They had already experienced quarantine, too, after a false start from Scotland, when their ship hit rocks and had to be taken back to harbour for repairs. Over several weeks in port, scarlatina (scarlet fever), measles and at least one case of smallpox were detected. They were finally allowed to sail, though seven children had died.
The sorry saga is told by Olive Moore, a descendent of one of the ship’s immigrants, in her 1990 book Flying the Yellow Flag.
As the ship came through Port Phillip Heads in 1840, it was either typhus, spread – like the plague – by fleas, or typhoid fever, from contaminated water or food.
Ten of the 157 immigrants who had left Greenock, on Scotland’s west coast, were dead, and 50 were listed as sick.
Melbourne had no quarantine facilities when the ship, the barque Glen Huntley (later usually written as Glen Huntly in Melbourne), arrived on April 17.
Encircled by sea, Australia had been concerned from the start of European settlement about the necessity of a quarantine system to make the most of its natural border.
Early European settlers had witnessed what happened when disease, introduced from Britain, scythed through the Indigenous population.
In fact, the arrival of the Glen Huntly would hasten the destruction of Aboriginal culture within fast-growing Melbourne, though not through infection.
First, however, the newly-appointed superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles La Trobe, ordered the Glen Huntly to anchor off what is now Elwood – distant from settled Melbourne.
Melbourne’s first medical man, Dr Barry Cotter, hastily organised a quarantine tent camp at what was known as Little Red Bluff, now Elwood’s Point Ormond.
There were two separate camps – the “healthy camp” for those not displaying signs of sickness, and the “sick camp”, overseen by the ship’s doctor, Surgeon Superintendent John Brown. Three men died in the sick camp within days of landing – the only fatalities in quarantine.
Security was the first concern. While a “Revenue cutter” – a Customs boat – kept other craft away from the Glen Huntly, five members of the military stood guard at the camp. Furthermore, according to a document signed by La Trobe, “a mounted trooper of the Border Police will … act as a means of communication between the Constable and the authorities when necessary”.
The Border Police were less police than thugs established in late 1839 to “protect” squatters from the Aboriginal people whose land was being stolen. They were convicts, former military men jailed for criminal behaviour, and were unpaid apart from being supplied with horses, rations and equipment.
If you were to visit Elwood Pier at the end of Head Street, Brighton, you would be able to view a set of tile panels created in the 1990s by artists Hedley Potts and Tony Hutchison commemorating the old quarantine station. One of them features a scruffy fellow on a broken-down horse – the unnamed, unpaid convict who was Melbourne’s link between its first quarantine set-up and the town’s administration.
Somehow, this arrangement did not lead to transmission of fever to Melbourne’s wider population, unlike the mayhem caused when COVID-19 escaped from hotel quarantine in the city this year, possibly borne by a low-paid security guard.
The unfortunate passengers and crew from the Glen Huntly had no shelter as luxurious as a hotel, of course: they had nothing but flimsy tents as the chilly days and colder nights turned from autumn into winter.
Supplies were brought to them from the market gardens then established inland around what is now called Ripponlea. The track to the quarantine station became known as Typhus Road. Today, it is Glen Huntly Road.
Those carting the supplies did not enter the camp: they left the provisions at a distance, marked by a barrel.
But the Indigenous people of the area, the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, had gathered food in the area forever. Eels and vegetables came from swamps nearby, and three times a week women collected shellfish from the reef off Little Red Bluff – which had suddenly become the quarantine site. They refused to believe they were at risk from a disease they believed only affected white people.
La Trobe settled the matter by issuing an edict on April 19, 1840, ordering the assistant protector of Aborigines, William Thomas, to expel all Aboriginal camps from Melbourne.
And so the ghastly story of the Glen Huntly morphed into the even ghastlier story of the destruction of Indigenous culture.
The last of the Glen Huntly’s passengers left the quarantine station on June 13, 1849.
The bluff itself was gone, levelled for landfill, by the early years of the 20th century.
But the effects of quarantine, it seems, go on forever.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.