would have been transferred to Torrens Island by boat from Port Adelaide (there was no bridge in those days), alighting on the jetty that was built in 1879.

(The jetty is currently in a poor state, but it is hoped it will be restored soon and visitors can once again come to the island by boat)

The Waiting Room is the first building that new passengers would come into
In the men’s waiting room there is a great timeline showing the history of Torrens Island
In the women’s waiting room
These are some of the original grave markers from the cemetery. The do have names and dates on them, it is just hard to see in the photo
The jetty is not in the best shape. Hopefully, the funding will be available for it will be restored soon

We then saw the laundry and bathing block, and the process of people arriving, showering or bathing in disinfectant and being returned their fumigated clothing was described.

The whole process was meticulous, with people separated, sometimes by class, others by race, and yet other times by gender.

A huge laundry was needed to clean all the linen and bedding. This is one of the washing vats
This huge wringer was used for all the linen
The bathing room was originally divided down the middle. First class passengers got the more dignified baths, and second and third class passengers were sent to the showers
The three-part showers! “Foul” passengers would enter on one side, remove their clothing that would go off to be disinfected, shower in the middle cubicle, and then find their already disinfected second set of clothes waiting for them in the third cubicle. They could then proceed into the “clean” sections of the Quarantine Station.
Inside the building that housed the linen store was an even smaller, lead-lined building – used to keep the best linen away from the vermin.

The cottage used by families while they quarantined was actually quite spacious and comfortable by the standards of the times.

While they no longer exist, there were dormitories for single men and women, bathrooms, a dining hall and more.

Thirty of these cottages were brought flat-packed from San Francisco and set up here. Only one remains, although they do know where some of the others around SA ended up after they were sold off
Each of the cottages had fours rooms. Three were bedrooms with two beds in each room. The cottage could house one larger family or be split in two for smaller families.
The Quarantine Station was big enough to require street signs. The Main Street ran between these buildings
These buildings are from the 1950s, and it’s not known if they were for staff or passengers. They have attached bathrooms, so if it was for passengers, it was certainly only those in first class.

The whole site was split into two areas that were called the foul areas and the clean, and it was easy to see the division in many of the buildings.

It was particularly noticeable in the isolation area where those people actually infected with the disease lived.

Here people were confined to a smaller, fenced area and access was only through a building that included a bathroom and change area.

This building was the entrance point to the isolation area. The small length of corrugated iron is all that is left of the fence.

Near the isolation area, the morgue is also still standing. This tiny building has a strange historical element – it’s probably the earliest example of an asbestos building remaining in South Australia.

Inside the morgue is simply a concrete slab, where anyone who died here would be laid out, and if required, an autopsy would be carried out.

There are 17 known deaths at the quarantine station. They were buried in the nearby cemetery, but that is not part of the general tour as it is too far to fit into the time frame.

The site has its own small morgue, only used a few times over the years

Interestingly, there are also four people buried in this cemetery who died of bubonic plague in Adelaide (not residents of the quarantine facility) because at the time they thought this was far enough away from other people to be safe from the plague.

The tour finishes with what is possibly the most interesting building, the Disinfecting Block. Inside is the huge autoclave that many of the passengers’ possessions were passed through, disinfecting them with steam.

The autoclave is huge, and really an incredible feat of engineering. There is another area where those possessions that could not get wet were fumigated.

This autoclave was used to steam much of the luggage that came onto the Quarantine Station.

This was not a pristine, highly scripted tourist experience, in fact, it felt more like a stroll through a new area with a friend. It is obvious that there is ongoing work being done to provide more information and an authentic experience.

While this slow process is hindered a little by the many parties involved, the volunteers and others are clearly passionate.

That it isn’t perfect is not a deterrent though, the rawness of the place lends itself to the past events here. Even though this is relatively recent history, there is still a lot that isn’t known or fully understood.

As people research, I can imagine the story will evolve further.

Overall the tour was informative and relevant. It was particularly interesting comparing the smallpox quarantine experience with today, and seeing how similar things really were.

Hearing the stories about the reluctance of people to receive smallpox vaccines when they were first discovered was like deja vu.

And it was compulsory from the 1850’s to have had a small pox vaccination before entering South Australia – sound familiar?

Spend some more time exploring the history of Port Adelaide with these posts
Things to do in Port Adelaide
Where to Stay in Port Adelaide
Kayaking with Dolphins

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Josie sitting cross-legged in a garden
About the author

Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred, living here for her whole life. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.