- JoNova - https://www.joannenova.com.au -

Heat and fires from when CO2 was “ideal”: Black Thursday, 1851

The year 1851 and CO2 is 287ppm in Law Dome Antarctica. The climate is perfect, but Australians are dealing with the worst fires in recorded history, scorching heat, drought, searing wind and by the sounds of it, an arabian dust storm. There are no skycranes, no mobile phones, and no helitankers. Temperatures in the shade hit 117F in Melbourne (that’s 47C), 115 in Warnambool, 114 in Geelong. But those are not BOM official records  (the BOM didn’t exist until some 50 years later). The conditions were unprecedented in living memory even though, at the time, many people said fires and droughts were commonplace. Businesses stopped, and it was described as “wanton martyrdom” to go out in the streets. People fighting the fires realized they had to flee instead and took en masse onto galloping horses to head for bare hilltops or watercourses. One writer two weeks later suggests the fire consumed 150,000 pounds of life and property, “to the utter ruin of many families.” The population was around 80,000. Despite the devastation, no one suggests a carbon tax.

‘When the smoke turned day into night’  Painted by William Strutt | Library Of Victoria

Apparently the pall of smoke was so bad, the sun was completely blocked in some places. Australians of European origin found baffling and unnatural, but it appears Aboriginal people had seen this effect before. It says something about the attitude of the settlers that calls immediately went out to raise funds to help the afflicted. Notably in Kilmore, 7 out of 15 declined the aid, “having friends from whom they could derive assistance”. Others canceled outstanding debts they were owed.

Romsey Australia has a helpful collection of quotes. Thanks to Chris Gillham for finding the first two quotes here, and Tom Quirk for his Great-grandfather’s quotes.

It was searingly hot with blasting sand:

 Geelong Advertiser 7 Feb 1851
“BLACK THURSDAY.” In its most literal sense, meaning and acceptation, the “oldest inhabitant” of Geelong does not recollect such a day as yesterday, Thursday. It surpassed all previous experience of hot winds and sandy whirlwinds. The morning was bright and balmy, and the breeze from the bay was grateful to those who sought its restorative induence. But about half-past seven o’clock in the morning a sudden change occurred. The north-west horizon was seen to be suddenly obscured, and presently a dense and lofty cloud of dust was observed to move bodily downwards towards Geelong, borne on the wings of the hot blast, which struck on the sense with a feeling of sudden and overpowering suffocation. The appearance of the moving mass of sand, or rather fine dust, which filled apparently the whole space between earth and sky, was very similar to the descriptions given by travellers of the sandy and hot whirlwinds which sweep across the deserts of Arabia, or rather those which occur on the great Desert of Sahara, in the north of Africa, and which are stated occasionally to bury whole caravans of men, camels and baggage. To quote, though with a very different application, the words of Macbeth, we can truly say, that so “fair and foul a day” we have never seen. A hot sun, piercing even the dense stand-fog; a hot blast which howled all day, bringing with it clouds of penetrating dust; a dry atmosphere, exhausting the animal grame, prostrating bodily and encrasing mental vigour – these were only some of the characteristics of our “Black Thursday.” As a natural consequence, nearly all buisness was suspended in Geelong, for all who could escape from the necessity of going abroad felt that it would be indeed a work of supererogation, if not of wanton martyrdom, to brave so “pelting and pitiless” a blast, which yesterday brought literally hot and heavy on all exposed to it. The thermometer before nine o’clock rose to 102 in the shade, unattached; at two o’clock it stood at 114 in the shade, attached. But the most lamentable feature of this “Black Thursday” has been the great destruction of property by extensive bush fires.
Empire Sydney 5 March 1851
WARNAMBOOL AS IT WAS ON THURSDAY, The 6th ULTIMO.-Thursday, in the morning, from the north-westward came sweeping along over and among the lofty gum and wattle trees, a heavy cloud, accompanied by towering columns of dust and smoke driven with a tempestuous hot blast; so sudden was the change that the fiery blast might be felt on one cheek, whilst the south-easterly wind played on the other. This was about ten minutes past seven o’clock. The wind grew in fury and in heat. The air was full not only of sand and dust but small stones, which drove with incredible force. The heat increased every hour, and the wind blew with resistless fury, it swept the roads and streets, it hovered, round the angles of the buildings, and fell with a deadening heat on all that it came in contact with – man was prostrate and helpless, business stopped, the streets deserted, the houses closed, and for many weary hours the blast and the sand storm ruled supreme. The sun, where it struck, seemed to leave a burning spot; but O! worse than all, came the suffocating dry air that filled the lungs with a parching heat, and choking thirst, and an insatiable desire to drink. The thermometer ranged 115 in the shade, sometimes rising, sometimes sinking, as the hot wind swept by or partly lulled. All were stricken and cowered before it.

People fled on horses at the maddest gallop

Source:  Argus Newspaper ( Melbourne, Vic.) Saturday 20 February 1926

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.

If fire had broken out in Melbourne the city would have “been lost”:

  Source:  Argus Newspaper ( Melbourne, Vic.) Saturday 20 February 1926

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.

It was hot in South Australia and NSW too

Tom Quirks Great-grandfather was William Westgarth  who wrote several books on the era.  (Tom Quirk has articles on this site, another coming very soon.)  Here is Westgarth’s account of the Victorian 1851 bushfire:

These (hot) winds, with the violent changes by which they are terminated, are of less frequent occurrence in the adjacent colonies, but occasionally in these warmer latitudes they are exceedingly severe. At Sydney, and in the interior of New South Wales, the thermometer in the shade has been as high as 120°, and even 129° is recorded by Sturt, on the occasion of his exploring the river Macquarrie in 1827. The severest of these visitations on record, in Victoria, occurred on Thursday, the 6th February 1851, — a day ever since remembered under the designation of Black Thursday. The thermometer ranged between 100° and 110° in the verandas and other shaded parts of the dwelling-houses throughout the colony. The country, exceedingly dry from a long cessation of rain, took fire in many directions, —the flames overrunning the grass, spreading among the trees with frightful avidity, and occasioning the loss of much property. Similar weather was experienced at the same time in the colonies of South Australia and New South Wales.

William Westgarth, Victoria; late Australia Felix. 1853

A different book of William Westgarth tells us that as news filtered through of raging fires, at least one trader (with advance warning) increased flour prices by 30% immediately. Westgarth also recalls that fires and drought were common.

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.
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.

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

 There are hints that Aboriginal people did not consider the thick smoke unusual:

Source:   From the “Melbourne Herald” Newspaper February 1883, The Black Thursday of Port Phillip by Garryowen, An Eye – Witness

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.

 Argus Feb 8 1851



The weather for some days past, has been op- pressively hot. Crab-holes, water-holes, and even creeks, (with slight exceptions), are dried up. One of these exceptions is the Barratta, which has many deep places, not likely to fail during the present calamitous drought. The extensive runs on the Billibong mid Yaucoo have been entirely abandoned, after great numbers of 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, feed is frequently scarce, and not really more than will sustain the flock in mere existence. The prospect in many districts, for the long drought before the Settlers is most dreary. [I’ve edited this garbled OCR text – Jo]

The details of some stories did not come out until the Monday after Black Thursday and make for gripping, if melancholy reading. I find myself wondering what became of poor Richard McLelland who lost his wife, all five children and his house. I hope there was some joy…

Half of the sufferers in Kilmore declined organized aid:

Could we imagine people turning away a donation today?

Thursday Feb 20, 1851 Argus, Melbourne

“On Saturday evening, at the same place a committee meeting was held, when it was announced that seven out of fifteen sufferers declined the aid proffered, having friends from whom they could derive assistance. It was then decided that the committee should commence their labours on Monday the 17th instant. I should have remarked that at the preliminary meeting, it was resolved that “parties having claims against the sufferers should be requested either to cancel them or that they should stand over to an indefinite period.” The chairman stated that all current accounts in his book against these parties would be canceled, and upon that statement I know that he has acted to the extent of 50 pounds.”

After the fires the heat continued:

 “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 was so fierce that the thick smoke reached northern Tasmania…”

Craigieburn Historical Interest Group

8.9 out of 10 based on 65 ratings