Channel Island Leprosarium: a dark chapter in Australia’s history

By Esme Mathis 8 December 2022
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Ten kilometres south of Darwin, the natural beauty of Channel Island and its surrounds belies its tragic past.

From 1931 to 1955, this island was a colony for people affected by leprosy, and though some buildings were dismantled after its abandonment, others fell into ruins, which remain today. The surviving hospital foundations, collapsed huts, partial wall structures and rusting sheets of galvanised iron provide a sombre reminder of the neglected patients who were once confined here.  

Leprosy arrived on Australian shores during the goldrush migration boom, and in the Northern Territory, the first cases were observed in Chinese immigrants in 1882. The disease quickly spread to Indigenous communities; authorities ignored the situation and leprosy went untreated for decades. 

From 1889, anyone suffering from leprosy was isolated on Mud Island in a lazaret made of galvanised iron with a dirt floor. The conditions at Mud Island were so deplorable it was dubbed “Living Hell Lazaret” by newspapers. 

In 1931 the colony was relocated to the old quarantine station on Channel Island. The original 1914 quarantine station buildings – a medical clinic, two separate wards for men and women and a rubble and concrete jetty – were repaired, and living quarters for the new curator and his wife were constructed. Eight “leper huts” were built, including special quarters for future white patients.

The bodies of at least 60 patients remain buried on the island. Image credit: courtesy Heritage Branch of Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities

Leprosy’s over-representation within Indigenous and ethnic minority groups increased its stigma and resulted in cruel containment policies and substandard facilities that might not have been otherwise accepted. 

The colony’s population ballooned from 14 patients in 1931 to 122 in 1939, as searches for “leper suspects” in the NT’s Aboriginal communities became more systematic. By 1932, it was reported that at least two Indigenous children were living in the leprosarium. Overcrowding soon became a pressing concern; Indigenous patients were incarcerated in poorly ventilated corrugated-iron huts that heated like ovens over summer. Meanwhile, a newspaper report from 1938 describes the “charming little bungalow” constructed for the first “white child” and her father, with a concrete floor and walls painted cream. 

In February 1943, Catholic nuns from the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart took over management of the facility. The efforts of these well-meaning women were hampered by insufficient resources and a lack of funding, because the leprosarium remained under government control. 

“‘Out of sight, out of mind’ seems to aptly sum up the attitude of the Health Department towards the Channel Island Leprosarium where […] unfortunate patients are still forced to exist under the most primitive conditions,” the Northern Standard denounced in 1948. Published 15 October, the report described the “callous neglect” of the colony, where patients were dressed in “filthy cast-off rags”, fed “an unbalanced diet – totally deficient in vitamins” and were swarmed by flies that bred in “enormous numbers”. The reporter called for those responsible in the NT Health Department to be indicted on charges of gross neglect.

A newspaper report from 1949 echoed similar sentiments, describing in detail the “primitive”, “unsanitary” and “ghastly” conditions of the leprosarium. 

Channel Island Leprosarium closed in 1955. The colony relocated to the new East Arm Leprosarium in Darwin, with adequate housing, modern kitchens, recreational facilities and spacious dining rooms.

Leprosy sufferers remained segregated from society until the 1970s, when isolation policies were gradually phased out. East Arm Leprosarium closed in 1982, and the remaining patients were treated at regular hospitals.