"BLACK THURSDAY" BUSHFIRES 1851


[Painting by William Strutt]

Bushfires were but one of many hardships faced by our pioneering ancestors. However the fires of 6 February 1851 were so extreme that they led this day to become known as "Black Thursday." Thomas McCombie recorded the scene in Melbourne on that day:

"For two months preceding, the country had been under the desiccating winds, which appeared to be highly charged with electricity. The herbage was parched up, and everything that the eye could rest upon was dry, dusty, and disagreeable. The 6th of February dawned much as very hot days generally do; the roseate tints of the horizon were rather brighter and more lurid than usual - the glassed glare over the sky more vividly perceptible. The north wind set strongly in early in the morning, and by eleven o'clock in the fore-noon it had increased to almost a hurricane.

In the streets of Melbourne the heat was intense, and the atmosphere densely oppressive. Clouds of smoke and dust hung over the city. The fires which blazed in the surrounding country no doubt increased the suffocating sensation which was generally experienced. It was hardly possible to go abroad; the streets were nearly deserted; and a few of the persons who were compelled to make the effort to traverse them stalked along with their faces closely enveloped in cloth; no man, however bold, appeared able to face the furiously-suffocating blast, which seemed to wither up their physical energies. By noon, the inhabitants, generally, had shut themselves up in their various dwellings, too happy to have got out of the reach of the overpowering blast. They continued to sit until night listening in terror to the howl of this real sirocco. Had any portion of Melbourne ignited the whole of the city must have been reduced to ashes, as no effort of the inhabitants could have prevented the conflagration from extending and becoming general. The citizens were providentially preserved from so terrible a disaster."

In the early morning the atmosphere was perfectly scorching. The temperature at 11.00 am. was 117° F in the shade. At 1.00 pm. it had fallen to 109° F but by 4.00 pm. it was at 113° F. From Melbourne extensive bushfires could be seen to the northward, said by some to have an extent of 40 or 50 miles. In the evening, a cool breeze from the south came down, bringing in its train a light and refreshing rain.

After the sun went down, a fearful glare was observed in the south-east - one might have believed it was from the numerous residences in the vicinity of the Botanic Gardens but it was from further afield - from the bush around Dandenong, the whole of that portion of the country being in flames.

In the Dandenong area Mr. Henry had his dairy, butter, and other property destroyed; Mr. Maxwell had everything that belonged to him destroyed, his family were in the bush all the following night; they were then taken under the hospitable roof of Mr. Lecky, who escaped with much exertion and perseverance. Feehan had everything that belonged to him destroyed, except for a spring cart, and narrowly escaped with his life. Mr. Bowman escaped with little scathe, and accomodated Feehan's family. Mr. O'Shea's house was saved, but some of the family got severely burned.

James Bathe was away from home. No one was at his place but Mrs. Bathe and a boy. When she saw the place was in danger she opened the stable door to let out Sorcerer, but it proved to do harm instead of good, for a favourite horse of Bathe's rushed into the stable behind the other horse, and both perished. There was not a single post left standing on the place, except one side of the stockyard.

Mr. W. Burke lost everything that was on his farm, and had much difficulty in preserving the stable and public house; his face and eyes were much burnt. The schoolhouse with nineteen children and teacher in it was saved at the risk of life. There were pigs and dogs running loose that were burned to death - birds were dropping down off the trees before the fire in all directions - opposums, kangaroos, and all sorts of beasts were roasted. Fully one half of the timber in this neighbourhood was burned or blown down, and all the grass burnt.

[Engraving by Julian Rossi Ashton]

At the Plenty River, on a station formerly known as Anderson's Station, between the Plenty River and Diamond Creek, the wife and five children of a shepherd named Richard George McLellan suffocated from the smoke of the fire. The hut and out-buildings were reduced to ashes; the bodies of the deceased all lying at the back of the hut. Eight to ten other farms in the neighbourhood were entirely destroyed, stacks, buildings, fences, everything.

John Smallwood of Yass was camped on the side of the Running Creek in the Plenty Ranges with his wife and Edward Dodswell. In the morning they saw the fires but thought they were at a safe distance. However, whilst trying to get their horses and bullocks to safety they were nearly surrounded by fire. Dodswell was severly burned and later died in the Melbourne Hospital.

At Deep Creek, Bulleen, Louis Robinson lost his entire premises.

At Kilmore about 15 farmers had losses, most being located on the special survey:- Messrs. M. Foley, J. Mooney, J. Bourke, J. Dwyer (senior), J. Dwyer (junior), P. Dwyer, A. Finigan, Ewen Garry, P. King, Palmer and Spurling, J. Duggan, P. Grace, W. Rous, and P. Madden. After nightfall the scene was grand and impressive. Kilmore being built in a valley, the high surrounding lands covered with the glowing trunks of trees stripped of their branches and leaves, bore a remarkable resemblance to the lights of a mighty but distant city.

A most extensive fire broke out on the Moorabool River, by which a number of small farmers on the western side of the river suffered seriously, whence the wind brought the fire down to McLean's paddock, which it destroyed, and thence to Mr. Wallace's whose home, premises and stack-yards were burned to the ground. Mr. Robinson's farm, house, out-houses, agricultural implements and valuable produce, were utterly destroyed. Mr. Costigan was subjected to great loss. The fire first passed over the Barrabool Hills, destroying the stacks of Messrs. Leigh, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Wilson, and others. The country near the Leigh was in a complete blaze, and rapidly approached Captain Francis Ormond's at the Leigh, between whose house and Mr. Russell's the fire was raged furiously. Captain Ormond turned out all hands to assist in stopping the progress of the flames. At Mount Cole a fire raged, from the effects of which Mr. Goldsmith's barns suffered. The Boninyong Forest was ablaze, and the timber country suffered severely. A settler at Wardy Yallock fired a part of his back run to drive the wild cattle down, so that he might yard them, and hence arose extensive conflagrations, which, however, were confined to the Ranges.

The fire swept across the stations of Mr. Cameron, destroying the whole of the feed; of Mr. Gray, whose dwelling fell prey to the flames, as well as the shepherd's huts, destroying everything belonging to them. It made a clear sweep across Mr. Kennedy's, but happily, his buildings did not suffer. Mr. Russell escaped with partial injury. At Worrombete, the fire raged and swept all before it

On the Barrabool Hills, the house, barns, stables, &c., seven buildings in all, belonging to Mr. Holmes, with all his stacks and fences, were utterly destroyed. It was at this point that the fire crossed the river. Mr. Bennett's stacks and fences were destroyed, as were those of Mr. Heard. Mr. Fisher's house was saved, but the whole of his crops destroyed. Mr. Thomas lost his house, stacks, fences, and implements, including a very valuable thrashing machine. On Mrs. Wilson's farm everything was destroyed. Mr. Piper had his stone house destroyed, but succeeded in saving one stack. Mr. Furlong's stacks and fences were burnt; Mrs. Furlong was severely burnt. At Mr. Simmons's everything was lost, as was also the case at Mr. Powell's. Mr. Dewing with other losses had a newly erected fence burnt.

On the Corio side of the Marrabool, the conflagration seized Mr. Costigan's farm, swept over the heights, and passed through Mr. McLean's paddock. Mr. Wallace's house was burned to the ground, together with his farming implements, seven hundred bushels of corn, and several fences; his losses being estimated at £800. Costigan lost a barn, five ricks of oats, one rick of barley, one rick of hay containing sixty tons, one rick of wheat, farming implements, a winnowing machine, dray and tarpaulin, beds and clothes. At McCarty's three dwelling-houses went down in the fire. There were the carcases of four calves tethered; forty dairy pigs perished, and were lying about in every direction, and more than half that number severly injured. A hundred and fifty fowls were destroyed. Forty tons of hay, the whole of the fencing, the dairy, was utterly gone; butter to the worth of £70 spoiled, and dairy utensils to the value of £50. With the houses and huts perished the whole of their furniture and apparel. The stockyard was burned, and the cows fled, frightened off by the flames. Mrs. Murphy was obliged to flee with her two children, and take refuge in the river; and so close were the flames upon her that the hut was in a blaze before she left it. Mrs. Mullins, living on a neighbouring farm plunged into the creek with four of her children for safety. Connor's farm, produce, and implements were utterly destroyed. On Robinson's farm, four thousand bushels of wheat and one thousand bushels of oats, together with everything of value were lost. From Costigan's up to Robinson's, this point presented nothing but black desolation.

The following is a brief summary of the other losses on the west side of the Marrabool: - Mr. Kimber, crops and fence destroyed; Mr. Paget, barn, pigs, wheat, flour, &c., being a cripple, he was carried out on his wife's back; Mr. Armstrong, burnt out, stock and furniture; Messrs. Roby, totally burnt out; Mr. Lynch, house, crops, and everything destroyed; Mr. Mullins, burnt out; Mr. A. Manning, hay stack, fence, &c. destroyed; Mr. Reynolds, house and everything destroyed.

At Mr. Hopper's, on the Waurn Ponds, the houses, barns, stacks, fences, and implements were all destroyed, and three lives lost - James Bowman, an employee of Mr. Russell; Mr. Stephen Hopper, brother of Leonard Hopper; and Phoebe Horlop, daughter of Sarah Horlop.

A fire broke out on the station of Mr. Harding, at the Swan Ponds, off Indented Head. The fire swept across a creek which runs in the vicinity, and through a large paddock belonging to Mr. Stevens, up to the beach, at the Heads, thence it took its way up a neck of land to the Light House where it demolished four of the weatherboard stores at the Pilot Station.

Two men who were proceeding to Loutit Bay, lit a fire near the station of Messrs. Zealby on the South Beach, which on being perceived by them, went down to the men and cautioned them about it, when the fellows at once began to scatter the burning embers about in all directions, which soon set the whole place in a blaze; with the rapidity of lightning the fire ran along, and in its progress burning hurdles, huts, house and everything valuable to the ground.

At Ingliston, near Bacchus Marsh, several thousand sheep, and property to the value of some thousands of pounds were reported to have been destroyed.

Mr. Moffatt's sheep were destroyed by the fire. Messrs. Grey and Marr, adjoining Kennedy Brothers lost 3,000 sheep and Mr. Ritchie, near Mount Napier, got all his crop destroyed - his paddock fence was likewise burnt to the ground.

James Murray, of Kangaroo Flat, about 9 miles from Port Fairy, lost upwards of seventy acres of standing wheat, with fencing. George Bostock, of Eumerella was injured. Robert Deane Chamberlain's station was destroyed. All of Messrs. Manifold's tenants were burnt out.

John Broadley Howard, the Sub-Collector of Customs at Portland had his new cottage, furniture and outbuildings burned, with barely enough time to rescue his wife and family.

Mr. Hector McDonald, Smoky River, had all his hay and oats burnt. His partner, Mr. McKenzie, of the Britannia Inn, Portland, had his cottage, a first-rate cart, and a complete set of horse harness burnt to ashes. Mr. Curtin, at the Water Holes, lost all his wheat, oats, hay, and a great part of his fencing. Mr. Montgomery, Mount Emu Creek, had a flock of sheep completely destroyed by bush fire. Mr. Keppin, Bochara Grange, was burnt out of house and hall by an unexpected bush fire. Mr. Pearson had his hay burnt, not one straw of which was saved. Neil Black, Glen Ormiston Station, lost a most excellent flock of sheep. Donald McKinnon, New Country, had his wool shed burned to the ground, though fortunately the wool was saved.

William Millard of the Survey River, about 9 miles from Portland, was a heavy sufferer in the fire. A few weeks earlier he had lost his buildings and furniture in a fire but was now to lose the whole of his crops of wheat and hay. Messrs. Simon Monogue, McLachlan and John Dick, joined with him in his misfortunes.

At sea, the weather was even more fearful than on shore. Captain Reynolds reported that, when 20 miles from the Laurences, the heat was so intense, that every soul on board was struck almost powerless. A sort of whirlwind, on the afternoon, struck the vessel, and carried the topsail, lowered down on the cap, clean out of the bolt rope, and had he not been prepared for the shock, the vessel, he had no doubt, would have capsized. Flakes of fire were, at the time, flying thick all around the vessel from the shore in the direction of Portland.

The Bush Tavern, run by Thomas Bilston at the Fitzroy River, 18 miles from Portland, was reduced to a heap of ashes. The fire reached the buildings without warning; and the few articles which were saved from the wreck ignited afterwards with the excessive heat which the burning houses created. The bridge across the Fitzroy also shared a similar fate.

Several drays, one belonging to Mr. Read of Benalla, whilst travelling on the road, were destroyed. Messrs. Murdock, McLeod, and McGilvery, coming from the ranges with a load of split stuff were suddenly surrounded by the flames, and the dray and load destroyed. Mr. Aitken's dray coming from Mount Macedon, laden with stores, had the latter nearly all destroyed, but the dray was saved.

A company of Thespians, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Evans, Mr. Elrington and Mr. Moss en route for Sydney with a cart filled with the necessary paraphernalia for their vocation, which they intended following at the various towns upon their journey, were surprised by the flames on the Big Hill, and the whole of their wardrobe, &c. was destroyed.

Mr. Airey's station, on the Goulburn was completely destroyed; whilst from this spot to the Broken River the country is completely devastated. Hector Norman Simson's station was entirely burned down, the house only being left standing. Three or four flocks of sheep went missing. A bullock driver has been burned to death in the Iron Bark Forest.

At Jeremiah George Ware's station, Native Creek, the woolshed, presses and a store kitchen were burned, and the run totally destroyed.

Meetings were later held in Melbourne and at various country locations to collect funds for the victims of the fires. Committees were established to receive donations and distribute the funds.

The scene on "Black Thursday" is the subject of a well-known painting by William Strutt. It is on display in the State Library of Victoria.

( Images courtesy of Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne )

Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes ( PPPG Member No. 52 )


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