Quarantine bible

Controlling disease

leather bound book displayed next to its metal cover

Customs had a critical role in checking ships and their crew for disease. Passengers and crew often carried diseases from overseas.

One of the museum's images shows a revenue cutter flying signal flags to a newly arrived ship on the River Clyde. The flags state "Are you healthy?"

Painting of a large sailing ship using flags on the mast to send a message to other ships

'Revenue Cutter on the Clyde' by Robert Salmon (1826), with the flag signal for 'Are you healthy?' Source: 'Marine Art and the Clyde' by AS Davidson, © Jones Sands Publishing.

An oath was sworn on the quarantine bible about the health of a ship and her crew. A pole or rope was used to pass the bible from the officer to the ship's captain. The bible was protected in a metal cover. It was thought that the bible would be cleansed by its passage back through salty water to the customs officer.

A pratique (or certificate) was issued if the ship was healthy. The ship was then cleared to enter port. If diseased the vessel was escorted to a quarantine station, and kept in isolation for up to 40 days. There have been various stations on the River Mersey, the most recent was at New Ferry.

There was a strong fear of disease. This can be seen by the heavy penalties. In 1891 if a customs officer knowingly bordered a diseased vessel, the punishment could be 6 months in prison, or a £300 fine (£13,000 in today's money).

detail of signalling flags from painting above

Detail of the flags signalling 'Are you healthy?' from 'Revenue Cutter on the Clyde' by Robert Salmon (1826). Source: 'Marine Art and the Clyde' by AS Davidson, © Jones Sands Publishing.

Quarantine bible accession number CENM2001.497.1-2