FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
The Fever Ship
They dared the perils of the sea
To win with hope the promised land
To find new homes was not to be
But lonely graves upon its strand.
Hymn sung by St Martin’s choir at the reburial of
Scottish emigrants exhumed from Elwood in 1898.
Point Ormond, at the south end of Elwood beach, presents as a peaceful haven for children, walkers, cyclists, kite-flyers and picnickers on the lawns.
However, soon after settlement, it was witness to tragic circumstances – the arrival in 1840 of the fever ship Glen Huntley. This event precipitated Victoria’s first quarantine station. (Glenhuntly Road was once called ‘Typhus Road’ until residents begged for a change).
Settlers in Australia were encouraged to sponsor immigrants with a bounty for special classes of workers. Merchants made fortunes chartering vessels that crammed as many people on board with insufficient food and scant attention to comfort. The Glen Huntley was specially built to take advantage of these profitable immigration schemes and was on its maiden voyage.
Family descendant, Olive Moore, describes this ill-fated journey in her book, Flying the Yellow Flag. In December 1839, the barque of 430 tons left Greenock and Oban, Argyleshire, Scotland with 157 government emigrants bound for Australia. When she arrived at William’s Town on 17th April 1840, Melbourne was extremely alarmed to learn that the Glen Huntley was a fever ship, ten emigrants having died during the voyage. Typhus was already raging in Hobart Town at the time, and many cases were reported in Sydney. Superintendent La Trobe ordered Captain Buchanan to anchor off Point Ormond, then considered remote from Melbourne. Tents were set up and rudimentary comforts were provided for the unfortunate emigrants, who disembarked on 23rd April.
A Sergeant and four Privates guarded the emigrants to ensure that they did not come into? contact with other settlers. There were two camps, one for the fever patients and one for those emigrants free from diseases. Surgeon Superintendent Browne was in charge of the sick camp.
The healthy camp was controlled by Dr. Barry Cotter, who reported that upon landing, six fresh cases of fever were found. This left 108 persons including children in the healthy camp, many emaciated from the long and arduous voyage. To make matters worse the canvas camp was very exposed to the bitterly cold and wet weather. One healthy emigrant, Ann Cummins, fell from the cliff onto the beach and was badly injured. Superintendent La Trobe made frequent visits to the camp.
The first death at the Point was of a young single man, James Mathers, on 22nd April. John Craig, a weaver from Paisley, then died leaving a wife and seven children. George Armstrong, an old man, died of dysentery. All three were buried in the crown of the bluff on 23rd April. The camp was inspected on 27th May and the healthy emigrants were released from quarantine on 1st June. On 13th June, the reminder were allowed to go to Melbourne.
The quarantine station was closed in the 1850s, and its operations were transferred to Portsea. For half a century the graves, enclosed by a picket fence, marked the place of tragedy and gave the bluff an air of mystery to later settlers. In 1877 Amie Stirling recalled:
There were no trees or flowers on the bluff, only two large granite slabs where two shipwrecked sailors had been buried. There were no names on the slabs, only the date which I do not remember. My mother wrote a poem called ‘The Nameless Sailors Graves’.
The sea gradually undermined the bluff threatening the site. The graves were re-opened in the presence of the civic authorities of St Kilda and representatives of government at 7 am on the 27th August 1898. The red gum coffins made in 1840 had turned to dust, but the skeletons of the bodies were almost intact. The remains were put in three coffins, and in the afternoon were buried in the St Kilda Cemetery in the presence of the councillors and relatives of those who came in the ship Glen Huntley. Mrs Bowman, a daughter of John Craig, was a child of eight at the time of the tragedy and stood for the second time at the grave of her father. Public subscriptions allowed a suitable memorial to be erected.
On November 7th 1985 a plaque commemorating the Glen Huntley pioneers was unveiled at Point Ormond in the presence of descendants of the original voyagers. Subsequent reunions were also held including on St Kilda Heritage Day, 13 April 2003, when a reception was provided by the City of Port Phillip in the St Kilda Town Hall.
These early events are a stark reminder that settlers in new areas like Elwood were overwhelmingly comprised of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English immigrants and their children, many of whom had fled from poverty by extraordinarily hazardous means. A major cause of this poverty was the Enclosure Act in England that forced crofters off their common lands to make way for large-scale sheep farming.
Ironically, it was the global wool trade with its need for new grazing lands that initiated the settling of Port Phillip by Tasmanian pastoral syndicates led by John Fawkner and John Batman. As a result the vast majority of newly arrived occupants of Elwood after settlement would prove to be sheep and cattle.
Early Graves on Point Ormond
(Courtesy of Olive Moore)
Unveiling the official Memorial at St Kilda General Cemetery
after burial or remains from Point Ormond in 1898
(Cooper, History of St Kilda, Volume 1, 1931)