ALMOST 100 years after the last great global pandemic, a reminder of its deadly toll has been getting some much-needed TLC.
Tucked away in a beautiful patch of bush in Coogee, Australia’s oldest crematorium boasts a brand new paint job and a shroud of scaffolding around its chimney in preparation for some much-needed work to replace missing bricks and repair the tuckpointing.
The crematorium is part of the Woodman Point Quarantine Station, built in 1900/01 while WA was going through a serious outbreak of bubonic plague that killed 33 people.
But it was during the Spanish Flu at the end of WWI that the station and its grim morgue were really put to work, helping earn a reputation as one of WA’s most haunted sites.
In October 1918 the HMAT Boonah was the last troopship to depart from Fremantle, with 1200 soldiers of the First Australian Imperial Force on board.
A month later the Boonah landed in Durban, but the Armistice to end the war had been signed three day earlier and her captain was ordered to turn around and sail home. Influenza was rife in the South African city, and dockworkers preparing the Boonah for the return journey infected some of the crew; in the cramped conditions, the disease tore through the ship and soon 300 cases were reported.
Another troopship, the HMAT Wyreema was asked to land 20 nurses at Woodman Point in preparation for the influx of sick soldiers. The Wyreema’s troop commanding officer PM McFarlane said despite the obvious dangers there was no shortage of nurses offering to help.
“Volunteers were called for and there was not only a ready response but so many offered that it was necessary to place the names in a hat and draw the 20 required,” McFarlane later wrote.
Sadly, four of the nurses contracted the flu and died, along with 27 soldiers, who were initially buried in the station’s cemetery before being reinterred later at Karrakatta.
These days the site has been rebadged as the Woodman Point Recreation Camp and hosts school trips, but its medical heritage is preserved by a passionate Friends group which runs a museum and hosts tours.
President Gary Marsh has a strong connection; his father was the station’s last officer-in-charge and despite the serious side of that job, he spent an idyllic childhood running through the bush and down to the beach with the other 10 kids who lived on site.
His encyclopaedic knowledge makes a tour a real eye-opener; his ever-present smile sometimes at odds with the ghoulish subject.
Marching down a section of the original “Plague Road” built in 1901, he recounts how a cart would be hauled all the way to Fremantle, its yellow flag a signal for people to bring out their dead and the driver warning the grievers to stay upwind before he made the long, bumpy trip back to the crematorium.
The story behind the crematorium’s construction is also one to put the squeamish on edge. Bodies were initially burned on the beach when the plague hit, but Freo residents started complaining about the smell of burning flesh. An alternative was to take them out to sea, but that almost killed off the fishing trade because people started worrying they might get a chunk of diseased flesh with their serve of sardines.
Another haunting story from the crematorium involved his own father, who was checking on a couple of bodies which were being burned, when suddenly one sat up. It was only gases moving the body around, but Mr Marsh says there was a previous case where a soldier was moments from being cremated when his hand moved; he was rushed back to the station’s hospital where he went on to make a full recovery.
With the crematorium now a century old, Mr Marsh says the Friends found time had taken its toll.
The Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp run tours every third Sunday of the month.
by STEVE GRANT and COOPER BYERS