St John’s Island quarantine station
The influx of immigrants to Singapore in the 19th century brought various communicable diseases, such as smallpox, leprosy and cholera to the island.1 Health inspections and regulations became increasingly important in order to control the spread of such diseases and mitigate the threat of an epidemic.2 The St John’s Island quarantine facility was established in 1874 after the enactment of the Quarantine Ordinance in 1868.3
Enactment of the Quarantine Ordinance
The imposition of quarantine measures in Singapore to curb the spread of communicable diseases was initially met with resistance and objections by the Straits Settlements Association. There were concerns that quarantine would cause unnecessary interference to trade and be costly for merchants. Additionally, medical opinion on the effectiveness of quarantine was discordant.4 However, a report by the British Cholera Commission in 1866, which recommended the adoption of quarantine measures, shifted public opinion on quarantine.5 The Quarantine Ordinance (No. 7 of 1868) was finally enacted in 1868 to “make provision for the better prevention of the spread of contagious diseases”.6
According to the Order, vessels that arrived with onboard cases of diseases that would pose danger to public health, such as cholera, smallpox or fever, would not be permitted to enter the port. The vessel would have to anchor outside the limits of the port and no passengers allowed to disembark. Communication with any person onboard the quarantined vessel was also prohibited. The vessel was also required to hoist the quarantine or yellow flag. These quarantine measures were lifted once there was medical evidence that the vessel was no longer a threat to public health.7
Establishment of the St John’s Island quarantine station
The quarantine order drew complaints and criticisms in the initial years of its enactment. There were complaints that the quarantine measures were “unnecessarily stringent”, particularly for vessels that had no cases of infectious diseases onboard and had already undergone similar checks at a nearby port and given a clean bill of health. The mercantile community also protested that the quarantine was inconvenient and “useless for the end in view”.8
In 1873, a cholera epidemic occurred in Singapore. The disease, which originated from Bangkok, surfaced in Singapore despite the quarantine order issued by Governor Harry Ord for all vessels from Siam. The epidemic, which lasted from July to September with 857 cases and 448 deaths, prompted the Acting Master Attendant Henry Ellis, to propose the construction of a lazaretto (quarantine station) on St John’s Island. The Governor approved the plan and officially made the announcement during his speech at the Legislative Council on 21 March 1874.9
Facilities at the station
The St John’s Island quarantine station opened in November 1874, just in time to receive more than 1,000 Chinese passengers from the cholera stricken S.S. Milton.10 The steamship had arrived from Swatow and was bound for Penang and Province Wellesley.11
When it was first opened, the station comprised mostly attap huts. In 1894, a hospital was built. The station was later redeveloped with more facilities added. Muster sheds were erected for passengers to change their clothes and undergo the necessary process of disinfection. Their clothes and belongings were disinfected at the steam boiler houses nearby. Passengers were accommodated in camps with attached kitchens.12
Other facilities included a police station, a post office, store houses that stored loose sulphur used to fumigate ships, Sikh police barracks, a temple, gardeners’ quarters, a mosque, coolies’ and workmen’s quarters, a Coroner’s court and a lock-up. Persons who died from the diseases were buried at the nearby Lazarus Island, which was only accessible by officials.13
The St John’s Island quarantine station became one of the largest quarantine stations in the world, and could accommodate up to 6,000 people at any one time.14 Those quarantined at the facility largely comprised immigrants from China and India, with cases of communicable diseases such as the bubonic plague.15 Additionally, Muslim pilgrims on the steamer Queen Margaret who returned from Mecca after their Hajj pilgrimage were also quarantined at the facility in 1890. This was a precautionary measure instructed by the Deputy Health Officer upon learning of deaths from cholera that had occurred on board during the voyage even though there were no such cases by the time the steamer arrived in Singapore.16
Used for other purposes
In June 1948, the Singapore Prisons Department took over six camps at the quarantine station, which were used as holding areas for political detainees and members of secret societies.17 A number of camps were later used as a rehabilitation centre for drug and opium addicts.18 In 1955, the quarantine station also accommodated families from Sekijang Kechil island who had lost their homes due to an unusual high tide.19 The quarantine station was in use for about 100 years and was officially closed on 14 January 1976.20
1. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 492 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Lee Yong Kiat, The Medical History of Early Singapore (Tokyo: Southeast Asian Medical Information Center, 1978), 285. (Call no. RSING 610.95957 LEE)
2. Delia Teo and Clement Liew, Guardians of Our Homeland: The Heritage of Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (Singapore: Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, 2004) 24. (Call no. RSING q353.59095957 TEO)
3. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 506; Y. K. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore. (1819–1874) (Part II) (Singapore: Stamford College Press (Pte) Ltd, 1978), 79 (Call no. RCLOS 614.46095957 LEE)
4. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 288–300; Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 82.
5. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 290–91.
6. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 292.
7. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 81.
8. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 82–83.
9. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 82–85; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 505; “Legislative Council,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 4 October 1873, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Lee Yong Kiat, “Quarantine in Early Singapore (1819–1974) Part I, Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore 6, no. 4 (October 1977): 379–80. (Call no. RCLOS 614.46095957 LEE)
10. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 86.
11. Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 86; “The ‘Milton’,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 19 November 1874, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “St. John’s Island,” Straits Times, 1 June 1935, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “St. John’s Island.”
14. “St. John’s Island: Singapore’s Quarantine Station,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 4 April 1923, 221. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “A Case of Bubonic Plague at the Quarantine Station,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 10 March 1896, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Cholera,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 3 September 1890, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Teo and Liew, Guardians of Our Homeland, 54; “Detainees off to Sunny St. John’s Island,” Straits Times, 17 June 1959, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Govt. Votes $1/2 Mil. for Opium Cure Isle Plan,” Singapore Standard, 12 March 1954, 3; “$1M to Speed Help for Drug Abusers,” Straits Times, 27 December 1974, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Homeless Go to St. John’s,” Singapore Standard, 15 January 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Teo and Liew, Guardians of Our Homeland, 54; Lee, Quarantine in Early Singapore, 87.
The information in this article is valid as of January 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Communicable disease control