Golden Empire’s gross immorality

wooden ship Colonial Empire 1270 tons at Geelong built 1861 - SLSA PRG-1373-3-29

So-called ‘coffin ships’ of the 19th century brought disease and outrage when quarantine failed to stop the spread of fever once they docked. The goldrush meant that Australia’s population quadrupled in the twenty years from 1851. Overcrowded ships like the Golden Empire (similar to above) in 1865 brought sickness to Port Philip and passengers transported it throughout the colony.

On the Golden Empire, typhus fever was rampant on the voyage from Liverpool with at least six people dying at sea. Upon arrival in Australia, more individuals died during a brief quarantine on Point Nepean at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. The fever then spread throughout the colony as passengers travelled unchecked, uproar erupted in the Victorian parliament, an inquiry into ‘gross immorality’ and then a Royal Commission resulted.

The 363 passengers aboard the Golden Empire that left England in late 1864 were mostly Irish. Among them were John and Mary Heaney and their three youngest children Michael, Margaret and Martha, from Boyle in County Roscommon. Their two oldest daughters Elizabeth and Annie had migrated aboard bride ships a couple of years earlier and been greeted on the wharf by prospective husbands. John and Mary were both now aged in their fifties but lied that they were younger so that they qualified for assisted passage. They wouldn’t have been alone.

The trip over, and indeed their eventual arrival in Australia, was disturbing and it attracted continuing coverage in Melbourne’s newspapers. Six deaths during the voyage and a continuing outbreak of fever resulted in the ship, crew and passengers, being quarantined at Point Nepean Quarantine Station (picture below) upon entering Port Phillip Heads on the 2nd of January 1865. It was there that two more deaths occurred.

nepean quarantine station - www propertyobserver com au colorised

The Golden Empire with her passengers was finally allowed to arrive at Hobson’s Bay, but the controversy did not end there. As the passengers spread throughout the colony of Victoria, so did typhus fever. Newspaper coverage attacked the government authorities over the apparent early release from quarantine and called for stricter measures. Letters to the editor were written, questions asked in Parliament, and government inquiries were held. More cases of fever and further deaths occurred.

This was amid a number of other big events. The British Parliament would shortly end convict transportation, and as news of the American Civil War continued to spread fears of unrest, a Confederate warship visited Melbourne.

John and Mary Heaney and their family went first to Melbourne to visit daughter Annie who was living in the city in Pitt Street. She had been married at Melbourne’s St Francis Church the year before and was expecting her first child. This is the same church in which Ned Kelly’s parents had been married. Typhus fever emanating from the Golden Empire was quickly reported in the city with at least one more death.

“The Golden Empire appears to have been released from quarantine too soon,” an editorial claimed. ”We are informed that a passenger by that ship was admitted into the Melbourne Hospital on Saturday, at noon, suffering from typhus fever, and died that same night; and that yesterday another passenger was admitted, who had also been attacked by fever.”

John and Mary travelled to Ballarat to see their other daughter Elizabeth and a grandson they had never met. Elizabeth had also married at St Francis and was soon to give birth to her second child. Invariably, newspapers reported typhus in Ballarat. The fever was spreading with the Heaneys.

“We are not alarmists, but as ‘prevention is better that cure’, it behoves everyone to take ordinary precautions against the spread of the infection,” another newspaper warned. “Cleanliness, temperance, and ample ventilation are the greatest enemies to the spread of contagious disorders, and should be adopted by everyone.”

Controversy raged in the Victorian parliament. An inquiry was called into claims of ‘gross immorality’ at the quarantine station, and the colonial government of James McCulloch relented and established a Royal Commission.

Eight years after the controversy of the Golden Empire, in 1873 John’s wife Mary died where they lived near the Tollgate in East Ballarat.

Maggie McNeills lonely 1890 death at ghost town 21 Mile Bore west of Barcaldine

Their second youngest daughter Maggie, who was just eleven-years-old when they were quarantined, married a blacksmith. The couple travelled north to Wellshot Sheep Station in western Queensland in a droving party with 43,000 sheep. The figure remains the most in the world to be moved as a single flock. Maggie died in 1890 from the effects of excessive alcohol and is buried by the site of the outback pub that served her, between Barcaldine and Longreach (photo above).

John and Mary’s daughter Annie, who greeted them when they arrived in Melbourne, married an Irishman from the Channel Islands with a cloudy past. Today she has over one hundred descendants. I know this because Annie is my great-great-grandmother.

Photo credits:
Colonial Empire built 1861, 1270 ton wooden ship similar to Golden Empire – State Library of South Australia PRG-1373-3-29
Point Nepean Quarantine Station – Property Observer, colourised
21 Mile Bore west of Barcaldine – my own

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