A tale of quarantine in Queensland: Maria Steley diary 1863–64

Aboard the Ariadne bound for Queensland with her parents and siblings, fourteen-year-old Maria Steley kept a diary.

Maria was the eldest of six Steley children making the voyage to Australia, born to Leah and Abel Steley on 29 December 1848 in Monmouthshire in the south of Wales. Leaving Liverpool on 6 October 1863, the Steleys were the only assisted immigrants from Wales on the ship.

The Ariadne arrived in local waters in January 1864, but due to a measles outbreak on board, the ship and passengers were quarantined on Stradbroke Island until February.

Written as if she is addressing a long letter to her friend Elenor, Maria’s diary provides a fascinating yet heartbreaking insight into the voyage and time spent in quarantine.

Monday 26 October we are sailing this morning 9 miles a hour if we go on at that rate we shall soone be ther I Don’t care how soon we get ther A child died to day it is a verry serrous thing they sowe the body up in a rug then they get a plank and let the body go down the Shool master reed the furnell service.

Maria Steley

The diary also contains useful information about what clothing and food Elenor should bring with her when she comes to Australia, descriptions of the weather, tales of the activities on board ship and the food on board.

Eventually the Steley family settled in Rockhampton with Maria’s older sister Matilda, who was already living in Australia with her husband and children. The Steleys then moved to Maryborough, where Maria’s father Abel was involved with the Burrum Coal Mine.

Sadly Maria’s life was cut short on 14 November 1869, dying at age 20 in a horse-riding accident on her way home after a visit to Agnesvale Homestead, west of Maryborough. She was buried at Agnesvale Station the following day.

Maria’s diary was passed on for four generations until it was donated to State Library in 1970. You can view the digitised diary via our One Search catalogue.

Diary of Maria Steley. (State Library of Queensland collection)

For more on Maria's story and her diary, listen to Specialist Librarian Joan Bruce chat with Kat Feeney on ABC Radio. The interview follows a performance of an excerpt of the diary, adapted for radio, by Queensland Theatre's Lucy Heathcote.

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Lovely to read this as it is so close to home in Brisbane and we have travelled through places mentioned. Life was really tough for those early migrants and settlers.

Very interesting. Will visit your site.

This would be a great addition to the My Australian Story series of books for Middle school readers published by Scholastic Books.