The ghosts of Quail Island
Today, Quail Island, in Lyttelton Harbour, is popular in a quiet sort of way with those visitors who like walking gentle tracks or picnicking on sheltered beaches.
The hunter tenses, shotgun in hand. The dog is keen, nose to the ground, tail wagging feverishly. He’s close. The rabbit bolts from the jumble of macrocarpa stumps in a desperate bid to escape. Seconds later it’s all over. Hunter and dog stoop over and almost respectfully examine the fallen quarry. One of the last five rabbits on Quail Island has gone—though not before fully testing the hunters with the caution and cunning that has enabled it to outlive most of its companions—and the way is open for a restoration programme for the island. It’s another small step in the eventful and often tragic tale of Quail Island.
Not too many New Zealanders living outside of Canterbury would know much about Quail Island or its whereabouts (though if you know where to look, the island shows prominently in the “fly-by” graphics of Christchurch in television weather presentations). It lies near the head of Lyttelton Harbour, just south of the port of Lyttelton. Almost swallowed up by the surrounding hills, it is so close to the mainland that from certain vantage points it is hardly discernible as a separate landmass.
Far out of proportion to its size (80 ha), Quail Island boasts a human history the equal of any of the country’s smaller islands. Everywhere on the island are reminders, some quietly fading away, others lovingly restored, of the endeavour, enterprise and suffering of many who have sojourned on its shores.
Geologically, Quail Island is part of the crater floor of the vast but long-extinct Banks Peninsula volcano, and is the product of several different periods of volcanic activity. Layered basalt laval flows sit above and below conglomerates to form Quail’s spectacular northern cliffs, and a basalt dome looms above the island’s east-facing wharf. Slightly older rhyolite, erupted 11-12 million years ago, has formed the island’s more gently sloping southern faces.
The island was never permanently settled by Maori, but Ngai Tahu and their predecessors, the Ngati Mamoe, harvested kai moana and seabird eggs (hua) there—from which it gained one of its names, Otamahua, gathering place for eggs. By the time of European settlement, initially by whalers, the local Maori population was comparatively low as a consequence of intertribal warfare.
Quail Island was given its European name in 1842 by Captain William Mein Smith of the schooner Deborah. Mein Smith was surveyor-general for the New Zealand Company, and was undertaking a commissioned survey for potential settlement sites along the eastern coast of the South Island. Port Cooper, as Lyttelton was then named, was not overly recommended by Smith. He preferred the safer harbour of Akaroa, with its gentle and well wooded hills.
His investigation of Port Cooper led to his visit to the island which lay centrally within it. Wrote Smith: “Having reached the island which rises to about 250 ft above the level of the harbour I landed at a shelly beach and ascended the hill in order to correct and complete my sketch. During my walk there I flushed several quail and from that circumstance I gave it the name Quail Island.”
It wasn’t long after Captain Smith’s visit that the little native quail, or koreke, became extinct. This bird was once abundant in the grasslands of Canterbury, including on Quail Island, but its populations were quickly ravaged by the unfamiliar predators brought by European settlers. Today the native quail on Quail Island, and indeed throughout New Zealand, have been replaced by the more worldly-and predator-wise Californian quail.
The first European inhabitants of Quail Island were Edward, Henry and Hamilton Ward, three young immigrants from a large Irish family. They arrived in Lyttelton on December 16, 1850, aboard the Charlotte Jane, one of Canterbury’s famous “First Four” immigrant ships. These ships brought 773 new settlers to an area which had scarcely 300 European residents, effectively kick-starting the development of the province.
Edward, 25, the eldest Ward brother, was prominent among the settlers, trained in law and already a magistrate, despite his youthfulness. Early in 1851, he won the ballot for the island, and he and his brothers began the task of farming it. They built a small boat to ferry livestock and building materials to the island, and established a cottage on the northern slopes, looking across to the port. They milked cows and quickly found a niche for themselves supplying dairy products to the colony. Edward Ward noted with obvious pride in his journal that his butter was the most keenly sought after in the township, being “preferred in the market to Manson’s, the only other producer.”
Sadly, tragedy was not long in catching up with the Wards. Only a month after settling into the cottage, the two older brothers, Edward and Henry, having taken the boat to gather firewood on the mainland, capsized and drowned. The loss of the brothers was keenly felt in the fledgling colony. Edward, as secretary of the Society of Canterbury Colonists, was involved in the details of facilitating the settlement.
Hamilton, the youngest brother, continued to farm the island once another older brother, Crosbie, arrived from Ireland to assist. Quail Island passed through several private owners until sold to the Canterbury Provincial Government in 1874 for use as a human quarantine station—a facility the colony sorely needed. Lengthy sailing voyages from England, typically made in cramped and unhygienic conditions, fostered the development and spread of contagious diseases such as cholera, scarlet fever and measles. The captains of immigrant ships had to disclose any outbreak of disease before the passengers could disembark, and if there was a disease, the entire ship’s crew and passengers could be interned or refused permission to disembark until clearance had been obtained. On one such occasion, a correspondent to the Lyttelton Times wrote in protest of the sufferings of the quarantined passengers on a newly arrived immigrant ship. “We can hardly conceive a more disheartening termination to a voyage than to be at anchor for two days, cut off from all communication to the shore.”
To cater for growing numbers of ships and immigrants, purpose-built quarantine facilities were constructed on nearby Ripapa Island, in order for passengers to recoup and/or be screened for continued infection prior to release. Even on this tiny island conditions were so much better than the cramped quarters on the ships that it was quickly dubbed “Humanity Island.” But in a few short years the influx of immigrants strained Ripapa’s facilities, so additional accommodation (single men’s barracks) and hospital facilities were established on Quail. However, the advent of steam-powered vessels—with their vastly shorter passage times and consequently reduced likelihood of onboard epidemics—meant the buildings were to become redundant almost as soon as construction was complete.
Two recorded uses of the Quail Island in 1879-1880, where conditions were suitable for full recovery. The barracks of the quarantine station again saw use at the end of World War One, this time as a convalescent home for survivors of the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic, which killed more than 5500 New Zealanders, at a time when the young colony had a population of less than a million.
It is a little surprising that Quail did not find another use during the Great War, given its quarantine history. New Zealand’s first “casualties” of war were, in fact, soldiers based in Egypt who were sent home in disgrace with venereal diseases. These men were secretly interned on a small island in Otago Harbour to avoid embarrassment to the government and to the defence forces. Perhaps Quail Island was not chosen on account of its proximity to the mainland and the likelihood that the foibles of the nation’s young soldiers might become public knowledge.
He is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.” From the times of Moses, the leper has been looked upon with revulsion and fear, so it is not surprising that the discovery in Christchurch in 1906 of a man suffering from leprosy, a disease of the “uncivilised” parts of the world, caused widespread consternation. Swift action was taken to remove the man from the thoroughfares of the general public and deposit him in the disused human quarantine station on Quail Island.
Will Vallane thus found himself the sole inhabitant of the old quarantine hospital. He found it too large and empty for his liking, so a more cosy cottage was constructed, complete with a fence, beyond which he was forbidden to tread. Although visited occasionally by his family and a doctor, Vallane could not allow any one to get too close for fear of infecting them. The mental suffering must have been severe—banished alone, with little, if any, spiritual comfort, to a shady corner of a tiny island, to pass the time in abject isolation while waiting to die.
Eighteen months of misery alone, compounded by the fact that Vallane was losing his sight, came to an end when a second leprosy sufferer was admitted in 1908. A third arrived in 1909. At one point, nine lepers (all male) were in residence in the “Leper Village” on the hillside above what is now a popular beach for swimming and water-skiing. The cottages have been destroyed, but some of the foundations, walls and paths are still visible beneath rows of towering macrocarpa trees.
Matrons were employed to cook the men’s meals, and remained on the island with the patients, while tile dedicated and humanitarian doctor Charles Upham made regular visits to check on tile men’s health. (Upham was the uncle of tile World War Two hero and double Victoria Cross winner of the same name.)
Despite the terrible afflictions leprosy can bring, only one of the interns is known to have died of the disease while on Quail Island. Ivan Skelton, a Samoan-born man of 25, died on October 20,1923. His simple grave can still be found above the former colony.
Restlessness and boredom among the confined men must have been intense, and there were many times when formal protests about some aspect of their treatment were presented to the authorities. However, only one untoward event occurred. George Philips, an intern who contracted the disease in Samoa while serving with the occupying forces of the New Zealand Army in 1916, was declared cured, but, in accordance with protocol, had to wait another 18 months and three successive negative tests before he could be released. The undoubted relief at being given a clean bill of health, combined with a desire to return to the pleasures of a more normal life, must have been too much for Philips, and he made an escape in early 1925.
After wading or swimming across the tidal mudflats that separate the island from Moepuku Point headland, Philips arrived late at night at a farmhouse disguised as a man of the cloth, claiming his car had broken down. The ruse was clearly plausible, for the distressed clergyman was allowed to make a telephone call for assistance. He was last seen heading to Christchurch in a taxi cab. His subsequent whereabouts or fate is not known to this day.
Perhaps Philips had a premonition of things to come. Rumblings from the public about the close proximity of the leper station to the concentrated population of a growing city and the concurrent use of the island for other arguably incompatible purposes eventually brought about the closure of the station. Seven months after Philips’ escape, in August 1925, the remaining eight lepers were transferred to Makogai Island, in thes samoa group, where a much larger and—thankfully, for the Christchurch populace—more isolated facility existed.
At the same time as the lepers were confined to their one little bay, another part of the island was playing a modest part in world history and exploration. Quail was also an animal quarantine station, and Christchurch was a strategic launch point for expeditions to Antarctica. Four major expeditions to the South Pole based their operations in Christchurch and Lyttelton, and found reason to utilise Quail Island.
The first of these was Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901-04 British Antarctic Expedition aboard Discovery, which used Lyttelton as its base. The Canterbury port won out over other contenders partly because of its proximity to the ice, but perhaps also because Scott’s cousin was an engineering professor at the University of Canterbury, and Scott could expect local support.
Scott’s Siberian huskies were quarantined on Quail while being prepared for the journey south. The 1901-04 expedition laid the foundation for Scott’s better known, but doomed, later venture, and cemented a place for Lyttelton in the greatest adventures of the early 20th century.
An editor of the Lyttelton Times remarked in 1904 that “the province has indeed become so closely identified with [Scott’s Discovery] expedition as to have assumed almost a proprietary interest in its welfare.” The send-off for this and subsequent polar expeditions generated crowds that even now would be regarded as extraordinary.
The other great southern explorer from Britain was Ernest Shackleton, who accompanied Scott on the 190104 expedition and later mounted his own bids to be first to the pole. Shackleton had 15 wild-tempered Manchurian ponies broken in on Quail Island for his 1907-08 venture, which took him to within 100 miles of the pole before he was forced back. Similar-sized crowds to those that farewelled Scott gathered to witness the departure of Shackleton and his crew aboard Nimrod. The 50,000-strong crowd thronged to every possible vantage point. Shackleton wrote that it was “such a farewell and God speed from New Zealand as left no man of us unmoved.”
Scott again used Quail Island on the fateful 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition to hold and train the 19 ponies and 33 huskies that he took south on his last expedition. The ponies were of Siberian origin, and Captain Lawrence Oates, later immortalised by his selfless “I am just going outside and I may be some time” walk, was assigned overall responsibility for them. Oates spent some time on the island, and Scott remarked in his writings: “Oates’ whole heart is in the ponies.” The journey to Scott’s base at Cape Evans and subsequent acclimatisation to conditions on the icy continent took a heavy toll on the ponies—fewer than half were still alive after the first winter to assist with Scott’s final push to the pole.
The dogs selected for this venture were nearly all short, stocky eastern Siberian huskies, previously employed as sled-pulling mail dogs. Scott brought with the dogs a Siberian trainer, Demitri Gerof, who spent endless hours caring for and training them, racing up and down the beach on Quail Island on a makeshift sledge behind the harnessed teams. The dogs showed almost uncontrollable excitement at being selected for the working team, along with a fierce jealousy of any dog shown a hint of favouritism. While Scott and senior members of the party spent little time on the island, they began their relationships there with the animals that were to accompany them. In the hostile Antarctic environment, special bonds would be forged between man and beast. Every dog and pony was affectionately named, and each member of the expedition seems to have had a favourite dog.
Scott’s was Osman, a tough, no-nonsense boss dog. On one occasion during the expedition, Osman saved a whole dog-team and sled of supplies from disaster. While the team was crossing a crevasse, the snow cap gave way, leaving 10 harnessed dogs dangling in mid-air and the sled poised agonisingly close to falling to a twisted heap at the bottom. Men held the sled back from following the dogs into the crevasse, but only Osman, as lead dog, had purchase on the other side. He grimly held the harness tight for “at least five minutes” before assistance could arrive and all dogs and supplies were safely retrieved. Osman led the last of the dog teams to within 150 miles of the pole, after which Scott’s five-man team was on its own.
Dr Edward Wilson, who, along with Edgar Evans, would die alongside Scott, had his favourite, too. Stareek (“old man,” in Siberian) was an older dog of unusual intelligence and composure. While other dogs had good and bad spells, Stareek proved an unflagging lead dog who gave absolutely everything to his task. Three hundred miles from the pole, two men (Day and Hooper), helping to establish Scott’s food depots, were instructed to return to base, their job done. Stareek’s exhaustion was noted, and, as a favour to a respected dog, he was sent back with them.
The desire to continue his work, and perhaps the ignominy of being retired, saw Stareek actively pull against the two men for most of the first day. Chewing through his restraining leashes, he escaped the following night, his paw prints clearly showing that he intended to catch up with Scott’s party. What happened afterwards is unclear, but either Stareek lost the trail or a sense of self-preservation took over. Seventeen days later, an exhausted and emaciated Stareek caught up with Day and Hooper.
Given pride of place on their sled, along with precious crumbs of their last biscuits, he was taken back to Cape Evans base. Like Scott and his men, Stareek displayed an unusual triumph of spirit over body. He recovered quickly enough to lead teams on short scientific excursions, but three weeks before the relief ship was due he died.
Mules provided by the Indian Army were also housed on Quail Island and were taken south on Terra Nova’s second trip, in December 1911. The tough little mules eventually played a significant role in the search that located the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Evans and brought the news of their demise to the world.
Like nearly all the animals taken south on the expedition, the mules never left Antarctica. Their reward for surviving the incredibly harsh conditions of the 1912 trip was, once safely back at Scott Base, to be shot.
Even when Terra Nova finally left Lyttelton for England, in March 1913, it was not quite the end for Quail Island’s association with Antarctic exploration. Fifteen Yukon huskies were interned on Quail Island for Commander Byrd’s US Antarctic Expedition of 1928-30. This venture saw the American achieve the first flight over the South Pole, in 1929, to match his maiden flight over the North Pole three years earlier.
Concerns were aired about the huskies’ loss of condition during confinement on Quail Island, and also their possible loss of cold tolerance. After adequate quarantine, they were therefore transferred for training to Mt. Cook National Park, where they pulled sleds of building materials for the construction of new huts, before eventually heading to the Antarctic ice to join Byrd.
Little physical evidence beyond a newly built replica dog kennel remains of the Antarctic period on Quail Island, but there are lasting reminders of other aspects of local history. The western point of the island became a site for disposal of unwanted ships, deposited here to avoid becoming navigational hazards in the shallow waters of the inner harbour. The remains of at least 13 ships rust their way to oblivion, abandoned here between 1902 and 1953.
Among the ships are some with appreciable local significance, including Mullogh, built in Belfast in 1855, one of the very first screw steamers. It worked principally as a lighter, transferring goods to shore from larger ships unable to come close to port. In 1863, it brought the first steam locomotive to Canterbury, and the materials to construct the railway on which it was to run. Later it transported gold-fevered prospectors to the Hokitika rush of 1870. In 1916, it was declared a derelict and banished—like a maritime leper—to see out its life on Quail Island’s shores.
The most prominent wreck in Quail Island’s maritime graveyard is that of the 58 m-long Dan–a, a sleek barque built for the Orient Line in 1865. It was a composite boat, with steel ribbing but a vast teak keel, six-inch thick planking and sheet metal tacked overtop. It was considered one of the finest and fastest ships of the Orient’s considerable fleet, initially a tea clipper and later an immigrant ship between England and Australia. It set a record for the shortest voyage—just 70 days—between the two countries. Fire extinguished its glory in 1899, and its next 50 years were spent in ignominy as a coal hulk.
The Canterbury centennial celebrations of 1950 saw the hulk resurrected and mocked up to represent the Charlotte Jane, the ship in which the Ward brothers from Ireland came to their new home, Quail Island. Today, the Darra lies in a tidal grave near the south-west corner of the island, just a few hundred metres from the site of the Ward homestead. Quail Island’s nautical association doesn’t rest just with a graveyard for unwanted ships. Early Maori recognised the value of the volcanic stone of the area, and so did the Europeans who followed them. Quarries were established at several sites on the island to supply ballast and construction stones. Ballast for sailing ships returning unladen to foreign ports was obtained between the early 1850s and 1874 by quarrying basaltic rock on the north-western coast of the island, for which the hewers were paid four shillings a ton. A separate quarry exists above Walkers Beach, on the south side of the island, from which hard-labour gangs were used in the late 1800s to quarry and fashion rhyolite into dry rock walls, still to be seen above the two south-facing beaches.
Walkers Beach provided a unique industry for over 40 years, with the Walker family harvesting the banks of cockle shells for sale as poultry grit to local farms. Endlessly filling fbags by hand and manhandling them onto a tender and then a waiting barge must have been back-breaking labour. The blistering summer heat and the blinding white of the bleached shell would have done little to mitigate the work. Nonetheless, the business must have been worthwhile, as it continued until 1970, when lime was incorporated into manufactured poultry foods, reducing the demand for shell grit. (Even four years after Quail Island’s lepers had departed for Samoa, Walker’s employees showed no interest in exploring the island beyond their little beach, so great was their fear of contracting the disease.)
The animal-quarantine function of the island officially ended in 1934, with Byrd’s huskies the last known users, and the land was subsequently leased out for farming. Growing pressure resulting from the island’s unofficial use as a recreational facility finally saw it become a recreation reserve in 1975, when the farm lease was surrendered.
The island’s recreational opportunities were recognised early on, with summer camps being run for the Burnham Industrial School, a reform school for boys, between 1906 and 1912 at least. (At least one advantage of using the island for such groups was that escape was difficult.)
Schools still use the barracks for overnight stays, though the shrill, happy noises indicate that few children are thinking of escape. Today the island is a well-loved recreation reserve, with annual visitors numbering in the many thousands. Ferries plying between Lyttelton and Diamond Harbour call in at least three times a day, picking up and dropping off school groups, families, hikers, groups of elderly on outings, and overseas tourists.
A restoration programme is being developed for the island, blending conservation ideals with the island’s recreational uses. Restoring native vegetation is the primary goal, with Quail Island being a suitably pest-free and publicly prominent location on which to attempt to recreate the now almost nonexistent forest vegetation that once characterised Banks Peninsula and coastal Canterbury.
Early attempts at revegetation met with poor results, despite many thousands of trees being planted. Rabbits devoured virtually all of the young saplings as soon as they were put in the ground. Department of Conservation estimates in 1988 put the rabbit population on this 80 ha island at between 6000 and 7000. When food was scarce, the rabbits were reported to have been seen climbing up into the few trees on the island to eat the bark and whatever leaves they could reach. Poisoning put only a transitory dent in numbers. Only in 1998, following a particularly intensive control effort, was the battle against rabbits finally won.
Quail Island is possum-free, but is too close to the mainland to prevent periodic colonisation by ferrets, stoats or rats. Hedgehogs are the only introduced mammal remaining in any numbers on the island, and they too are slated for removal.
In the place of such pests, whiteflippered penguins, mohua (yellow-head), kakariki, robins and an assortment of rare Canterbury invertebrates and reptiles have been sug‑Grim, wizened stands of matagouri are the only native species in abundance, while pittosporums, ngaio, native broom and a few others struggle to expand from the cliff faces or plantings around the buildings.
When walking the island’s tracks, it is easy to let yourself fall back into history. Past the quarantine barracks, where fears were quelled alongside ship-borne diseases. Along the beachfront, where Scott and Oates watched, sucking on pipes, the preparation of their pack animals and dog teams; and, later, where reform boys were endlessly drilled and marched up and down. On a spur above, one almost hears the ghosts of huskies howling from the dilapidated kennels, as if they knew the grim fate awaiting them on the southern ice.
Past the shady bay of the leprosy colony, where the coolness of the air reminds you of the bleakness of their lives, and past the grave of the lone leper; along the trail above Walkers Beach, where glistening white shell still beckons, and on to the ships’ graveyard, where cormorants perch like vultures on the exposed ribs. Along the coast, the old quarries are overgrown, but columns of basalt stand untouched and ready, as if unaware that the need for ballast has long gone.
Past the gull colony, the birds wheeling and crying, where waka were beached and kete filled with eggs. Further around, facing the port, the remains of the Wards’ homestead still have a majestic view of the harbour—a view that, in a sense, the brothers died for.
Dusk is approaching and, despite the proximity of the city, it’s deathly quiet here—the whine of jet skis has gone for the day, and even the birds have fallen silent. I stand for a moment by the white picket fence of the grave of the lone leper. While Quail Island may have an absorbing past, it’s the future possibilities of the island I’m interested in. With luck and perseverance, the island may turn a full circle, to return to something like it was for aeons before humans marked the land with their presence.