Shark Bay's History

Lock Hospitals in Shark Bay

Men on Bernier Island - 1910

Aboriginal men on Bernier Island 1910

Image courtesy Battye Library

Bernier and Dorre Islands are now one of Australia’s most important refuges for endangered mammals, but the islands also have a tragic human history. In the early 1900s they were the location of two Lock Hospitals, used for the treatment of Aboriginal people suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis and venereal disease. Ruins of these buildings can still be found on the islands.

Far from home

Aboriginal people did not live on Bernier and Dorre Islands before European colonisation. Rising sea levels some 8,000 years ago left the islands isolated and inaccessible from the mainland.

Yet from 1908 to 1918, Bernier and Dorre Islands were used for the isolation and treatment of Aboriginal people from north Western Australia believed to be suffering from a variety of diseases. The patients and their families often had little idea of where they were, or why they were taken from their traditional country.

“Tombs of the living dead”

The men were made to live in an existing house on Bernier Island, while the women stayed in accommodation near White Beach on Dorre Island. Patients were kept on the islands until they were cured, but some never made it back home.

Hospital records were poorly kept, but it is thought that about a third of the patients admitted to the lock hospitals died on the islands.

Hospital records were poorly kept, but it is thought that many of the patients admitted to them died on the islands. Patients who were fit enough hunted, fished and worked to build and maintain the hospitals. But during an anthropological expedition in 1910–1911, social worker Daisy Bates described the hospitals as “tombs of the living dead”. We can only imagine the patients’ despair at being separated from the people and places they loved.

Hospital admissions decreased after 1913 due to administration costs, and in 1918 the hospitals were closed. The patients were relocated to Port Hedland, more than 700 km to the north.

Ruins of Lock Hospital on Dorre Island - 2008

Ruins of Lock Hospital on Dorre Island - 2008

Memorials to a tragedy

In 1986, the Lock Hospitals were registered as protected areas under Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act. The islands’ cultural heritage significance was also recognised with their inclusion on the Register of the National Estate in 1987.

Aboriginal communities, particularly the people of Carnarvon, are keen to identify and protect gravesites on Bernier and Dorre Islands. They have established memorials on the islands for those that suffered and died there.

You can learn more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.