Black Thursday [article about the 1851 bushfires, 17 January 1857]

[Editor: This article about the 1851 “Black Thursday” bushfires was published in The Argus (Melbourne), 17 January 1857.]

Black Thursday.

Probably one of the most terrible days of which there is any record in Australian annals was Thursday, the 6th of February, 1851, commonly known as Black Thursday. But a small proportion of our present colonists have any recollection of that day, as our total population then only amounted to about 70,000 souls, against the 350,000 of to-day. But such of their number as have access to files of the newspaper published at the time, would do well to turn them over, and, as a warning for the future, glance at the narrative of the disasters of that dreadful day.

We find it recorded that as early as seven or eight o’clock in the morning, the thermometer stood at 117° in the shade. At mid-day it sank to 109°, but in the afternoon it rose again, and at four o’clock was 113°. Monday last was about the hottest day of the present season; yet the thermometer did not stand above 95° in the shade. Our readers who felt inconvenienced by the increase of heat between that and the usual 70° or 75° will have some difficulty in imagining the sensations produced by a still further rise of 20°.

The intense heat of Black Thursday was not it’s only peculiarity. From early morning it was accompanied by a hot wind, almost of the strength of a hurricane, and throughout the day the surface of the country was exposed to the full power of it’s withering influence.

Bush-fires raged across hundreds of miles of country, sweeping along with almost the rapidity of lightning, and destroying, nearly instantaneously, men, women, and children, crops and homesteads, fences and gardens, and vast quantities of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and fowls.

From the whole land arose a cry of utter desolation. Scores of families were reduced from a condition of competence to one of penury, and men who woke that morning thriving and prosperous farmers, lay down at night without a farthing in the world, or any resource left them but manual labour.

It is a most remarkable fact, as illustrative of the deficient foresight of even an intelligent people, that we accustom ourselves to speak of Black Thursday as a thing that has been, but is not likely to occur again. This is utterly irrational. A similar day, accompanied with all it’s terrible peculiarities, might befal us to-morrow, or any day during the full heats of any one of our summers.

Such days give no warning. People retired to rest on the night preceding the day of which we speak, just as little expecting such a catastrophe, as was the case with our readers when they sought their pillows last night. A repetition of the horrors of Black Thursday may be upon us any day. Observant men would simply notice on the eve of such an infliction, a slight decline in the barometer, an increasing degree of that attenuation of the atmosphere which is productive of such disagreeable sensations during a hot wind. Under such circumstances the community would retire to rest. They would awake to find the whole country wrapt in flames. Fire, fire, everywhere, would be roaring along the ground, and amidst the ruin and confusion of a distracted people would be left the charred traces of the unruly element.

Upon the occasion of which we speak, the extent of country burnt over in one day was incalculable, and there were circumstances connected with the fire which would now sound almost incredible, although they were well authenticated at the time.

The districts principally suffering were the agricultural neighbourhoods of the Barrabool Hills, Kilmore, the Plenty, Western Port, some parts of Gipps Land and of the Port Fairy districts. In many of these neighbourhoods scarcely a homestead or a fence was left standing. Stacks and barns, stables and outhouses were all swept off, generally with their contents; the inhabitants had much to do to save themselves. At the Upper Plenty a poor woman and her five children were burnt to death; and in numerous instances men fought with the flames till, choked and exhausted in the struggle, they fell and were roasted as they lay.

Whole flocks of sheep, and vast numbers of cattle were burnt, standing huddled together in abject helplessness and terror. The very wild animals did not escape, and a letter from Dandenong states that kangaroos, opossums, snakes and lizards, were driven forward by the flames, till overtaken and destroyed by the heat and blinding smoke. The birds dropped dead from the trees, or gave way before the scorching blast, and drifted out and fell into the sea.

So general was the fire, and all-pervading its effects, that on board a vessel out of sight of land in the Straits, it became so dark at four p.m. that the captain could not see the bow from the stern. The small ashes from burning forests were deposited on the northern coast of Van Diemen’s Land, and even on the deck of a vessel half way to New Zealand.

In the report of a public meeting in Geelong, convened for the purpose of affording succour to the people in that neighbourhood, nearly half a column is occupied by a mere list of farmers absolutely burnt out. And it is stated to have been a most affecting sight, when poor men but recently in comfortable circumstances, who had got together a dray and a few working bullocks, were selling them — the last wreck of their property, to save their families from starving. The colonists behaved very well, and subscriptions amounting to many thousands of pounds were raised for the supply of food, clothing, seed corn, and farming implements, to the most destitute. Still the suffering was very severe, and the misfortune widely felt.

Yet all this may happen again each day that comes round during the summer. Nay, if such a day did come, its ravages would be more extensive than ever, inasmuch as the country is more thickly settled; there are more fences and homesteads, and stacks and stubble-fields to burn; and a race less experienced in coping with bush-fires to contend with them. It is better to be prepared beforehand, for while there is no knowing what any day may bring forth, we at present slumber on a volcano.

The bush-fire of Australia is a peculiar thing. It varies excessively according to circumstances, — the heat of the day, the dryness and thickness of the herbage, the strength of the wind, and the character of the country over which it passes. Ordinarily it creeps along the ground at the rate of a mile or two an hour, and burns little more than the dry grass and broken timber that lies upon the ground.

But upon Black Thursday all this was changed. The flames rushed to the tops of the highest trees; burning twigs and sheets of bark blew far down along the gale, lighting new fires whatever they fell; and setting at defiance all attempts to arrest their progress. The enemy came down upon the wind a perfect wall of fire, moving at railway speed, and darting upon its prey with a force and rapidity that were irresistible. Ordinarily the bush-fire will be stayed by a cattle track of a foot wide. Upon that occasion it leapt across wide rivers as if they constituted no barrier at all.

The best preventative against the bush-fire is fire itself. A tract of country is scarcely ever burnt over twice in the same year. Thus, all homesteads, stockyards, paddocks, gardens, and fences should be isolated by having a good wide belt of land burnt over around them. This should be done on a perfectly calm day, and with plenty of attendants to keep the fire from spreading too rapidly. It is easily beaten out with a green bough while kept under proper control, but many of the disasters of Black Thursday arose from the flames getting the upper hand which were originally kindled as a safeguard. There is a very stringent act directing due notice to be given to neighbours when this precaution is to be adopted. But after the warnings which have been given, and with the horizon even now daily lighted up by the glare of bush-fires, no sane man who has property to guard will delay the most vigorous measures of precaution. The circle of safety should be quite complete, so as entirely to isolate the property to be secured; it should be very wide, so as to guard against the consequences of great heat and a high wind; it should be formed during a calm day, and with ample assistance at disposal.

We trust that our up-country brethren will aid us in averting serious disaster by echoing our warnings. There is not a day to spare.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 17 January 1857, p. 4

Also published in:
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 5 January 1858, p. 6
The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), 30 January 1858, p. 4
The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA), 10 March 1858, p. 4

Editor’s notes:
befal = archaic form of “befall”

farthing = a coin equivalent to one-quarter of a penny (the name “farthing” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “feorthing”, or “fourthling”); whilst farthings were not minted in Australia, they were used as units of monetary measurement, and British farthings could be used in Australia (“farthing” may also refer to something of little value)

herbage = plants in general; nonwoody vegetation; herbaceous vegetation (plants with soft stems, including grass); vegetation grazed by animals (pasturage)

nay = an archaic form of “no”; however, it is still sometimes used regarding voting (e.g. to vote yea or nay), in formal circumstances, in some dialects (e.g. in the north of England), and as a substitute for “no” when some emphasis is desired

penury = the state of being very poor; severe poverty or destitution

stay = stop; halt; to stop the course of something (also: to remain in a set place, situation, or state of being)

succour = assistance, help, or support, particularly in a time of distress or difficulty (also spelt “succor”)

wrapt = archaic form of “wrapped” (to have enclosed or enveloped something, such as wrapping up an item with cloth or paper)

[Editor: Changed “high wind:” to “high wind;”.]

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]


  1. Gavin O'Brien says:

    There are many lessons in this article which sadly we have not learnt. As the author wrote, we will experience such disasters in the future. Many observations made then, still apply today. It talks about controlled burns, having a strip of land around properties to act as firebreaks. Now days we have a competent Bureau of Meteorology which gives us many days warnings of “fire weather”. The Climate Outlooks warn us when drought and heat are expected, often months ahead. The experts warn us that Global Warming causing rising temperatures, more heatwaves, lees rainfall and strong winds will be the new normal. Mega Bush fires will become more frequent and more intense. We need to adapt to this new situation now.
    Gavin O’Brien
    Southside Weather.(ACT)
    Gilmore, Canberra ACT

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