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‘The sun became entirely obscured’

1851: Black Thursday bushfires, the first catastrophic bushfires since colonisation

State Library of Victoria H28049
1800 1900
Year level

5

8

Learning area

Geography

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Of all the natural disasters that you were able to find on the Defining Moments Timeline, which one do you think had the most impact on Australians? Explain your answer.

 

Defining Moments Timeline

2. Bushfires are still a part of Australian life. What can we do to minimise the risk and effects of future fires? Think about personal, local and national actions.

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Black Thursday bushfires are a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p><em>Black Thursday</em>, engraved by Julian Rossi Ashton, 1851</p>
State Library of Victoria

In a snapshot

On ‘Black Thursday’, 6 February 1851, European settlers in Victoria faced their first catastrophic bushfires, which burnt a quarter of the colony. Although it is likely only 12 people died, due in part to the small population in 1851, about a million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost. The burnt bush may have made it easier to find gold, contributing to the major gold discoveries that occurred soon afterwards.

Black Thursday, engraved by Julian Rossi Ashton, 1851

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. How much of Victoria was burnt in the Black Thursday bushfires? Were any other states affected?

2. How many people died and what was the impact on animals?

3. What were some of the likely causes of the fires?

What happened before the bushfires?

Europeans began settling in Victoria at Portland in 1834 and at Melbourne in 1835. 

Between 1848 and 1850 there was a lot of unusual and unpredictable weather: heavy rainfall, then drought, followed by snow (in Melbourne, for the first time since colonisation), more heavy rainfall and floods and another drought. Then in February 1851 the settlers faced their first catastrophic bushfires.

The summer of 1850–51 was long and hot. A newspaper suggested a ban on smoking on the road to Sydney to reduce the risk of people starting fires. For weeks before Black Thursday fires raged in the Plenty Ranges, north-east of Melbourne. Fires also burned on Mount Macedon to the north and in the Pyrenees to the west.

<p><em>Black Thursday</em>, February, 1851, engraved by F.A. Sleap</p>

State Library of Victoria, IAN01/08/88/supp/13

<p><em>Black Thursday</em>, February, 1851, engraved by F.A. Sleap</p>

What happened on Black Thursday?

Thursday 6 February 1851, which became known as ‘Black Thursday’, was the hottest day the European settlers could remember: 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) in the shade. A strong north wind drove the ring of existing fires, as well as new fires, towards Melbourne. The whole area around Dandenong was on fire. 

About five million hectares burnt — a quarter of Victoria. On the same day much of western Tasmania, only recently settled by Europeans, was also burnt.

Research task

 

In 2009 Victoria was again impacted by a very severe bushfire. What happened on this occasion? Go to the link to find out more. 

2009 Black Saturday bushfires – ‘A tragedy beyond belief’

‘Early in the afternoon clouds came rolling over the heavens, obscuring the light of the sun in a most ominous and mysterious manner. There was a lurid glare in the sky, mixed with dense columns of blackest cloud-banks in the distance, which stole gradually upwards from the horizon until the sun became entirely obscured.’

 

James Fenton, Bush Life in Tasmania Fifty Years Ago (1891), recalling how the Victorian fires appeared to an observer on the north coast of Tasmania

Firefighting during the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, Victoria.

How many people and animals died?

As far as we know only 12 people died. This may be because the population in 1851 was small compared with the population today.

Bridget McLelland and her five young children died at Diamond Creek and her husband, Richard, suffered severe burns trying to rescue one of the children. In the hills west of Geelong a man who had been helping to fight a fire disappeared and his body was later found burnt. Elsewhere a child was lost from a group as they rushed to safety. 

Others had lucky escapes. Nineteen children and a teacher were rescued from a schoolhouse in Westernport. Some people who had lost their houses survived in the bush or in creeks. Farm animals and wildlife suffered terribly. About a million sheep and thousands of cattle died. 

How did the fires start?

Apart from the dry conditions the fires probably had various causes. One might have been lightning strikes. Also many newly arrived Europeans may not have known how easily fires could get out of control in a dry continent. The fires may also have been linked to gold-seeking across the colony especially in the Pyrenees and Plenty ranges. Prospectors looking for gold might have set fires to clear dense vegetation, which then became out of control. 

The huge areas of bush burnt in the Black Thursday fires may have made it easier to find gold contributing to the major gold discoveries soon afterwards. 

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task 

 

Australia has suffered other natural disasters that have also become defining moments. Find as many as you can using the Defining Moments Timeline. 

Defining Moments Timeline

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. How much of Victoria was burnt in the Black Thursday bushfires? Were any other states affected?

2. How many people died and what was the impact on animals?

3. What were some of the likely causes of the fires?