I have an interest in the weather, not just today or the forthcoming weekend, but also historically. I participated in Melbourne University’s Climate History newspaper tagging project that involved tagging newspaper articles at Trove about weather events. This was an interesting exercise and what did became obvious was the cyclical nature of the weather. If it has happened before it will happen again, droughts, floods and storms.
Taking it further, I also have an interest in how such weather events effected my ancestors. That is why the Victorian bushfires of 1901 are of interest. The weather was very similar to two days in my lifetime, Ash Wednesday February 16, 1983 and Black Saturday February 7, 2010 and in each case, fires spread across Victoria. When I look at the Department of Sustainability Bushfire history of Victoria, I am surprised the fires of 1901 are not mentioned.
The first reports came through on February 8, 1901 of the destruction. The following article from The Argus describes the weather of February 7, 1901. The descriptive language used takes the reader to that day. The heat was oppressive, the wind was strong and dust storms crossed the state, causing an unnatural darkness.
Fires had sprung up in the Western District. Early reports from Branxholme were tragic with one death, stock killed and houses lost. I have family links with three of the families who lost their homes, the Millers, Storers and Addinsalls. George Miller, a racehorse trainer, lost his house and stables and no doubt his horses.
The two-day race meeting at Ararat was held under stifling conditions. A fire started at the course on the second day and horses were burnt. Later the wind picked up and ripped iron off the grandstand roof, sending the ladies within running for shelter.
Fires spread across Victoria including Warrnambool, Alexandra, Wangaratta, Buninyong, Yea and Castlemaine.
Reading the following article about the fires at Byaduk , it really hit home how my Harman and Bishop families may have been impacted. Even if they were lucky enough not to lose their homes, the scenes would have been unforgettable.
In 1901, my great-grandmother Sarah Elizabeth Harman, gg grandfather Reuben James Harman and his parents James Harman and Susan Read were all living at Byaduk. Not to mention various gg uncles and aunts and cousins, both Bishops and Harmans. I wonder how they coped. Did 18 year old Sarah take refuge in a dam or creek with her Grandmother Susan? Was 70 year James Harman still fit enough to help fight the fires? These are questions that I will never know the answer to. All I know is they were lucky enough to escape with their lives.
The Australian Town and Country Journal accounts for 10 homes lost at Byaduk. The Free Presbyterian Church was lost and the hotel caught alight but it seems it was saved. The homestead of Richard Thomas Carty at “Brisbane Hill”, a large property at Byaduk, was destroyed. The Cartys rebuilt and the replacement homestead “Dunroe” still stands.
Fire also burnt within a mile of Hamilton.
This photograph from Birregurra gives some idea of the devastation.
Portland was also under threat with fire circling the town. The fire did not stop until it met the sea.
Buninyong near Ballarat was one of the worst areas hit as was Euroa and district.
By January 11, aid for the homeless was on the agenda and at Branxholme a public meeting was held to discuss such matters. Authorities discovered the fire near Branxholme, which was possibly the same fire that hit Byaduk, was started by a travelling tinsmith fixing a trough at Ardachy Estate.
Nearby Macarthur also had losses as did Princetown on the south coast. At Timboon, bullock teams from the local sawmill were lost.
The fire was so strong and relentless that old residents were drawing comparisons to Black Thursday of 1851.
Today and for the past few days, the temperature has struggled to reach 20 degrees. Three years ago the temperature was more than twice that. The weather will be like today during future summers, but I also know there will be days again like February 7, 1901, February 16, 1983 and February 7, 2009. It is the nature of the weather. Let us hope the devastation of each of these past events are never repeated.