Two invasions, two nations and a solitary carving

Old Man’s Hat, where the 1940 inscription marking the detention of <em>Pierre Loti</em> was carved, offers spectacular views over South Head, the Tasman Sea and hundreds of historic inscriptions left by sailors, passengers and Sydney residents. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

Old Man’s Hat, where the 1940 inscription marking the detention of Pierre Loti was carved, offers spectacular views over South Head, the Tasman Sea and hundreds of historic inscriptions left by sailors, passengers and Sydney residents. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

Saigon bristled with terror in April 1975. As shelling and small-arms fire sounded out an ever-shrinking cordon around the South Vietnamese capital, wails of a different kind split the airspace above the city. On board a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules aircraft, over 200 traumatised children and infants – primarily orphans – were being tended by nurses, doctors and military personnel. Leaving Ton Son Nhat airport on 3 April, these bewildered passengers were then transferred to a Qantas flight bound for Sydney. Numbering among the 2500 children scooped up by ‘Operation Babylift’, they arrived at North Head Quarantine Station just weeks ahead of the final collapse of South Vietnam.

Oddly enough, the Babylift children were not the first displaced Vietnamese to be held at North Head. It would be another year before the earliest refugee boats – the vanguard of a rickety flotilla escaping the humanitarian crisis afflicting Southeast Asia – landed on northern Australian shores. Although two small groups of these arrivals were briefly accommodated at Sydney’s Quarantine Station in 1977, in April 1975 only the Babylift evacuees were being tended by nurses and community volunteers at this hilly headland near Manly.

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The many survivals of Barbara Crawford

The reality of travelling steerage where diseases found the perfect conditions. ANMM collection 00005627

The reality of travelling steerage, where diseases found the perfect conditions. ANMM Collection 00005627

The year 1837 was a busy one for the colony of New South Wales. Busiest of all was Sydney Harbour, which saw thousands of convicts arriving and a growing number of immigrants. In addition to the free single men and women, whole families were travelling from Britain to try their luck with a new life.

On 5 November 1836 the immigrant ship Lady McNaughton left Ireland for Australia. On board was the largest number of children ever to immigrate to Australia at that time. Passenger lists show 196 of the passengers of the ship were under the age of 14. However, by the time the ship was about 300 kilometres from Sydney, 54 of the passengers had died – 44 of those being children. Even in the age of dangerous sea travel, this was an extraordinarily high death rate. The typhus fever on board showed no signs of abating, with some 90 passengers still afflicted.

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A Polish ship, British children and caring Sydneysiders captured in concrete

This memorial to British children evacuated to Australia in 1940 also commemorates the local women who looked after them at Sydney's Quarantine Station. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

This memorial to British children evacuated to Australia in 1940 also commemorates the local women who looked after them at Sydney’s Quarantine Station. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

The Polish passenger liner MV Batory seems an odd ship to be commemorated at Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station, as it never moored there. Yet its presence is captured in concrete: ‘BRITISH EVACUEE / CHILDREN / ARRIVED 16TH OCTOBER / 1940. M.S. BATORY / VA + DS’, followed by 37 names etched into four neat panels.

In fact, despite outbreaks of influenza, measles and ‘school sores’, the Batory was never quarantined. Rather, for the British children it rushed to Sydney in 1940, North Head represented a safe haven from German bombers and invasion scares.

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