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Bushfires in Victoria 1851  Black Thursday

  Bushfires in Victoria 1851  Black Thursday

" The fire kept enlarging its orbit, rolling about like some huge monster, destroying everything it touched, its track marked by charred timber, embers and ashes, cries and lamentations. Not content with dashing along the ground , it ran up the highest trees and the flames leaped in monkey fashion from tree to tree. "
Source:   Melbourne Herald February 1883 The Black Thursday of Port Phillip by Garryowen, An Eye - Witness

The largest Australian bushfire in European-recorded history that burnt an area of approximately 5 million ha. which covered a quarter of Victoria.
Source:  1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004


" The country from the Murray to the sea was brown with desiccated herbage, and forests charged with resinous matter baked to the verge of conflagration.
It wanted but some slightly careless act of man to set in motion a devastating fury against which no human intervention could stand. "
Source:  History of the Colony of Victoria ( Vol.1 )  Mr Henry Gyles Turner   1797-1854

Descriptive account of " Black Thursday  "  1851
" The year 1850 had been one of exceptional heat and drought.
Pastures had withered; creeks had become fissured clay-pans; water-holes had disappeared; sheep and cattle had perished in great numbers, and the sun-burnt plains were strewn with their bleached skeletons; the very leaves upon the trees crackled in the heat, and appeared to be as inflammable as tinder.

As the summer advanced, 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. Men, women and children, sheep and cattle, birds and snakes, fled before the fire in a common panic. The air was darkened by volumes of smoke, relieved by showers of sparks; the forests were ablaze, and, on the ranges, the conflagration transformed their wooded slopes into appalling masses of incandescent columns and arches.

Farm houses, fences, crops, orchards, gardens, haystacks, bridges, wool-sheds, were swept away by the impetuous on-rush of the flames, which left behind them nothing but a charred heap of ruins, and a scene of pitiable desolation. The human fugitives fled to water, wherever it could be found, and stood in it, breathing with difficulty the suffocating atmosphere, and listening with awe to the roar of the elements and the cries of the affrighted animals.

Many lives were lost, and the value of the property and live stock destroyed on "Black Thursday " can only be vaguely conjectured. Late in the evening a strong sea-breeze began to blow, driving back the heavy pall of smoke that had deepened the darkness of the night, and the next day dawned upon blackened homesteads, smouldering forests, charred carcasses of sheep, oxen, horses, poultry and wild animals, and the face of the country presented such an aspect of ruin and devastation as could never be effaced from the recollection of those who had witnessed and survived the calamity. "

Historical data extracted from: "Picturesque Atlas of Australasia" a three-volume geographic encyclopaedia of Australia and New Zealand compiled and published in 1886. Descriptive Sketch of Victoria  
Read article at Museum Victoria:   " Recurring History of Bushfires in Victoria "

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Damage incurred during the four days of the Black Thursday bushfire.

Fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria.
This spans approximately 5 million hectares.The areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.

After five weeks of hot northerly winds, on the 6th of February,1851 known as Black Thursday, probably Victoria's most extensive bushfires, apparently started in the Plenty Ranges when two bullock drivers left some logs burning which set fire to long, drought-parched grass.

From an early hour in the morning a hot wind blew from the NNW, accompanied by 47C temperatures in Melbourne.
There was extensive damage in Victoria's Port Phillip district. Huge areas of southern and NE Vic were burnt out.
Fires burnt from Mt Gambier in South Australia to Portland in Victoria as well as the Wimmera in the north and central and southern areas including Semour, the Plenty Ranges and much of Gippsland , Westernport, Geelong, Heidelberg and east to Diamond Creek and Dandenong where a number of settlements were destroyed.

There were 1.5m ha of forest burnt out plus vast areas of scrub and grasslands (total land burnt - approx 5m ha [DNRE,Vic]). Farmers at Barrabool Hills were burnt out or ruined; three men perished at Mt Macedon and wholesale destruction of the Dandenong districts was accompanied by similar widespread razings from Gippsland to the Murray (River). Other scorched areas included Omeo, Mansfield, Dromana, Yarra Glen, Warburton and Erica.

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Articles relating to the Black Thursday bushfires were published in
The Maitland Mercury, and Hunter River General Advertiser
Saturday 22 February 1851

Colonial News.   PORT PHILLIP.
We have received Port Phillip papers to the 11th February.

The whole province had suffered from fearfully destructive bush fires, which raged worst on Thursday, the 6th, assisted by a furious hot wind (it was also a hot-wind day in the Hunter district).

Vast numbers of sheep, cattle, and horses had been destroyed, and the loss in grain of all kinds, principally wheat, is counted by thousands of bushels ; inquests had also been held on the bodies of nine persons up to the 9th February, and several more were missing and reported dead.

The papers are filled with the particulars, but report that it is impossible to give any accurate account of the losses.
One of the inquests was particularly melancholy: the station of a stockholder named M'Lelland was completely destroyed on the 6th, and close to his house perished his wife and five children, while he himself was so fearfully burnt in trying to save one of the children that his recovery was very doubtful.

A public meeting had been announced for the 11th at Geelong, to commence a public subscription for the numerous sufferers, numbers of whom were reduced to absolute want who the day before had been comfortable graziers and farmers.

THE WEATHER. ( from the Melbourne  "Argus" Newspaper Feb. 8.1851 )
" Thursday was one of the most oppressive hot-days we have experienced for some years.
In the early morning the atmosphere was perfectly scorching, and at eleven o'clock the thermometer stood as high as 117 degrees ( 47.2 Celsius ) in the shade; at one o'clock it had fallen to 109 degrees and at four in the afternoon was up to 113 degrees.( 45 Celsius )

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 actually 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 an extent of 40 or 50 miles.
In the evening, after an hour's battle for the supremacy, the cool breeze came down, sweeping away the pestilential exhalation of the day, and bringing in its train a light and refreshing rain; for a considerable time yesterday, the parched earth greedily absorbed it as it fell, but a day's continuance of such very seasonable weather will do no more than cool the surface.-Argus. Feb. 8. ( 1851 ) "

VAN DIEMEN'S LAND  ( Tasmania )
We have received Van Diemen's Land papers to the 8th February.

Thursday, the 6th February, was, it appears, as remarkably hot and oppressive as it was in Port Phillip and this colony.

THE WEATHER. ( from  "The Launceston Examiner" Feb. 8.1851 )
A most remarkable meteoric phenomenon occurred on Thursday last, which will be long remembered.
The morning opened fine, but gave strong indications that the day would be sultry. Between twelve and five o'clock, the heat was oppressive: the inferior animals felt it to be so, and eagerly sought shaded places-even the poultry drooped their wings, and gasped for breath.

At two p.m. the thermometer stood at 92 degrees in the shade, and 130 degrees in the sun. At about four o'clock a dense and murky mist, resembling a combination of smoke and fog, gathered all round the town and completely obscured the sun.

The appearance of the atmosphere was most remarkable.
The retreating sun shining behind the vapour, imparted a lurid glare resembling the light reflected from polished brass.

The timid and superstitious anxiously enquired if similar appearances had been before observed; some mentioned the similarity of the phenomena which preceded the dreadful earthquake at Lisbon.

The evening was followed by a fearfully dark night, but fortunately at about one o'clock on Friday morning a breeze sprung up, accompanied by a slight shower of rain, which cooled the atmosphere delightfully.
The remarkable weather experienced on this side the island on Thursday last, terminated in a violent storm on the south. During a squall a whaleboat was upset below Sandy Bay, and two men were drowned.
L. Examiner, 8th February (1851) The Launceston Examiner  "
Source:   The Maitland Mercury, and Hunter River General Advertiser   Saturday 22 February 1851

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BLACK THURSDAY.  By  Edward C. O. Howard.
" ..... At sea the weather was even more fearful than on shore.
Twenty miles out the heat was so intense that every soul on board was struck almost powerless, as reported by Captain Reynolds.
A sort of whirlwind in the afternoon struck his vessel, and carried the topsail clean out of the bolt rope.
Flakes of fire were at the time flying thick all round the ship from the shore, while the air was filled with cinders and dust, which fell in layers on the vessel's deck.
Fortunately the wind moderated about 2 o'clock, and further apprehension passed away. ...... "
Source:   Argus Newspaper (Melbourne, Vic.)  Saturday 28 June 1924

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BLACK THURSDAY.  Darkness in Gippsland
" If this had not been verified by ocular evidence it would be incredible.
We allude to a total darkness which overspread the whole of Gippsland, and literally changed day into night.
This darkness, according to the accounts which we have received of it, began to be perceived about one o'clock in the afternoon, and gradually increased until it became so intense as to hide from sight even the nearest objects. Settlers were obliged to feel their way from their out-houses to their huts.

One gentleman told us that in unsaddling his horse he actually could not see the animal while he was standing close beside it. ......
For the smoke - which, carried by the north winds from the burning forests on the ranges over the plains below, totally intercepted the sun's light- was so high as scarcely to be perceived by the smell, and to produce none of that suffocating sensation which might have been expected ; and hence few conjectured the real cause of the sudden darkness in which they were enveloped."

" Some of the Gippsland aborigines, who had acquired a small smattering of the English vocabulary from their intercourse with white men, accounted for the physical phenomenon in a very matter of fact way, by sagely wagging their curly heads and declaring that " bright fellow ( pointing to the sun ) had got the blight in his eye, "

It appears that the obfuscation of the sun by smoke from distant bushfires was regarded as a natural phenomenon by the Australian aborigines, but some of the early European settlers of Gippsland at first believed that this darkness was caused by an unearthly aberration.
The following morning the sun rose in unclouded brightness and the terrors of the preceding day were dissipated, whilst in the distant ranges,
" The fire kept enlarging its orbit, rolling about like some huge monster, destroying everything it touched, its track marked by charred timber, embers and ashes, cries and lamentations.
Not content with dashing along the ground , it ran up the highest trees and the flames leaped in monkey fashion from tree to tree. The scrub and brushwood would be ignited as if by the wind. which acted as an avant coureur in piloting the course of the greater flame."
Source:   From the "Melbourne Herald" Newspaper February 1883
The Black Thursday of Port Phillip by Garryowen, An Eye - Witness

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BLACK THURSDAY.  Mount Macedon
A correspondent of The Argus, writing from Mount Macedon on February 8th, says:-" I write in the midst of desolation. Thursday morning was ushered in by a fierce hot wind, which, as the day advanced grew stronger and stronger. For three weeks bush fires had been raging to the westward and northward of the Bush Inn. About midday, the whole of Mount Macedon and the ranges were one sheet of flame. careering on at the speed of a racehorse, carrying all before it clean as a chimney newly swept. "
Source:   From the  "The Argus" Newspaper February 8th 1851

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Extract from the Argus Newspaper ( Melbourne, Vic.)
Saturday 20 February 1926


" Although not so widespread the disastrous fires of last Sunday will be as memorable as those on "Black Thursday," for so long regarded as the most terrible day in the history of the State.

Within a few days the events are just 75 years apart. While the destruction of "Black Thursday" far exceeded that of Sunday, the loss of life was nominal compared with the terrible results of the recent outbreak.

Some of the older citizens can still remember "Black Thursday" but it is of interest at this juncture to reproduce the account of the disaster given by the late Mr Henry Gyles Turner in his "History of the Colony of Victoria "

In the first volume of his history, Mr Turner writes, after referring to destructive floods,-There was however, one day in 1851, when another and even more destructive element wrought such appalling havoc throughout the land that for a generation afterwards it could scarcely be spoken of without a shudder.
The anniversary of the 6th of February, 1851 has been perpetuated in Australian almanacs under the name of "Black Thursday," a day whose lurid horrors have been chronicled by many writers and depicted by more than one painter.
The summer had been one of exceptional heat and drought.
The country from the Murray to the sea was brown with desiccated herbage, and forests charged with resinous matter baked to the verge of conflagration. It wanted but some slightly careless act of man to set in motion a devastating fury against which no human intervention could stand.

It will probably never be known exactly how or where the fires originated. The belief at the time was that they were due to the carelessness of some bullock drivers in leaving an unextinguished camp fire lit at the foot of the Plenty Ranges.
It is true that the Plenty district appeared to have suffered most severely, but this may be ascribed to its being comparatively thickly settled : to scores of well tilled farms and cheerful homesteads being changed in one short day into an area of charred desolation.

But the raging flames almost simultaneously covered the country round Westernport Bay; through the giant forests of Dandenong, across the intervening hills around to Mount Macedon, over the baked plains of the Wimmera, and on the farm homesteads that studded the Barrabool hills a roaring, tossing sea of fire licked up all before it

From the dense timber of the Black Forest the flames swept the Loddon district, crossed the Pyrenees, and raged for six days through the Western district, carrying destruction and dismay right over the South Australian border to Mount Gambier.

With the exception of one terrible holocaust, in which a settler on the Diamond Creek lost his wife and five children, in addition to all his worldly possessions, the destruction of human life was far less than might have been expected. Only three or four deaths were reported at the time besides those referred to, but some occurred from the after effects of the shock, and a large number of people were maimed and injured by fire and exposure in a manner that affected them for life.

When men saw the flames threatening to consume the produce of their long toil many gallant efforts were made to beat them back, but it was soon apparent that before the roaring blasts such attempts only tended to reduce the prospect of individual escape.
Flight was the only chance, and even that, on foot was a doubtful resource, for, where the fuel was abundant the flames travelled at a rate that overtook and consumed the flying stock at their maddest gallop.

Every horse that could be obtained and mounted under such conditions of panic carried some distracted settler or his family at topmost speed towards some bald hill or other fancied point of refuge. Those who could not command such aid fled to the nearest creek or water hole, and, plunging in, passed long hours of agonised suspense while the fiery tide rolled over them.

When at length it was safe to crawl forth from their sanctuary it was to find homes, furniture, farm equipment, crops, barns, and fences all disappeared, their live stock roasted or dispersed, and the hard battle of life to begin all over again.

For practically there was no insurance in those days and the dread visitation of 'Black Thursday" brought many stalwart workers to the verge of ruin, and left a haunting sense of danger which drove numbers of the settlers into the towns to labour al less congenial, but also less risky avocations.

The only considerable portion of the country which did not suffer was the interior of Gippsland, where the plains had retained their green mantle, and the rivers gave such an abundant supply of water.
But even here the black clouds of smoke from the surrounding ranges covered the land with a denser pall than a total eclipse, and greatly alarmed the settlers in the belief that some mysterious convulsion of nature was about to overtake them.

In Melbourne the day opened with a scorching north wind and an unclouded sky. Under the influence of the fierce sirocco the city was soon enveloped in blinding dust, and by 11 o'clock the thermometer marked 117 degrees
( 47.2 Celsius ) in the shade.
By midday, rolling volumes of smoke began to converge on the city, and outdoor life became intolerable. The streets were almost deserted, a dull sense of suffocation oppressed even those who cowered in the coolest recesses of their homes, and anxiously asked what it meant. Fortunately no fires broke out near the city, for had it once done so, in all probability the whole place would have fallen.

With sunset came a change of wind to the south, and anxious crowds gathered towards nightfall on the summits of Batman's Hill and the Flagstaff Reserve to note with awe and wonder the red glare that marked the Dandenong Ranges and illuminated the whole of the northern horizon.

The change of wind relieved them from all fear for the city, but it was not until two or three days later that the extent of the devastation became even approximately known.

The heaviest losses of stock fell upon the squatters, who, as a rule, were best able to bear them; but there were scores of cases of struggling farmers reduced to destitution, for whom the sympathies of the citizens went out, and a relief committee was promptly organised, which collected something more than 3000 pounds to meet urgent cases of distress. "
Source:  Argus Newspaper ( Melbourne, Vic.) Saturday 20 February 1926

February - March 1926

Forest fires burnt across large areas of Gippsland throughout February and into early March. Sixty lives were lost in addition to widespread damage to farms, homes and forests. The fires came to a head on February 14, with 31 deaths recorded at Warburton. Other areas affected include Noojee, Kinglake, Erica, and the Dandenong Ranges. Widespread fires also occurred across other eastern states.

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  Melbourne Victoria 1851 Black Thursday
" The year 1851 had for us three memorable events: first,
"Black Thursday," on 6th February; second, the elevation of Port Phillip district into the colony of Victoria, on 1st July; third, the discovery of gold, which was practically and substantially that of Ballarat, during the third week of September.

Black Thursday has been so much written about by others that I had best confine myself to my own experiences. I rode in to business, as usual, from my Merri Creek residence, 4 1/2 miles north of the city. The weather had been unusually dry for some days with the hot wind from the north-west, or the direction of what we called Sturt's Desert, where hot winds in summer, and almost as distinctly cold winds in midwinter, were manufactured for us.

The heat had been increasing daily, and this, as we comforted ourselves, was surely the climax which was to bring the inevitable reversion of the southerly blast and the restoring rain, for it was felt as the hottest day in my recollection.
In town we did not hear of much that day, although reports came from time to time of sinister-looking signs from the surrounding interior, whence an unusual haze or thick mist seemed to rise towards the cloudless sky.

Some few, however, who were more active than others in their trading or gossiping movements, became aware in the afternoon, or perhaps were favoured with the news as a secret, that Dr. Thomson had ridden posthaste from Geelong to Alison and Knight, our early and leading millers and flour factors, to warn them that the whole country was in flames, with incalculable destruction of cereals and other products; whereupon the said firm at once raised the price of flour thirty per cent.

The Doctor had certainly earned a good fee on that occasion, and we must hope that he got it.

I returned home as usual after the day's work. Nothing to alarm us had even made a near approach to Melbourne, as our trees were too park-like in their wide scatter, and our grass too much cropped off by hungry quadrupeds, to expose us to any danger.

But feeling unusual oppression from the singularly close heat, for I was attired in woollen clothing, not greatly under the winter woollen standard, and which, by the way, serves to confirm that our dry Australian clime is not to be measured in effect, like most others, by mere height of the thermometer, I proceeded to indulge myself, for the first time in my life, I think, with a second "refresher" of my shower-bath.

Next morning accounts began to pour in from all quarters of an awful havoc, in which, sad to say, life to no small extent was lost, as well as very much property.

There has never been, throughout Australia, either before or since, such a day as Victoria's Black Thursday, and most likely, or rather most certainly, it will never, to its frightful extent, occur again; for every year, with the spread of occupation, brings its step in the accumulation of protectives.

Still these fires are a terrible and frequent evil, and even if the towns and settlements are safe, the destruction of the grand old forests is deplorable, and ere very many years will be, indeed, most sadly deplored.

What between the unchecked clearances of the fires, and the unchecked clearances on the part of the colonists, I fear that those noble gum trees, the greatest and loftiest trees probably in the world, so graphically described by Mr. Froude in his recent Australian tour, will have but a poor chance.

He describes also, with equal life, those dangerous forest fires, which are so especially frequent during the ever-recurring ordeals of drought, of which he had a fair sample at the time of his visit. Only think of eight miles of forest burnt in one fire which he witnessed, and such fires frequent occurrences! "
Source and reference:
Historical data exrtacted from:  Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria
Author: William Westgarth 1815 - 1889
Title Image Source:   Black Thursday, February, 1851. Wood engraving published in the Supplement to the Illustrated Australian news. # Publisher: Melbourne : David Syme and Co. # Date(s): August 1, 1888
Source: State Library of Victoria:
Colour image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Further Reading:
 Museum Victoria:   Recurring History of Bushfires in Victoria

 This article cited in the book:   A Brief History of Australia. Barbara A. West, Frances T. Murphy Infobase Publishing, 2010

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  Revised January 2011

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Bush Fires in Victoria 1851 Black Thursday (15 pages)

by Romsey Australia
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