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BLACK THURSDAY. ---The great Bush Fire of Victoria

 

By William Howitt

(The first part appeared in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, Vol. 1. No.6. London, Saturday, February 4, 1854. Other parts followed in subsequent issues.)

 

BLACK THURSDAY is one of the most remarkable days in the annals of Australia. It is a day as frequently referred to by the people in this colony as that of the Revolution of 1688 in England, of the first Revolution in France, or of the establishment of Independence in the United States of America. Great political events have, as yet, had a rare recurrence in this colony; national ones are but two-the discovery of gold and the occurrence of the Great Bush Fire, par excellence, of Thursday the 6th of February, 1851. That is a day memorable in the popular mind for its terrible and unexampled devastation, and which will no doubt continue to remain so for long years to come.

Bush-fires are of almost daily occurrence in one part or another of the Australian colonies, during the summer. They arise from various causes, and are, in many instances, originated purposefully, both by natives and colonists, from ideas of utility. The long dry grass of the wild country is extremely ignitable, and once kindled, the fire runs along it with startling rapidity. The fire of the grass is soon communicated to the scrub, as it is called, that is, the shrubs and underwood of the forest. These, in the long droughts and heats of summer, are as ignitable as the grass, and burn with equal rapidity, and a much intenser heat. These again communicate the fire to the bark, and the lower branches of the trees, especially to the Mimosa genus, which forms a medium between the shrubs and tall trees,-and from them the loftiest trees receive sparks and tongues of flame which burst into instant blaze, and rush along from tree-top to tree-top with lightning rapidity, especially if there be any wind. The fire, too, runs up the bark, especially the stringy bark, and the loose, dry, hanging bark of the red and white gums, which is so much like touch-paper.

Once on fire, the forest blazes furiously, and the wide-spread conflagration runs along with the speed of lightning and. the terrible roar of thunder. The leaves of the Eucalypti, the evergreen gum trees-the trees constituting ninety-nine; hundredths of the forest trees of all Australia-burn vividly and intensely even in their greenest state, being full of gum-resin; it may, therefore, be imagined with what instantaneous quickness they catch fire in their dry state in the heart of summer, when you may crumble them to powder between your fingers. Nothing, therefore, is more common than to see, wherever you go, in all parts of the country, immense tracts of the native forest through which these bush-fires have raged. The whole of the ground is burnt black. The shrubs are totally consumed, or where the fire has only partially or faintly passed, from the absence of grass, and the greenness of the underwood, the shrubs stand with their leaves scorched to a fine ruddy brown, exactly the colour of the oak leaves which adhere to young trees in England in winter. most commonly the trees themselves are scorched to the top in places where the fire has run up their loose-hanging shreds of dry bark. The short timber incumbering the ground of the forest is burnt to ashes or charred to blackness, and thousands of the trunks of trees stand black and branchless columns, the melancholy monuments of the conflagration. Where the fire, however, has been past some time, the grass is again springing green as the emerald; the shrubs are again protruding fresh stems from the earth; and the trees as if invigorated by the fire, are putting out luxuriant shoots and leaves all the way up their trunks. In fact, the Mimosa tribe, the wattles, especially rejoice in a scorching; and when these bush-fires destroy the Eucalyptic trees, they shoot up and succeed them. It is customary, therefore, in planting seeds of the Wattles, to plunge them into boiling water, or to scorch them before putting them into the earth.

The causes of these bush-fires every summer are sufficiently patent to observation. Both natives and colonists, who camp out in the bush, make fires, and leave them burning when they go away. These fires are generally made against the standing, or the fallen trunk of a tree, and you may see scores of these fires, as you travel through the forest, still burning. The trunks of trees will indeed burn for weeks. There wants, therefore, in the summer only a little wind to blow the sparks or flames of these fires into the dry grass, and a bush-fire is inevitable. I have myself seen bullock drivers make a fire at noon to cook their dinners as they halted on the road, go away and leave it burning, and in less than half an hour afterwards it has caught the grass, and has spread over an inconceivable extent of the forest. In a few hours such a fire with a breeze will have raged through miles of forest; and will not stop till its progress is averted by a river, a road, or a clear valley destitute of long grass. You see, as you travel on, constant evidences of these fires sweeping along the mountains to the very tops, clearing everything but the largest and most solid trees before them.

Besides these accidental causes, now incalculably increased by the tens of thousands of diggers who are traversing the country in all directions, and who make fires at every halting-place, the natives set fire to the bush to drive out the game, which they stand prepared to attack in its flight; and also to destroy the long dry grass, and make it give place to young sweet grass, on which the kangaroos and other game will feed more luxuriantly. They are in the habit, too, of burning the forest to cut off the pursuit, or to drive before them another and hostile tribe.

The squatters fire the forest on the same principle as the natives in one respect: that is, to destroy the coarse grass and obtain young, fresh pasture. They also burn up their stubble on some generally concerted day, which very often communicating its flame, in many different localities, to the forest, produces extensive and disastrous bush-fires. For the negligence of leaving these fires burning in the bush, there is a legal penalty, but nobody ever regards it, because I do not believe it is ever inflicted.

All these fires possess, more or less, a certain magnificence. The rush and roar of the flames, their wide front marching rapidly on like the front of a pursuing army, clothed in the fire of musketry. The volumes of smoke rolling on before the conflagration, the vivid furnace-like blaze careering through the scrub, or leaping along the tops of the trees; the flying of cattle, of horses, of troops of kangaroos, and other wild animals from its wrath. Whole hosts of birds with wild cries rushing headlong before it, or wheeling around after it, in anxiety for their young; or in hope of the feast which the myriads of opossums, bandicoots, kangaroos, rats, flying squirrels, serpents, and other inhabitants of the forest are sure to present, being roasted alive in their retreats—the hollow trees which abound everywhere, or in the long grass or scrub. But the very greatest of fires sinks into insignificance before the ever-memorable fire of Black Thursday-so called from the horror and effects of that day.

Till I came to investigate for myself the causes of this immense conflagration which involved a vast portion of the colony in a single day I was led to believe that these causes were mysterious. I was told of its breaking out in the mountains at the head of the Plenty, and careering down to Geelong, a distance of 80 miles, at the rate of a horse at full gallop. That it raced at that, and even greater speed, there is no doubt. But there is no mystery whatever as to its origin, as will be seen from the following facts, collected from the newspapers of that date. Nor did it break out in one particular quarter, but burst to life from one universally stimulating cause, acting on hosts of fires in different parts of the country, some of which, as will be seen, had been burning for weeks and even months past. We shall find it stated that, besides the incidental fires left burning by travellers, dray-men, and shepherds, there had been bush fires caused by the burning of stubble, and even, in one or more cases, there were not only those fires purposely excited by the squatters to destroy the withered grass, but the bush had been fired by them in other instances from mere wantonness, if not, still worse, for the love of mischief. Shepherds had seen fires burning on the hills in different places, as they stated in evidence, for months.

 

All these fires, therefore, were ready to receive that great and universal stimulant, which came. Consumed with drought as is the Australian bush during the summer months of all ordinary years, the country was this year visited with an extraordinary and intense and long-continued drought. The grass was dried up to a state of tinder. The leaves of the trees were so dry that they ought, as I have observed, be powdered in the hand. The water­ courses were in many cases completely exhausted, and in all reduced very low. Water-holes and creeks, which had never been known before, since the white man came into the colony, to fail, were now hollows parched and cracked with heat. W e find complaints sent to the newspapers from the squatters in different parts, complaining that if the drought continued the flocks and herds would perish together. We hear, indeed, of whole flocks of sheep and vast numbers of cattle actually dying of thirst and starvation.

In this state of things, came one of those hot winds from the north which sweep over the whole country like a typhoon, burn­ing and stifling you in their course, like the breath of a furnace. These winds bear directly on the surface of the earth, rushing on with torrid violence, and scooping up and bearing with them clouds of dust and fine sand, so dense that you cannot see your hand before you. They howl round the houses like the most stormy nights of our December, sending fine dust through every crevice of door and window, and covering everything in the rooms. Such inflictions, which I have known to occur in Melbourne every few days, would drive our ladies and housemaids mad; but here they are become so habituated to them, as eels to skinning, that when the wind is over, they coolly wipe up the dust, shake out their carpets, curtains, and counterpanes, and care no more about it.

But it is only when they are over that they can do anything coolly; for the heat is, during their prevalence, perfectly prostrating. These winds, known in Sydney as "Brickfielders," are still more terri­ble, owing to the greater heat of the climate and the more sandy nature of the soil. During their continuance the thermometer will rise, not to 110 degrees, as colonial writers admit, but to 140 degrees. The foliage of the forest shrivels up before the fiery blast, and corn crops are sometimes actually reduced to cinder in the ear.

It was after the long, severe drought and the tinder condition of the grass and foliage in the summer of 1850-1, which we have just spoken of, that one of these hot winds came. The whole country lay, as it were, prepared for ignition-ready for the match, and there it was! The various fires on the mountains and in the bush received the kindling impulse-the flames shot forward with the wind, and the whole country was speedily one huge conflagration! Lighted at s0 many points, the forest blazed and roared in a manner so startling and terrible, that the popula­tion, scattered thinly through the bush, were struck with conster­nation. Some rushed with green boughs, as in ordinary bush­fires, to beat out the flames, but in most cases without success, The terrible element came roaring forward, presenting an awful front of miles in extent, which devoured the forest trees as so many reeds, and sent before it clouds of smoke which darkened the atmosphere, and a heat consuming as the breath of a furnace heated to whiteness.                    .

Soon the people had to flee before the remorseless enemy in all directions, and in every quarter, even over an extent of many hundreds of square miles. The women and children fled from their blazing huts; the shepherds left their flocks to perish, unable to drive them to any conceivable place of refuge. Cattle in vast herds were seen careering madly before the fires, which not only leaped from tree to tree like lightning, but travelled at once with its velocity and deadliness. Troops of horses, wild from the bush, with flying tails and manes, and neighing wildly, galloped across the ground with the fury of despair. Flocks of kangaroos, and of smaller animals, leaped desperately along, to escape the horrible conflagration, and hosts of birds swept blindly on, many falling suffocated headlong into the flames, and the rest raising the most lamentable cries. Horsemen, seeing the raging sea of fire advancing with whirlwind speed from alm0st every quarter, galloped madly and for scores of miles, till their horses fell under them. Drovers conducting mobs of cattle and horses, as they arc called, by turns to market, were compelled to leave them to shift for themselves, and fled away at the highest speed of their horses for their own lives. The destruction, not only of farms, crops, shepherds' huts, cattle, horses, and sheep, was immense, but the destruction of the wild creatures of the woods, which were roasted alive in their holes and haunts, was something fearful to contemplate, People, as it will be seen, who rushed into water-holes and creeks- happy were they who had any near them- and sunk themselves to the very mouths in them, were yet in some instances so scorched and broiled as to perish from the effects.                   

In one day, a whole country of 300 miles in extent, and at least 150 in breadth, was reduced to a desert. It was one blackened and burning waste. The horses were consumed; the cattle destroyed or dispersed; the birds silenced; the wild creatures burnt to ashes. At night, the fumes of the foliage had exhausted their material of support, but huge trunks of trees, prostrate or erect, burnt with a ruby red, or an intense whiteness- columns of solid fire in the midst of the blackness of darkness-over an extent of country that was frightful from its solitude and desolation.

In Melbourne, I have heard those who experienced it say, that the suffocating heat was something inconceivable. The very atmosphere seemed aflame. Few people were to be seen out of doors, except such as were hastening desperately to the public-houses, and coffee-shops for beer or lemonade and the cooling drinks. These were seen, hanging their tongues out of their mouths like dogs, as their owners brought them out to the river to save their lives; while far out at sea, there were driven clouds of dust and ashes, which covered the decks of ships like snow, and obscured the midday sun. A friend of ours, on his way to England at that memorable time, saw at night the radiance of the great burning at the distance of ninety miles.

After this general statement, we cannot give a more important idea of this terrible day, than that which is conveyed in the single statement of facts, which was furnished, to the papers at the time, and which, by the courtesy of the able editor of the Argus, we were enabled to extract from its files of that period.

This famous fire took place on Thursday, February 6th, 1851, and the first brief announcement of it occurs in that paper of the 7th, the next day :-

PORTLAND. A gentleman resident in the Portland Bay District, thus writes to a friend in Melbourne: “The bush is on fire in all directions. The creeks and water-holes in this district were never known by white men to be so low. If this weather continues the stock will die off fast. Mr. Guy, late of the firm of Guy and Marr, had his housestead burned to the ground, along with 1,400 sheep. Mr. Niel Black has lost 3,500 sheep, destroyed by fire; and now I am writing, you cannot see 3oo yards, so dense is the smoke. I am in constant dread 0f that destroying element reaching the houses. The station is literally surrounded by flames."

Startling as this news was, however, it gave no idea of the vast and general nature 0f the calamity. No one could possibly imagine it. That the country was actually one blaze for thousands of square miles, that the conflagration extended from the Broken River in one direction, and the Barrabool Hills in another, to Geelong, Cape Otway and Portland, a distance, in a direct line, as we have stated, of 300 miles in one direction, and of, at least, half that distance in the other. It extended eastward to the Dandenong Hills, to Western Port, and right away into Gippsland.

Who could suppose that over all this vast expanse this annihilating incandescence had passed in one day?

The drought and destruction of cattle had extended much further. These were quite as severe beyond the Murray as on the Port Phillip Hill. A gentleman writing from Edward River before the outbreak of the fire, said:-  “The weather has, for some days, been oppressively hot. Crab holes, water-h0les, and even creeks with slight exceptions, are dried up. The extensive runs on the Bilebong and Yanko, have been entirely abandoned, after great numbers or sheep had perished. The flocks have been driven away, in some instances to great distances, to obtain the necessary supplies of water; and even where this is found, food is exceedingly scarce, and scarcely more than will maintain the flocks in mere existence. The prospect, in many districts, from the l0ng drought, before the settlers, is most dreary."

But no human intelligence could foresee the real an astounding facts which were at hand. On the 8th, the Argus writes:

"Thursday was one of the most oppressively hot days we have experienced for some years. In the morning the atmosphere was perfectly scorching, and at eleven 0' clock the thermometer stood as high as 117° in the shade; at one 0 clock  it had fallen to 109 [degrees], and at four in the afternoon it was up to 113[degreesF or 47.22 degreesC]. The blasts of air were so impregnated with smoke and heat that the lungs seemed absolutely to collapse under their withering influence ; the murkiness of the atmosphere was so great, that the roads were absolutely bright by contrast. The usual unpleasantness of hot wind was considerably aggravated by the existence of extensive bush-fires to the northward, said by some to have extended forty or fifty miles."

Still so little idea was entertained in Melbourne of the real extent of these extraordinary fires! The earliest intelligence of their ravages reached Melbourne from the adjoining district of the Plenty. "Intelligence reached town yesterday morning," says the Argus of the 8th “of a most destructive bush-fire that had been raging on the previous day, at the River Plenty. On the station formerly known as Anderson's Station between the River Plenty and Diamond Creek, the destruction was very great; and it is stated, that a poor woman, wife of a shepherd named McLelland, was, with five children, suffocated in a hut, from the smoke of the fire which raged around them, and left them no means of escape. The Coroner has ‘been made aware of this fact’ and has appointed a day to hold an inquest on the bodies at the Bridge Inn, Plenty River. Eight or ten farms in that neighbourhood have been entirely destroyed; stacks, buildings, fences, everything; whilst several men are missing, and fears are entertained that they have perished.”

On the 10th, the full extent of the calamity began to dawn upon the astonished writer; the details of that date in the papers are ample and overwhelming. The Argus says :- "In our Saturday's issue, we briefly alluded to the extensive and destructive bushfires that prevailed throughout the country, more particularly on the Thursday preceding. Rumours bad reached us of conflagrations on every side, but we did not wish to appear alarmist. Since then, however, we learn with regret that little only of the ill news had reached us and that what we thought magnified, is, unhappily, very far from the fearful extent of truth.

"After the sun had gone down on Thursday, a frightful glare might be observed on the S. S. East. It was the glare of the burning bush around Dandenong, the whole of that part of the country being in flames. Preparations had been made for holding the races on that day, but the flames drove the sportsmen from the course over which they passed. In the neighbourhood of Western Port, it is reported that nearly the only house left standing, is the inn at Dandenong."

 

 

 “The following letter, received on Saturrday from Western Port, will give some idea of the destruction caused in that neighbourhood. —Mr. Henry had his dairy, butter, and other property destroyed.  Mr. Maxwell had everything that. belonged to him destroyed: his family was in the bush all the following night, and his youngest child's life was preserved by his carrying water in his hat put round with mud. They are now under the hospitable roof of Mr. Lecky, who escaped with much exertion and perseverance. Fehan has everything belonging to him destroyed except a spring-cart, and narrowly escaped with his life. Mr. Bowman escaped with little scathe, and can accommodate Fehan's family. Mr. O'Shea's house in saved, but some of the family got severely burnt. Poor Mr. Bathe was from home. No one was on the place but a woman and boy. When she raw the place was in danger, she opener the stable-door to let out Sorcerer but it proved mischief instead of good, for a favourite horse of Mr. Bathe's rushed into the Stable behind the entire house, and both perished.

"There is not a single, post left standing on the place, except one side of the stack-yard. The woman and boy were in the bush all night, and were found yesterday by Mr. AV. Burk in a very exhausted state. Mr. Burk lost everything that was on the farm, and had much difficulty in preserving the stable and public-house. His face and eyes are much burnt. The school-house, with nineteen children and teacher in it, was saved at the risk of life. I do not mention what I have heard, but only what I have seen. Dogs and pigs, running loose, were burned to death; birds were dropping down before the fire from the trees in all directions; opossums, kangaroos and all sorts of beasts, can be had today ready roasted all over the bush. Fully one half of the timber in this neighbourhood has been burned, or blown down, and all the grass has been burnt.

"On the Plenty, also, in almost inconceivable amount of damage has been done. We mentioned that some ten or twelve farms bad been destroyed, but this is very far from approaching the actual destruction. More than one hundred families have been thrown, by the conflagration, houseless upon the property of Mr. Wills, and a vast amount of wheat, estimated at 20,000 bushels, has been burnt. The property of Mr. Harlin, and several others of the Upper Plenty, have also buffered very severely ; and no fatal has it been on Mr. Wills' estate, that only one of his tenants, Mr. Johnson, by good fortune escaped.

"A shepherd on Dr. Donald's station saved his family, self, and sheep, by hastily getting upon some ground previously burnt. On the Mooney Ponds the fire has been equally destructive. It has ravaged the properties of Messrs. Hunter, Green, and Young, the latter late of the Harvest Home, whose crop of hay, &c., valued at £1,000, have been totally destroyed. At the Deep Creek, also, much damage has been done to the fencing in many places, and the houses and farm-yards were saved by extraordinary exertions.

"Messrs. Williamson and Blow, of Pentland Hill, have had their station completely destroyed-home, furniture, every stitch of clothing except what was in actual wear, library, &c. The loss in large items alone is estimated at 850[pounds] and they fear the loss of two flocks of sheep, which are missing. So complete has been the work of destruction, that Mr. Blow has been compelled to come into town to purchase clothes for himself and slops for the men. At Mr. Powlett's police-station, his tent, fences and crops have all been burnt. Fortunately the house was saved.

The next paragraph is from the Geelong Advertiser, verbatim:

"EXTENSIVE FIRES.-Yesterday morning a most extensive fire broke out on the Marrabool River, by which a number of small farmers suffered severely on the western side of the riyer, whence the wind brought the fire down to Mr. McLean's paddock, which it destroyed, and thence to Mr. Walllace's, whose house, premises, and stack-yards have been burned to the ground. Mr. Robinson's farm, house, and buildings, agricultural implements, and valuable produce are utterly destroyed. He is a sufferer to an extent of £1,100 at least. Mr. Costigan has suffered severely; and Mr. McCarthy has been subjected to great loss. The fire, we are informed, first passed over the Barabool Hills, destroying the stacks of Messrs. Leigh, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Wilson, and others.

"A gentleman, just arrived, states the country near the Leigh to be in a complete blaze, and rapidly approaching Captain Ormond's at the Leigh, between whose house and Mr. Russell's the fire was raging furiously yesterday. Captain Ormond had turned out all hands to assist in stopping the progress of the flames. At Mount Cole, the fire was raging, from the effects of which Mr. Goldsmith's barns and crop had suffered.

"The Boninyong Forest is in ablaze, and the timber country is suffering severely. A settler of Wardy Yallock, we are informed, fired a portion of his back run, to drive the wild cattle down, so that he might yard them, and hence here are some extensive conflagrations, which, however, have been confined to the Ranges. The whole of the plains between the Hopkins and the Leigh have escaped."

The same paper of Saturday adds the following particulars:

"On the Barrabool Hills, the house, barns, stables, and 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 to M 'Carty's. Mr. Bennett's stacks and fences are destroyed, as are also those of Mr. Heard. Mr. Fisher's house was saved; the whole of his crops destroyed. Mr. Thomas has lost his house, stacks, fences, and implements, including a very valuable threshing-machine. On Mrs. Tilson's farm everything was destroyed, but the report of her death is incorrect. Mr. Michael Bolian has had everything destroyed, except one small hut. Mr. Piper has had his storehouse destroyed, but saved one stack. Mr. Furlong's stacks and fences were burnt. Mr. Furlong was severely burnt, and his injuries may be fatal. Mr. Honey's house escaped on Thursday, but took fire yesterday, and was totally consumed. At Mr. Hopper's, on the Warren Ponds, the houses, barns, stacks, fences, and implements, were all destroyed, and three lives lost. At Mr. Simmons' every thing was lost, and. the same at Mr. Powell's. We cannot enumerate all the sufferers, we do not yet know the half of them.

We have had no precise information about the vineyards. It is reported that Belperond's is partially destroyed, Petavel's is safe.

"Mr. Wallace's house is burnt to the ground with his farming implements, 700 bushels of corn, and several fences. Mr. Jack's has suffered little, if any. C0stigan has 108t 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 of every description are utterly gone, and the flames still linger on the banks of the creek. The desolation which we had already witnessed, somewhat prepared us for the sight we encountered. Three dwelling-houses had gone down in the fire. A few cinders and charred rafters marked the spot where a barn had stood. The irons of three ploughs lay in the ashes at another place, alongside of the ironwork of a winnowing machine, half burnt in the ashes of 600 Bushels of wheat in chaff, and the same quantity in rick. There were the roasted carcasses of four calves tethered, and pigs fattened, burnt black by the flames. Forty dairy pigs perished and were lying about in every direction, and more than half that number were severely injured. Six large ones lay in one heap along the Marrabool. A hundred and fifty fowls were destroyed. Forty tons of hay, the whole of the fencing, the dairy utensils gone, and butter to the value of 70 [pounds] spoiled. Seven hundred pounds worth of Property has been destroyed.

 

 

 

With the house and huts perished the whole of their furniture and apparel--one pair of boots and a shirt being all that remains. The stack-yard was burnt, and the cows, frightened off by the flames, have fled. Mrs. Murphy, living on the place, had a narrow escape. She was obliged to fly 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. The poor woman had only been confined a fortnight.

Mrs.  Mullings, living on a neighbouring farm, plunged into the creek with four of her children, for safety. Connor's farm produce, and implements, are utterly destroyed. On Robinson's farm, 4,000 bushels of wheat and 1,000 bushels of oats, with everything of value, perished. From Costigan's up to Robinson's, this point presented nothing but black desolation. From the high range above, as far as the eye could reach, the scene looked as though it had been swept by the wing of the destroying angel.

Such are the accounts from every district where this tremendous fire raged, and with the details of which I could fill a whole volume. But these, may be taken as a sample of the terrible whole.

I shall now note only such passages as give some peculiar views of human suffering. At the inquests held on the bodies of the sufferers in Melbourne, the following particulars were given respecting the families in Diamond Creek and the Plenty, whose misfortunes I have already noticed :

"The bullock-dray," says the Argus of Feb. 10th, "containing the bodies had been expected to arrive at the Traveller's Red Inn, Collingwood, by 7 p.m., but it was something later, and when the boughs and few rugs which bodies removed, the spectacle was extremely harrowing. The bodies had been placed on the dray in the same positions in which they were found, and had their faces to the ground. Four of the bodies were quite charred, and of those two of the children were far from complete. Its being viewed by the light of a few lanterns only,  gave no trifling effect to the distressing scene which the jurors were in duty bound to contemplate.

“The bereaved Richard George McLelland, so lately a comfortable settler on the Diamond Creek, had been previously brought to the inn. He appeared to be in a very dangerous state, being seriously burnt about his arms and legs, as well as suffering from the shock to his mind by the dreadful calamity. The coroner visited him, but deemed it improper to trouble him with any questions, and gave an order for his removal to the Melbourne hospital an soon as possible.

"Alexander Miller, shepherd to Mr. R. G. McLelland, settler, deposed, that he had been employed as a shepherd to a flock of 1,100 sheep for three weeks past. He had seen, a bush-fire burning nearly all that time on the mountains, which are about two miles distant from his master's station, but did not see that it had come nearer to them until Thursday,  6th instant, when, about noon, in taking the sheep to the creek to drink, he suddenly found that the fire had reached the trees which were on the same shide of the creek as the station, and was rapidly coming on towards him. He, therefore, quickly drove the sheep to the home station for safety, and, owing to the smoke which increased upon him, had much difficulty in so doing.

 "When he arrived there, he found that the hut and tho out- buildings and all near to them were on fire. He called to his master and family, but received no answer. He could not reach the hut, nor get the sheep to move again from the hurdles; so to save his own life, he ran through tho smoke and burning trees down to the creek, plunged into it, and remained there until the evening, when, as the fire had somewhat passed over, he returned to where he had left the sheep, and also walked about near to where the hut had been, to see if any of the family were to be seen. He saw none 0f them, nor any of the sheep; so returned again to the creek, but then went to the place where they usually dipped for water. There he found his master, Mr. McLelland lying up to his neck in the water; helped him to get up, and asked him where were the mistress and the children? Mr. McClelland replied that they were all dead!        

 "His master and himself lay down close to tho water all night, and during that time Mr. McLelland told him that he had been much burnt through trying to save his oldest boy, about eight years 0f age; that he had carried the child a little way, but the boy had said to him, 'Father, lay me down;’ and that, finding the child's head immediately drop, as if in death. He had laid him down, and had no power of carrying him further, his own arms being so dreadfully burnt.

 "Mr. McLelland also told him that the other bodies would be found near the hut, and in the morning Mr. McLelland wanted to go and look for them; but he persuaded him not to go, but to go with him at once to Dr. Ronald's station, about two miles distant, and there get himself attended to.

" Having seen his master most hospitably received there, he then went to the Bridge Inn, Plenty River, where he procured a dray to fetch away the bodies and requested that information might be immediately sent to Melbourne of the deaths; which was quickly done. Witness went with tho dray to the station, and on arriving near to where the hut had been, he met a young man named Parish, and three other persons, who showed him where the bodies lay, and assisted him in putting them upon the dray. Five of the bodies lay about twenty yards from the back of the hut, and that of the eldest boy was about fifteen yards from the front of the hut. All of them lay on their faces, and there was not a vestige of their clothing to be seen. The grass and everything near them was burnt.

"In answer to Mr. Foy, the foreman of tho jury, the shepherd said that the hut was about a hundred yards from the creek, and that he did not during the night leave the creek, because the trees between the creek and the hut were burning fiercely, and also because he was told by his master that Mrs. McLelland and the children were all dead."

Upon the inquests held before the coroner of Geelong, the following facts were elicited :- Three people were burnt to death on the Barrabool hills, James Bowman, one of them, had been employed by his master, Mr, Russell, in endeavouring to extinguish the flames. He was missed, sought after, and found burnt to a cinder in the very same track that the other men had taken to escape from the fire.

Mr. Leonard Hopper, farmer, deposed, that while burning the stubble with the view of cutting of the pursuit of the bush-fire, the wind suddenly shifted, and brought the flames close to them. He had then said that further effort was useless, and every man ran from the flames. Mr. Stephen Hopper, his brother, had taken a direction different from the rest, and five minutes afterwards his body was found, so burnt and disfigured, as scarcely to be recognisable.

Mrs. Hopper, the wife of Mr. Leonard Hopper, stated, that when she saw the fire coming up the hill, she gave her children to the care of Sarah Horlop. Some one called out for water; Sarah Horlop went to fetch it, and while she was gone the fire came raging up. Mrs. Hopper then took her own children, and Sarah Horlop's with her, and ran with them to a secure place. On reaching it, she looked to see whom she had with her, and then missed Pheobe Horlop. On this she called William Hay to look for her, who shortly afterwards informed her that she was dead. The child's father had gone with William Hay in search of the child, and discovered her lying on the paddock, but on taking her up in his arms, found that she was quite dead.

On the 11th of February, the Argus says :- "As distance allows the various accounts to reach Melbourne, news of destruction, desolation, and ruin come pouring in upon us, until our heart sickens at the fearful nature of our duty. The excitement which this terrible event has caused, is without parallel in our colony, all having friends or relatives in the bush, but whoso fate the strongest anxiety is felt.

"Only very few farms on the Plenty have escaped; but the owners of these few have acted nobly in affording protection and shelter to the numerous houseless and destitute wanderers that the flames have made. There are still more persons of whom nothing has been heard, and, consequently, the intensest anxiety is felt on their account. It is almost certain that at least two or three of these have perished in the flames.

“Mr. Airey’s station on the Goulburn has been completely  destroyed; while from this spot to the Broken River  the country is entirely desolated."

That is upwards of 60 miles in extent.

The station of Mr. H. N. Simpson was entirely burnt down, the house only excepted. Three or four flocks of sheep were missing after the fire; while, out of 30,000 sheep, only 8,000 had been discovered at the time that these accounts reached Melbourne.  Travellers who then passed through the bush gave the most heart-rending accounts of the suffering of the horses and cattle. Many of the poor animals were lying on the ground, incapable, from the injuries they had received, of supplying the wants of nature; and as soon as a human being appeared in sight, they seemed to crave his aid by their melancholy cries.

 

Other papers of the same date furnish striking descriptions of the fearful ravages made by this conflagration. Similar statements are given in private letters.

A writer from Mount Macedon gave a deplorable relation of the destruction in that neighbourho0d; stating, moreover, that he was in possession of evidence that part, at least, of the terrible catastrophe there was caused by a squatter setting fire to the dry grass, to burn it 0ff before the new grass should spring. This he states to be a common practice in the bush. He says:-

"I write in the midst of desolation. Thursday morning was ushered in with a fierce hot wind, which, as the day advanced, grew stronger and stronger. For three weeks bush-fires had been raging to the northward and westward of the Bush Inn. About noon the whole of Mount Macedon and the ranges were one sheet of flame careering on at the speed of a race-horse; carrying all before it as clean as a chimney newly swept. The destruction in the vicinity of the Bush Inn is truly appalling. On Messrs. Riddle and Hamilton's cattle station, the cottage, huts, hay, wheat, oats, stack-yard, paddock, fences, are all in ruins. Peter and David Murray, who rented the dairy, have lost all they possessed, and barely escaped with their lives. Messrs. Riddle and Hamilton have also lost their out-station huts. Mr. Paulett, at the police station, has lost large haystacks, but saved his cottage and buildings.

"But for a number of men being at the Bush Inn, it, along with seventy tons of hay and grain, would have been burnt to the ground; the fire being within the fence surrounding the hay and grain, as well as burning the dry straw at the stable doors. The blacksmith's and farm servants' huts were burned, with all belonging to the poor men. Mr. Robertson's house, huts, and grain have escaped in a most wonderful manner, but his bridges, drays, fences, and garden are destroyed. One of his shepherds, along with his flock, was completely surrounded with the flames. The cries of the shepherd brought up a man who was himself running for his life. Seeing that there was no hope, except they could burst through the flames, they drove the sheep back to a bare piece of ground facing the fire, and they then set to work as a matter of life and death, to beat out as much flame with green boughs as would barely permit the sheep to pass through. Thus, getting to the windward and behind the fire, they rescued both themselves and the flock.

"On the mountains the splitters and sawyers had everything burned. One of them had a fine mare burned to death; and a man of the name of Jones, who was cutting timber down, lost two valuable draft horses and a bullock-dray. The wife of Taylor, one of the splitters, was severely burnt about the breast and arms; and the wife of Doolin, another splitter, was in flames, and only saved by a man wrapping a wet blanket round her. Edward Morris, another splitter, managed admirably,-being a man of nerve and near the water, he and his mate saved his wife and children, who were in the hut; but in common with the rest of tho splitters, he lost his hut and stuff. The women Taylor and Doolin escaped with scarcely a rag to cover them.

"A bullock-driver named Bill, fetching a load of timber from the mountain, got enclosed by the fire; he unyoked his bull0cks to give them a chance of escape, but seeing all hope cut off for himself, be laid hold of a bullock's tail, and giving a great whoop, the animal rushed forward, dashed headlong through the flames, and cleared him of all danger. But great numbers of cattle perished in that neighbourhood. They were found lying in all directions, dead and dying, many of them with their entrails protruding."

The Portland Guardian of the 7th gave a very striking view of the awful conflagration in that neighbourhood. It said:- "Yesterday afternoon was a period of extraordinary heat, and we are sorry to say, of calamity also. The heat, from 11 o'clock a.m. until afternoon, was most oppressive, a hot wind blowing from the N. N. West in the most furious manner. At this time the thermometer stood for an hour by one glass at 122[degrees], while by others it reached 116[degrees] in the sun. The dust in the street was most suffocating, penetrating the smallest crevices, and filling the houses. In consequence of the excessive heat and bush-fires, the last day of the races was postponed to this day. About 12 o’clock a bush-fire in the vicinity of tho town began to rage with the utmost fury. It sprang up near the race-course, and through the violence of the hot wind, threatened to consume the booths, and to envelop the persons who had assembled there, in the flames, before time could be afforded them to escape.

 

 "By a slight change of wind, however, the races escaped, but the resistless element swept away in its course the newly-erected cottage of Mr. Howard, the collector of customs, leaving only just time to hurry Mrs. Howard and the children out of it, before their residence became a perfect cinder. So sudden and rapid was the progress of the flames, that the fowls and goats about the premises were all consumed. The fire swept along before the wind, carrying away the fences and everything that stood in its path, for about a mile and a half. The utmost concern was meantime felt for the safety of the town in another quarter. The fire was approaching; fiery particles were whirling down the streets, and flying over the tops of the houses in profusion. Not a constable was t0 be seen in the place! The inhabitants did what they could to save their homes and property, but water-carts and all concentrated efforts were at a vast discount. Fortunately, the wind moderated about two 0' clock, and the apprehension passed away.

"While this fire was raging in the immediate vicinity of the town, Mount Clay and the farms in that locality were enveloped in one stupendous blaze.  Messrs. Millard, Monoque, McLacklan and Dick were severe sufferers. Millard had the whole of his crops destroyed, and the work of years was swept away in a few hours from those industrious families. Their fences, their crops and houses were annihilated at a stroke."

The same accounts detailed the destruction of the Bush Tavern, the bridge across the Fitzroy, with the destruction of other houses and property.

But in no locality was the conflagration of Black Thursday more terribly magnificent than in the forest of CAPE OTWAY. This is one of the densest forests in the colony, and covered with gigantic trees. As you approach the country by sea, the range of the Cape Otway forest hills, on your left hand as you advanced towards the bay of Port Phillip, presents a fine, bold and impressive view. Those lofty hills, clothed with forest from the margin of the sea to their very tops, realise vividly to your imagination your approach to a vast region of primeval nature. You see the tall white boles of the trees that stand side by side like so many hoary columns, on the high acclivities, and here and there amongst them descend dark ravines, while piles of rocks on the heights, alternating with projecting chines and spurs of the mountains, present their solitary masses to the breezes of the ocean.

Cape Otway forest is upwards of 50 miles in extension in each direction. Before the 6th of February, 1851, it was said to be almost impassable from the density of the scrub, and the thick masses of vines, as they are called, that is lianas, or creeping, cord-like plants, chiefly parasitical, which as in the forests of South America, climb from tree to tree, knitting the forest into one obscure and impenetrable shade. Except along Mr. Roadknight’s track, from his station near the sources of the Barwon, through the heart of the forest to Apollo Bay, a distance of 40 miles, you might before the fire cut your way with an axe, but find it difficult to make progress through it at all.

"The most striking features of the Cape Otway country are, the immense size and crowdedness of the timber trees, and the density and luxuriant growth of the fern scrub. This scrub, in ordinary circumstances, burns slowly, so that a fire may continue for many weeks in some parts of the timber without extending very far from the spot where it originated. Such a fire was, in fact, known to exist for a month past in the ranges, but no alarm was felt in consequence. The hot wind of Thursday, however, playing upon the kindled nucleus, caused the fire to spread with such fury, that the dense scrub was swept away like stubble, and the flames were carried along in the tops of the trees, leaving the massive trunks ignited wherever any decayed hollow or dead branch gave the fire a resting-place.

"The body of flame came down with such rapidity from the ranges, towards the coast, that, as was the case here, the persons who left their huts for a few hours found, on their return, all swept away. One sawyer, named Joseph Hill, was in the utmost consternation for a long time respecting his wife and children, who he imagined had perished in their hut; but was relieved by finding that they had exercised an unusual foresight, and got to a safe distance, Everything in and around the place was consumed, including a supply of rations, just arrived from Otway. In the huts the very brass was melted off the cooking utensils. This was at Apollo Bay. The timber in the forest which was cut, is supposed to be destroyed, but that piled on the sandy beach is saved. At Addis Bay, Mr. William Fisher, the most enterprising of the Cape Otway settlers, has had everything destroyed- huts, timber, stores, and all. His stock of timber was very large."

To this account succeeds a fresh catalogue of crop, cattle, and stations destroyed; and another paragraph describes the whole route from Geelong to the Barrabool Hills as literally covered with dead parrots, magpies, and other birds.

A carrier was brought into Melbourne Hospital who had been overtaken at the Running Creek, in the ranges near the Plenty, where he had encamped with his wife and a bushman. The whole team of bullocks and dray were burnt. The bushman ran for his life, and Dodswell the carrier, and his wife, threw themselves into a creek, which, however, was only six inches deep, but they laved themselves over and over for about six hours. During this time, spite of the water, the whole of their clothes were burnt off their backs, and they barely escaped with life itself. The man was so severely burnt, along the whole length of his back and about the chest that he died in the hospital, his wife being in great suffering all that time.

In the Portland district, the fire which destroyed Fitzroy Town was so intense that it left nothing but the chimneys standing of the buildings; the fowls were shrivelled to the size of ordinary potatoes, and the very articles that were dragged from the house and thrown into the river did not escape, but every part of them above the surface of the water was destroyed, and the bridge burnt to the water's edge.

The German settlers near Geelong suffered severely. These gentlemen came out from Hamburg about a year before, bringing with them a large collection of young vines and other fruit-trees, as well as a great quantity of seeds. They had preserved the young plants during the voyage by great care, and now their garden, containing nearly 300 trees and about 3,000 vine-plants, was wholly destroyed. One of these emigrants, writing to a friend, said :- "Two minutes were sufficient to put to flames all our property, and in about half-an-hour there remained nothing visible but embers. All our crops of oats, hay, and grain, our plantations, fruits, and vines, were annihilated! The fences were destroyed, the fodder burnt. Happily and miraculously, our dwelling house, standing in the midst of flames, was spared; the same our horses and cart. With danger we have saved our lives; our poor poodle dog from Germany was burnt; also nearly all our poultry and a goat. The cows are saved," &c.

Such was the grand conflagration of BLACK THURSDAY in Victoria! Nothing can be conceived more sublimely terrible. All those circumstances of horror and death which we enumerated in the opening of this article were more than realised. The flame careering with lightning speed along the tops of the trees, fanned and lashed on by the violent hot winds, is said to have been attended by the most appalling roar, more awfully overpowering than that of the ocean in storm. The people— men, women, and children—rushing from their burning abodes, to fling themselves into rivers and creeks, and often in vain. The herds of horses and cattle scouring wildly over the country in terror. Vast flocks of sheep, deserted by their shepherds, who had to run for their own lives, left to perish in the burning bush. The troops of wild creatures of the forest, of all kinds, bounding to and fro in con­fusion amid the enfolding blaze and smoke, till they fell and perished--- legions of them burnt alive in their hollow trees and subterranean holes. The birds, struck down by the flames from the air, and lying scorched 0n the earth by thousands. Horsemen flying before the threatened death at the highest speed of their horses, till man and horse fell, equally exhausted. Drovers and draymen consumed on the road with the drays and vehicles.

Solitary travellers running before the wasting surge of flame through the boundless woods, and often, too, in vain! How many of these perished in this now truly “howling wilderness” God only knows. The thundering tide of fire taking the tops of the trees in its course, and devouring them in its momentary transit. Trees, standing all over the vast forest, intense columns of fire, and others lying on the ground, with all their gigantic boughs masses of lurid heat, ever and anon blown to a terrible whiteness by the hot wind as it raved along the bush. In a word, the whole country one glowing furnace, one magnificent but melan­choly conflagration.

We have since travelled over a great portion of this desolated region, and everywhere still are visible in blackened masses of fallen timber, and in grim, charred trunks of gigantic trees still standing, the ravages of Black Thursday. Still on Mount Dis­appointment you see, afar off, the ranges covered with leafless trees which perished at that time. Whole dead forests, whose tall stems range whitely side by side like the apparitions of the past; while along the rich land at the feet of the Plenty ranges the dead and charred trees for miles show where the fires raged so fiercely and so fatally to the inhabitants. We have visited some of those very farms where the people perished, as above related.

On the same day, at Adelaide, there was a fierce hot wind, and the dust was suffocating.

At sea the weather was even more fearful than on shore. Captain Reynolds reported that on that day, when about twenty miles from Laurenas, the heat was so intense that every soul was struck almost powerless. A s0rt of whirlwind in the afternoon struck the vessel, and carried the top-sail, lowered down on the cap, clean out of the bolt-ropes, and had he not been prepared for the shock, would, he has no doubt, have capsized the vessel. Flakes of fire were at the time flying thick all around the vessel from the sh0re in the direction of Portland.

The captain of another vessel sailing the straits stated that his was, in the afternoon, suddenly enveloped in darkness, through the thick volumes of smoke, dust, and ashes which came over it; and ashes were not only carried 0ver to Van Diemen's land, but out hundreds of leagues to sea.

Harpur, a colonial poet, in his "Wild Bee of Australia," has devoted one of his compositions to this subject. The following extract describes the general features of the conflagration: ­

Through the day the conflagration raged;

And when the wings of night o’erspread the scene,

Not even their starry blazonry wore such

An aggregated glory to the eye

As did the blazing dead-wood of the forest,

On all sides blazing! Mighty, sapless gums,

Amid their living kindred stood, all fire;

Boles, branches, all—like flaming ghosts of trees

Come from the past, within the white man’s pale,

To typify their doom. Such was the scene!

Illuminated cities were but jests

Compared to it for splendour. But enough.

Where were the words to paint the million shapes

And unimaginable peaks of fire,

When holding thus its monster carnival,

In the primeval forest, all night long?

 

 

 

 

 My thanks to the National Library of Australia where the original papers are held.

 

Transcript © John Blay 2009

 Permission should be sought for commercial publication from the author at sefproject@netspeed.com.au

 

 

 

   © John Blay 2014

Permission should be sought before reproducing any text or graphics.

Email: sefproject@netspeed.com.au

Last modified: December 04, 2014