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Stories from the Sandstone

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Stories from the Sandstone

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Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past

Out now!

By Peter Hobbins, Ursula K. Frederick and Annie Clarke

Sailing to Australia in 1835, 16-year-old John Dawson watched in alarm as three of his sisters developed smallpox. Although all survived this dreaded disease, their faces bore tell-tale scars for the rest of their lives. Yet John left an even more enduring memento of his family’s perilous voyage in the soft sandstone of North Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.

Carving a lengthy message proclaiming that the Dawsons had ‘landed here to perform quarantine’, John began a tradition that continued until Sydney’s Quarantine Station finally closed in 1984. During its 150 years of operation, nearly 16,000 people were held in isolation on this beautiful headland. Interned for days, weeks or even months, many followed John’s example, leaving an extraordinary gallery of more than 1600 carved and painted sandstone inscriptions.

Combining intensive archaeological investigation and historical research, Stories from the Sandstone illuminates Australia’s past through the portal of these intriguing and often evocative inscriptions, as well as North Head’s numerous headstones. Drawing upon historical records, diaries and other writings, the book highlights the dramatic personal and social effects of diseases – such as bubonic plague, typhus fever, ‘Spanish’ flu and smallpox – that once terrified the community. We learn where the authors of the inscriptions came from, why they left their homeland and what became of them.

With well-researched text and fascinating contemporary and historical images, Stories from the Sandstone conveys the compelling personal stories of lives lived not just in despair, but also in hope for the future. The result is a captivating and intensely felt picture of the making of our society.

About the author

Dr Peter Hobbins is a historian of science, technology and medicine, with a focus on colonial and twentieth-century Australia. A former professional medical writer, Peter has also been a volunteer radio science presenter. He regularly gives public talks on the history of medicine and science to diverse audiences, including community groups and broadcast media. In addition to publications in academic journals across the history of science, medicine and warfare, Peter is also the author of the forthcoming Venomous Exchanges: Snakes, Vivisection and Scientific Medicine in Colonial Australia (2017). His current field of research focuses on aircraft crashes and aviation safety in Australian history.
Dr Ursula K. Frederick is an archaeologist and artist with expertise in mark-making and photography. Working initially with Aboriginal rock art, she has also published widely on both historical and contemporary graffiti, and more recently on contemporary art. Her own artworks encompass a range of media, including photography, printmaking and video as well as work incorporating collections and found materials. In addition to numerous academic articles, she has co-edited three anthologies: That Was Then, This Is Now: Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past (2016); Object Stories: Artifacts and Archaeologists (2015); and Women Willing to Fight: the Fighting Woman in Film (2007). Since 2010, Ursula has also mounted solo art exhibitions and contributed to several group shows in Australia and internationally.
Associate Professor Anne (Annie) Clarke was one of the pioneers of community archaeology in Australia, involving Aboriginal communities in archaeological research on country. A veteran of 35 years’ fieldwork in northern Australia, she is also heavily involved in working with museum collections and the heritage sector. Her interest in Australian archaeology has resulted in a range of academic publications on the archaeology of cross-cultural interactions, and most recently has focused on the historical inscriptions at Sydney’s Quarantine Station. Books she has co-edited include That Was Then, This Is Now: Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past (2016); Object Stories: Artifacts and Archaeologists (2015); Reassembling the Collection: Ethnographic Museums and Indigenous Agency (2013); and Unpacking the Collection: Networks of Material and Social Agency in the Museum (2011).

Book Details


304 pages


231 mm x 169 mm


200+ Colour throughout


Jacketless hardcover




Tales of conflict, loss and failure forever set in stone” John Morcombe, Manly Daily 25th November 2016

The stories of Quarantine Station’, interview with Nic Healey, Breakfast, 2SER FM, 30 November 2016.

Interview with Robbie Buck, Breakfast, ABC 702, 1 December 2016.

Interview with Tim Webster, Talking Travel, 2UE, 1 December 2016.

Interview with Annie Hastwell, The Wire, Radio Adelaide, 7 December 2016.

Interview with Warren Moore, the Chris Smith Show, 15 December 2016.

Interview with Tony Arthur, Nightlife, ABC 702, 20 December 2016.

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