With the discovery of gold in 1851 the steady flow of immigrants sailing into the Port Phillip District became a flood. Within a year nearly 100,000 people had arrived in Melbourne by sea.
Due to the crowded conditions on board, ships were breeding grounds for disease. Cholera, smallpox, typhoid, influenza and measles occurred in epidemics in the 1800s and caused many deaths.
A number of ships suffered significant outbreaks of disease on the voyage to the colony. The Ticonderoga lost 100 passengers to scarlet fever and typhoid by the time it anchored off Portsea.
Protecting Victoria from disease
To control and prevent the spread of these diseases Point Nepean was opened in 1852 as a maritime quarantine reserve. Ships carrying passengers with infectious diseases were required to land all cases there along with those at risk of contracting the disease. Passengers' luggage was taken ashore to be fumigated with formaldehyde gas and passengers were required to take baths using antiseptic soap.
Design for a quarantine station
The quarantine station contains the oldest barracks-style accommodation built for quarantine purposes in Australia, pre-dating the oldest intact quarantine structures at North Head, Sydney, by 16 years.
The isolation hospital and ward, constructed between 1916 and 1920, and the emergency influenza huts illustrate the bathing and disinfecting standards set by the Commonwealth during the First World War. Many soldiers returning home from overseas duty were required to be quarantined in these buildings at Point Nepean after falling victim to the Spanish influenza pandemic.
Defending the Victorian colony
During the 19th century the colonies of Australia were concerned about their external security. There were few resources for the protection of individual colonies once the British Imperial troops left in 1870, leaving defence in the hands of the colonial governments.
Officers from the British armed forces prepared reports on the ability of the colonies to provide for their defence, which included recommendations and plans for possible fortifications. The most significant of these reports were prepared in the late 1870s by British fortifications experts, and formed the basis of defence planning in Australia for the next 30 years.
The reports suggested that Port Phillip Bay should be defended by a battery and keep at Queenscliff, a fort at Point Nepean and batteries at Swan Channel Island. Fortifications on Point Nepean were built from the late 1870s and included Fort Nepean, Eagles Nest, Fort Pearce and Pearce Barracks.
The purpose of this string of forts was to ensure that any attacking ships attempting to enter the bay would be under fire from a series of guns from the time they passed through the south and west channels.
By 1886 guns were in place at Fort Nepean and in 1888 the battery at Eagles Nest was erected as well as the new barracks at Fort Nepean.
Fort Nepean was known in the 1880s as Victoria's 'Gibraltar' and in 1890 it was reported that Melbourne was the best-defended commercial city of the British Empire.
Testing the defences
The value of these defences was demonstrated on the declaration of the First World War when the German steamer, Pfalz, attempted to depart Port Phillip Bay but was forced to turn back after being fired upon by the batteries at Fort Nepean. It was the first shot fired by Australian forces in the conflict.
In 1980 the Point Nepean Quarantine Station was officially closed.
Today the fortifications on Point Nepean and Fort Nepean in particular, are regarded as unique examples of the crucial role coastal defence played in protecting the Australian colonies of the British Empire.
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