Bushfires of Black Thursday, 1851

'When the smoke turned day into night'

'It was the women who suffered the most, when they saw their homes and all their household wealth, years of strict economy, thrift, Labor and self-denial had been reduced to ashes in a moment’s time'

Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851 is considered to be one of Australia's most important colonial paintings and one of the State Library's most valuable. It depicts a devastating bushfire that struck Victoria in February 1851. Many died in the fire, which was so fierce and far reaching that its glow could be seen by ships in Bass Strait.  (Painted by William Strutt and Courtesy of State Library of Victoria).


The threat of bush fire must have been a major concern for the pioneers of our area, given the lack of any significant water supply nearby.  On Thursday February 6, 1851, the pioneers worst fears came perilously close to being realised.    On that day the Yuroke Plains were devastated by a bushfire that burned all the way from Melbourne, past Mt. Ridley and further northward.

Remarkably, though the fire was heading directly towards Mt. Ridley at Craigieburn it actually changed course and only burned the lower reaches of the eastern side of the hill, leaving Olrig, Mt. Ridley and other homesteads untouched, while the nearby village of Kinlochewe was burned to the ground.  Watching the fire approaching from the higher vantage point of Mt. Ridley must have been a terrifying experience.

The morning of February 6 dawned unusually oppressive, with a stinging north wind. Older pioneers said it was the hottest day they had ever experienced, with temperatures reaching 110 degrees in the shade.   The bushfire broke out later that day in several places at once in the north and west of Melbourne. From the direction of Sunbury, where starving sheep had eaten the grass down to the roots, the fire faltered from lack of fuel. 

Along the network of creeks and rivers, however, where there was still something to burn, several small fires converged to form a single front.  Perhaps a nuclear blast is the only apt metaphor for the intense heat, speed and impact of the flames. Unstoppable, they hurtled down the courses of the Merri and Darebin Creeks and the Plenty River. Before the day was out, Sydney Road from Kilmore to Mahoney’s Road was on fire, with considerable loss of life.

Thursday February 6, 1851 was described as a day of extreme unpleasantness for everyone in Victoria, the north wind was so fierce that the thick smoke reached northern Tasmania, turning day into night.  The 1851 Black Thursday bush fires were when the hills were alight to the Alps themselves - a frightful day as the temperature in Melbourne rose to 47degrees centigrade (110 degrees on the old scale) at 11 am. Melbourne Town was in grave danger of destruction by encircling bush fire. Approximately 12 lives, 1,000,000 sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.

One writer describes it thus:

"6th February 1851 will long be remembered as the most disastrous day that has ever up to the present, befallen any of the colonies or dependencies of the British Empire. In the year 1851 the colonists experienced a very severe season, through the long continued drought.

The heat continued until June, and no rain fell until July and August. Food and water became scarce in every district, and great number of stock perished. For two months preceding Black Thursday, the country had been under the influence of hot winds. Everything was in a manner baked.

The north wind set in early on the morning of the sixth of February, and by noon increased to a hurricane, and bush fires swept across whole districts, crossing roads and wide streams, destroying everything that stood in its way. From Gisborne to Carlsruhe nothing could be seen but the blackened stumps of trees. The wind suddenly changed at nightfall, and the thermometer dropped down to 80 degrees,"

The writer goes on to tell of a great amount of destitution, with large numbers utterly ruined. In Melbourne, Geelong and elsewhere relief funds were raised to help the destitute, Geelong alone raising £1,100.

Another describes it thus:

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.

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.

It took years and thousands of pounds to recover from the Black Thursday bushfires and in most cases took several years to right the losses after properties were reduced to ashes.  some never recovered from the deadly fire like the village of Kinlochewe that found it unprofitable to rebuild and disappeared quietly off the face of the map forever after 1851.

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