[Black Thursday, 6th February 1851]

( Image Engraved by F. A. Sleap. Source: State Library of Victoria )

The Black Thursday bushfires were a devastating series of fires that swept the state of Victoria on 6 February 1851. They are considered th largest Australian bushfires in a populous region in recorded history, with approximately 5 million hectares, or a quarter of Victoria, being burnt. Twelve lives were lost, along with one million sheep and thousands of cattle.

"The temperature became torrid, and on the morning of the 6th of February 1851, the air which blew down from the north resembled the breath of a furnace. A fierce wind arose, gathering strength and velocity from hour to hour, until about noon it blew with the violence of a tornado. By some inexplicable means it wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame - fierce, awful, and irresistible." []

Francis and Janet Hamilton with their six children were early pioneers in the West Wimmera, Victoria, where they took up 98,000 acres in 1846. It was James, one of their sons who wrote "Pioneering Days in Western Victoria" published in 1914 by Exchange Press, Melbourne and republished in 1981, by Warrnambool Institute Press.

This extract about the bushfires on the Hamilton properties, "Bringalbert" and "Ozankadnook," in 1851 is particularly pertinent today as we witness fires burning across the countryside during summer.

Barbara Hamilton-Arnold, whose great uncle is the writer, is particularly interested in the fact that boys were given the responsibilities of a man before they were in their teens. James was the main drover in the family from the age of eight. Apparently, his father, newly arrived from Scotland, was 'not much of a bullock driver,' according to James.

Grass in Early Days. - Black Thursday. - Narrow Escape while Shepherding. - Bush Fires.

In 1846 all the country round here, then called the New Country, afterwards the West Wimmera, was covered with kangaroo grass - splendid summer feed for stock of all kinds. It was at its best during January, February, and March, and remained good up to May, but lost its colour after that, and gave place to a finer grass - herbs such as yams, etc. You get a fair representation of what the district was like in local cemeteries, which have been fenced for years, and in parts of which the grass is allowed to grow untouched. The country was like this for some years after 1846, until destroyed by the indiscreet use of fire.

When we were children at "Ozenkadnook," we used to play 'hide-and-seek' in the long grass near the homestead, and I have known a flock of sheep to be hidden by the grass, and only discovered by its waving as they made their way through it. It is easy to imagine how a fire would travel before a hot wind in January or February. Sheep were all shepherded in those days, and provision was made for a place to fly to for safety in case of fire. This was done by burning the grass in patches when it was half green. These patches were all over the run, and when a shepherd saw a fire coming he would drive his flock there, and remain in safety until the fire had passed. Of course, on such a day as the 6th of February, 1851, it was almost impossible to find a place of safety.

My own share of the day was as follows:- I was in charge of all the sheep we possessed, and cut off from all the places of safety and help. Fortunately, there was a large swamp ( near where Messrs. Bull Brothers now live ) within my reach. I made haste and drove my flock to it, staying with them until all danger was over. About three in the afternoon, a thunderstorm came on, with a heavy downpour of rain. I just laid down flat on the ground, and opened my shirt and let the rain pour down on my naked breast. Soon after, my uncle, who was staying with us ( my father having been accidently killed a few months before ) came out to look for me and the sheep, and found me there. I was only a boy of fourteen at the time, so that it was a trying position to be in.

We could never tell when a fire would swoop down on us and burn both fences and sheep. I have seen a fire coming out of the Mallee twenty miles wide, clearing all before it, but with the provision we used to make, we never had any serious loss, although we had many a hard fight. I have been on the run fighting one of these big fires for three days and three nights without going to bed, and that is in the hottest days of summer. The squatting fraternity used to muster when a fire was seen coming and fight it until it was got under. There was less loss in those days than now. We were in the habit of burning all rubbishy country in the autumn. I myself, made a practice of setting aside all station work in March, and, taking five or six men and a supply of water, we burned the country into comparative safety, often working up to a late hour at night and starting early in the morning.

( Contributed by Barbara Hamilton-Arnold - PPPG Member No. 971 )

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