The Cost of Immigration

Immigrant Quarantine in New Zealand
1864 to 1920

"It is our painful duty to have to chronicle the arrival of the above ship with so much sickness on board, and we regret to add that death has been very busy amongst the immigrants during the voyage from London"
(Arrival of the ship COLLINGWOOD - New Zealand Times Monday July 12th 1876)

The poignant opening passage from the New Zealand Times description of the arrival of the immigrant ship Collingwood in Wellington indicates one reason for the establishment of Quarantine Legislation by the Colonial Government in the early 1860’s and why all main New Zealand ports were required to set up immigrant quarantine facilities.

Generally speaking the passengers were thoroughly checked before boarding but in the close confines of a sailing ship with 200 to 300 souls on board isolated at sea for three months or more any form of contagion would spread quickly. Whooping cough, pneumonia, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, scarlet fever and smallpox, were all seen at some time or other and had the potential to ravage fledgling communities in the new land. Deaths listed in the Lyttelton Times report of the 1877 sailing of the Cardigan Castle (January 8th 1877) give some indication of the illnesses afflicting immigrants of the day: 2 from pneumonia, 2 diphtheria, 1 apoplexy, 2 tabes mesenterica, 1 enteric fever, 2 atrophy from birth, 1 inanition and 1 from softening of the brain. The voyage ended with a three month stay in quarantine for those on board.

Arriving immigrants breathed a sigh of relief in passing by the quarantine station. The Otago Daily Times report of the arrival of the ship Wild Deer identifies the ".....robust appearance of the immigrants who thronged her decks and uttered a variety of ejaculations denotive of satisfaction at having escaped the horrors of quarantine". The joy of the passengers is confirmed by one gentleman who stated "Eh, Sirs, we have been mercifully dealt by! To think of the Scimitar yonder - her 26 deaths".

On January 12th 1864 at Government House in Auckland (then the seat of Government), Quarantine Regulations were signed into law by Governor George Gray. These regulations required actions by Harbour Boards, Boards of Health, Provincial Superintendents and ships masters to protect the country and its people from disease. Gradually provinces took action to implement the regulations and by 1872 all had operative quarantine facilities.


Motuihe Island
Auckland was one of the last provinces to implement the Governor’s edict. On July 10th 1872 the island of Motuihe (spelt Motu Ihi in the proclamation) in the Hauraki Gulf and an area of sea surrounding it were appointed a quarantine facility for the Waitemata by Thomas Bannatyne Gillies, Superintendent of the Province of Auckland. Some of the buildings from the military barracks at Point Britomart on the mainland, then being demolished, were moved to the island to be used as quarantine barracks.

One ship making use of the facilities was the "old tub" (dubbed thus by some of her passengers by virtue of her lack of "clip") Bebington built in 1859. She arrived on July 15th 1876 and was met at Rangitoto Reef by the port health officer. There being typhoid and some 67 cases of measles on board, she was sent into quarantine where she remained for 5 weeks.

A few months prior to the establishment of Motuihe, on May 4th 1872, Blockhouse Point on the Manukau Harbour was set up as the quarantine station for immigrant arrivals on the other side of Auckland.


Somes Island
The Wellington Province quarantine station was originally on dry land. On November 22nd 1866, I.E Featherston, the Provincial Superintendent identified a portion of land near present-day Kaiwharrawarra as the "…place for the performance of Quarantine where all vessels liable to Quarantine and the crews passengers and persons on board thereof perform the same."

On December 21st 1868 the location of the quarantine station was changed to Somes Island (after Joseph Somes Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company) in the middle of Wellington Harbour. In 1872 Somes Island was used to isolate the passengers and crew of the ship England because of a suspected outbreak of smallpox amongst them. Barracks were constructed for them and during the period of quarantine two cases of smallpox were confirmed. In that same year the ship Halcione entered Wellington Harbour flying the yellow flag denoting that smallpox was suspected on board. 350 passengers and crew and the luckless pilot were isolated on the quarantine station.

The island remained a quarantine station for humans until 1920 and during this was home to some interesting but tragic characters. Kim Lee, a Chinese fruiterer was thought to have leprosy and was confined to tiny Mokopuna Island at the northern tip of Somes Island. Mr Lee died almost 3 months later, bequeathing to the island the name of Leper Island which remains in use to this day. The names and dates-of-death of those who died on the island between 1872 and 1919 have been recorded on a memorial situated over the original island burial ground.


Quail Island & Ripapa Island
Quail Island and Ripapa Island (known as Ripa Island) are situated in Lyttelton Harbour. In the early 1860’s a quarantine station was established at Camp Bay on Quail Island, the larger of the two islands. In 1873 the quarantine station was transferred to Ripapa Island but a facility remained active on Quail Island. Between 1874 and 1875 quarters for housing quarantine immigrants were built on Quail Island. It was officially proclaimed a quarantine station on February 11th 1875. Single men were accommodated on Quail Island and married couples and single girls on Ripa Island.

The first use of the new facilities on Quail Island occurred with the arrival of the Rakaia from Plymouth on February 7th 1875 aboard which eleven deaths had occurred and a number of illness including one hundred cases of mumps, fifty five cases of measles & eight cases of scarlet fever. On January 5th 1877 the ship Cardigan Castle arrived at Lyttelton Harbour having left London, Gravesend on September 30th 1876. Quoting the Lyttelton Times of January 8th Jan 1877; "The married people and single girls, with their bedding, were all landed at Ripa Island, and the single men at Quail Island". An extract from the diary of Sarah Stephens, written aboard this voyage of the Cardigan Castle, states for February 6th:

"We have anchored opposite the Quarrantine (sic) Station. The pilot did not come aboard because there is illness in the ship. One child died this morning" (4 year old of tonsillitis) "and there is one married woman and a single girl ill. The Commissioners will be here at ten to decide whether we are ready to go ashore or not. All the girls have donned their finery in readiness."

Followed by the wistful entry.....................

"They have been and it is decided that all are to go into Quarrantine (sic). The married people and single women to the station on Ripa Island opposite and the single men to Quail Island two miles distant."

Quail Island was later used as a home for 9 patients with leprosy and is now under the control of the Department of Conservation.


Large Quarantine Island & Smaller Quarantine Island
As with Lyttelton Harbour, Port Chalmers (the harbour for Dunedin and the province of Otago) had two islands designated as quarantine stations. Both were declared quarantine stations in 1863 when immigration numbers through the port increased markedly. Little Quarantine Island (now Goat Island) became the location for single men and barracks were erected in the 1870’s. It remained as such until 1891 when it’s role changed to that of livestock quarantine. Temporary buildings were erected on Large Quarantine Island in 1863 but were later made permanent. The island remained as a quarantine station until ships from overseas ceased to bring large numbers of immigrants and, quite probably, medical science improved to the stage where these problems could be dealt with by other means.


One of the more obscure Quarantine Stations was in the small harbour of Akaroa on Banks Peninsula in Canterbury. This was an area isolated from the community consisting of "General Government Reserve No. 77A, situate in Akaroa, Banks Peninsula…;" and included a circle of three quarters of a mile radius out to sea from Reserve 77A. It was declared a quarantine reserve on February 4th 1870 by the then Superintendent of Canterbury Province W. M. Rolleston.

Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999, 2000