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Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872–1959

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by Peter Johnson

Heritage House, Victoria, 2013
280 pp., illus., $22.95 paperback

As a quarantine station, William Head, British Columbia, doesn’t have the same familiar ring to it as Grosse Isle, Quebec, or Ellis Island, New York. For those who know it today, William Head is a minimum-security penitentiary. But for eighty-seven years it was the location of a prison of a different kind — its inmates were held for the crime of contagion.

Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it became a dumping ground for unlucky ship passengers forced into quarantine when deadly illnesses broke out on board the vessels on which they were travelling. The degree of wretchedness they experienced depended largely on the class in which the passengers had travelled.

First-class detainees received the most comfortable accommodations, often with perks such as gourmet meals prepared by the ship’s chefs. Those who had travelled steerage — often labourers from China or the poorest immigrants from Europe — were at the bottom of the heap. Their essentials were in such short supply that some dug clams to eat or scoured the beach for firewood. And, of course, in an age before antibiotics medical care was minimal.

In this highly engaging book, Peter Johnson, a high school teacher from Vancouver, has gone to great lengths to bring out the colourful personalities and stories that make up the history of William Head. Sometimes grim, sometimes funny, and sometimes critical of the officials who shirked their duties, Johnson’s account brings a fascinating piece of history to vivid life.

Indeed, as the author points out in the final chapter, this topic is as relevant today as it ever was. For instance, in 2003, thousands of people in the Toronto area went into quarantine, usually in their homes, during the deadly SARS outbreak. As antibiotic resistance grows, authorities are facing quandaries not far removed from those at William Head.

— Nelle Oosterom (Read bio)

Nelle Oosterom is the Senior Editor of Canada's History magazine.


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