Today is the 170th anniversary of Black Thursday when Victoria burned. The day lingered long in the minds of the early settlers. It was mentioned in their reminiscences and in their obituaries. It was a historic marker on the timelines of their lives, just as were the reigns of monarchs, wars, and the battle of Eureka. Some were just days old on 6 February 1851 but their connection to that day carried with them until death. Some spoke of that day with their families and those memories were repeated in obituaries.
Coming after a year of drought, it was a day like the settlers had never experienced with extreme heat and strong winds. Dust storms swept the colony. As the temperature climbed, fires broke out across Victoria.
Mary Learmonth (nee Pearson) witnessed the destruction of the day. She was nineteen and living with her parents at Retreat run near Casterton. Such was the intensity of the fire, birds, and wildlife sought refuge at their homestead. The fires would remain fixed in Mary’s memory for another reason. Her mother died two days later on 8 February 1851.
For Margaret Kittson (nee Jennings), Black Thursday remained a vivid memory. She was also nineteen and on the day she was in Portland with her mother as embers rained down onto the streets. They heard their home at Bridgewater was destroyed. They rushed home only to find it still standing but those around it were gone.
After being several months at Wando Vale it was found desirable to send me somewhere to finish my education, and as Mr. John Browning had recently opened a boarding school in Portland my two uncles and I started on 5th July 1851, to ride there. We stayed at the Smoky, now Hotspur, that night, and started off the next morning a smoking hot day, memorable ever since as “Black Thursday” and rode into Portland with the fires raging around us. We left the Heywood Hotel, then kept by Bilston, half an hour before it was burnt to the ground, and had to gallop for our lives through the Nine Mile Forest, the road only being a narrow cleared track. We arrived safely, and I often wonder how.
I have seen some hot things in fires since, but never saw Black Thursday equalled. A messenger was sent down from Wando Vale that night to Portland, riding all night, to tell Mr George Robertson that 2000 sheep, his woolshed, and timber for a new house had all been burnt. He started off straight back riding the same horse and was home at Warrock in good time on the moning of the 7th, showing what grass-fed horses could do in those days. (Portland Guardian, 23 September 1895)
A STORY OF BLACK THURSDAY.
(By Mrs. J. Robson).This little story was told to me by Mrs. Young. You have all heard of Black Thursday, on February 6th, in the year 1851, when nearly the whole of Victoria from the Murray to the sea was on fire. In the Western District on a station employed as a shepherd was a Mr. Young with his wife and two boys, who resided in a little two-roomed hut. Mrs. Young was a smart energetic woman and particularly clean and neat. Her little house was spick and span and everything shining. She not alone cleaned inside her house, but she had a ti-tree broom and used to sweep all round her little hut, She used her broom with such good effect that there was not a leaf or blade of grass for half a chain round her hut. Their employer, Mr.Coldham, used to tease the little lady that she would have all the grass swept off the paddock.Well, the morning of Black Thursday dawned so-called because it got so black with smoke one could not see half a chain away. The sky looked crimson and the heat, as the day went on, became terrific. There was a strong northwind blowing all day. Everyone knew there must be a terrific fire not far away, so everyone made what preparation they could. Towards midday, the heat was like a furnace, and birds and kangaroos and wallabies were flying and rushing south. Mr. Coldham arrived at Mrs. Young’s hut in great haste, on his horse, a big strong grey, named General, covered with foam. He called out to Mrs.Young that the fire was quite near to the hut, and to put some food together quickly, and he himself pulled the double blanket off her bed and lifted the two boys on General, and told Mrs. Young to sit behind him and hold on tight. So away they rode to the Miatike Creek. Mr. Coldham dipped the blanket in the water, and the four of them sat on General’s back with the wet blanket spread all over them. The fire came like a tidal wave burning leaves and fern scattering all over them. It blew over the creek and went on its way of destruction,They sat there in the creek for hours till it was safe to leave. Old General and the wet blanket had preserved their lives. They rode across the burnt paddock and what was their joy to see the little hut quite safe from harm. As there were no trees near it and the grass all being swept away around, the fire had passed on and never touched it. (Portland Guardian, 7 August 1933)
Belfast (Port Fairy) was threatened.
Along the coast, fires burned from Geelong to Loutit Bay (Lorne) and through to Apollo Bay and up into the Otways.
Artist William Strutt arrived in Victoria in 1850 and was in Melbourne on the day of the Black Thursday fires. The eerie mix of dust, smoke, and red sky along with the emerging stories of the terror stayed with him. On his return to England, he was inspired to paint his masterpiece Black Thursday in 1854 bringing together all of what we have read above, such as the mobs of horses, settlers running for their lives, and birds and kangaroos fleeing.
You can read more about what the painting represents on the link to an article from The Herald of 1865 – Mr. Strutt’s Picture of “Black Thursday”. The painting now hangs at the State Library of Victoria (SLV) and you can read how the painting made its way from England to Adelaide in 1883 and then to the SLV in 2004, on the link – Black Thursday: William Strutt’s “Itinerant Picture”
Geelong Advertiser – 7 February 1851 – A description of 6 February 1851 at Geelong
Geelong Advertiser – 12 February 1851 – A description of 6 February 1851 at Portland
Geelong Advertiser – 19 February 1841 – Losses at Portland
South Australian Register – 25 February 1851 – Reports from across Victoria
Empire (Sydney) – 5 March 1851 – A description of 6 February 1851 at Warrnambool