#ThrowbackThursday – Today marks our 80th journey back in time. In recognition of that, we are going to time travel back 80 years to the small holiday resort town of Warrandyte before it had been absorbed into an outer suburb of Melbourne. It is Friday, January 13th, 1939; Black Friday.
In the days preceding, Melbourne has experienced some of its hottest temperatures on record: 110.8 °F (43.8 °C) on January 8th and 112.5 °F (44.7 °C) on January 10th. On Black Friday, temperatures will reach 114.1 °F (45.6 °C), which will become the hottest day officially recorded in Melbourne for the next 70 years until it is surpassed on February 7th, 2009, Black Saturday, 46.4 °C (115.5 °F). Unofficial records show temperatures of around 117 °F (47 °C) were reported on the Black Thursday fires of 6 February 1851.
The summer of 1938–39 had been hot and dry, and several fires had broken out. By early January, fires were burning in a number of locations across the state. Then, on Friday 13 January, a strong northerly wind hit the state, causing several of the fires to combine into one massive front.
In the Eltham district, the fires raged from Tuesday to Saturday morning and occurred in the Eltham, Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Strathewen, Queenstown, Kinglake and Whittlesea districts.
At Etham, the fire begins on Friday morning in the vicinity of Mr. C.A. (Clarrie) Hurst’s Eltham Poultry Farm and Hatchery in New Street (present day Lavender Park Road), one of the oldest in the State, consuming some fowl pens and killing many birds. The fire-bell is rung, and all the firemen of Eltham, together with most of the male residents turn out to fight the flames. Speeding before a strong and searing north wind, it passes on to Mr. H. Rutter’s house at Yarra Braes. It is while the firemen are at Mr. Hurst’s property that the fire attacks Mr. Rutter’s house. Despite desperate efforts, the home is burned to the ground. It then crosses the valley, and threatens Killeavey in Laughing Waters Road, the home of Mrs. J. (Beatrice) Morrison, daughter of Sir William Irvine.
The fire-fighters reach Morrison’s before it is consumed, and make desperate efforts to save the property. They fight the fire there for three hours, and had checked it several times before the house is ultimately destroyed. Only a lack of water prevents the house from being saved.
Mrs. Morrison is currently away on holiday, but her uncle, Mr. Neville Wanliss, with his wife, together with Mrs. Phillips, two boys and a girl, are spending a holiday there. They see the fire approaching, and take refuge in the river, where they remain for several hours. About 4 p.m. they emerge and are seen by Mr. Evans, who takes them in his car to “Kooringarama,” Eltham, where they receive dry clothes. First aid is given to Mrs. Wanliss, whose foot was badly burned. She is now in a private hospital. Although Kooringarama guest-house is not in danger from the fires, a number of the guests have become nervous, and are leaving for Melbourne.
After a desperate effort by more than 50 men for more than an hour, fire fighters save the houses of Mr. W. Linacre and the Laughing Waters Poultry farm owned by Mr. G.W. Petre, the Swedish Consul, but the beautiful home of Mr. A. S. Austin, nearer Warrandyte, was burned, also the home of Mr. Smith, in Mt. Pleasant road.
The fire leaps the river at three points between Mr. Rutter’s and Mrs. Morrison’s where it continues to advance rapidly, racing through tinder-dry grass and forest almost as fast as the wind itself, demolishing every habitation in its path. It joins another fire, and the two converging bush fires sweep down on Warrandyte about 2 p.m., razing nearly half the houses in the district within an hour. It is believed 100 homes have been lost. So sudden is the onslaught of the fire that few people have the opportunity to save more than the clothes they wear.
Women and children are being hurried to the safety of the river shallows, where they wait fearfully throughout the afternoon. Every able-bodied man in the district is engaged in the vain fight against the flames.
The first warning that Warrandyte had was a billow of smoke which rose and people had barely time to realise the warning significance of the smoke when the red glow of the flames was seen.
Sweeping across from Eltham and Templestowe, it leaps from hill to hill. Only a hard fight saves the stores of the town.
The first residence attacked is the shop and store of Mr. J. Kenny, on the northern outskirts of the town. His house and store only feed the flames for a matter of minutes. The fire then advances up the main street, missing the cafe of Mrs. Jones, opposite Kenny’s. A ten-roomed house owned by Mr. C.Blair, and adjoining Kenny’s store, is also destroyed. At the rear of Jones’s cafe and home, the houses of Mrs. McCulloch and McAuley are destroyed.
The experience of the head master of the local school, Mr. M. Isaac, and his family, is typical of the experiences of scores of other families in the town.
Mr. Isaac is resting on his bed, when a tradesman warns his wife. She rushes in and rouses him. They begin to gather clothes together in suitcases. Suddenly a shout is heard. “Run for your lives!”
Hurrying out they see fire racing toward the house. In a moment the flames are licking at the walls of the house. With their few hastily packed cases Mr. and Mrs. Isaac, their daughter, and a grandchild, grope their way through the smoke to their car.
“I can’t see to drive,” Mr. Isaac exclaims. Some shout: “It doesn’t matter whether you can see or not, drive!”
The car is driven into the smoke, crashes into something—a horse-drawn vehicle, Mrs. Isaac thinks she hears a horse whinny in panic—but the car presses on, and presently the party emerge from the smoke.
Mrs. Isaac and the children flee to the river with their few possessions, while her husband goes to join the fire-fighters.
The fire races round the slope of the hill behind the main street of the township, burning house after house as it speeds.
Meanwhile the second fire, on the other side of the river, wipes out Pound Bend, and sweeps up the gullies behind the river cliffs to Kangaroo road, and Artist’s Hill, which is dotted with homes all surrounded by thick bush.
Here the fire displays wanton freakishness, razing a brick house here and leaving a wooden building a few yards away unscathed. Scores of such freaks of fortune occur, aided as the day wears on by strange changes of wind.
It blows first from the north then from the west, from the south-west, from the west again, then switches round to the east. Burning this way and that before the vagaries of the wind, the fire several times threatens to destroy whole groups of dwellings only to sweep back on its tracks and leave intact buildings it was thought impossible to save.
One after the other, three wooden churches Presbyterian, Anglican, and Roman Catholic, go up in flames and collapse. All the houses on the western side of Pigtail Hill are burned.
With the destruction of the whole township apparently inevitable, more than 200 residents have taken refuge in the river. Many of them carry their house-hold goods with them, until the river banks are fringed with sewing machines and other portable household articles. Sweeping through the town, the fire destroys the shop and store of Mr. W. Jones, crosses the road, licking up houses in its stride, and sweeps through two miles of lightly-grassed country to annihilate South Warrandyte. Both the school, and the hall, and at least 20 dwellings are lost. The fire then advances on Croydon, where it later burns itself out.
The refuge provided by the river alone prevents a heavy toll of life. The speed of the fire frustrates all efforts to save property, although there was no big timber to feed It. As it sweeps over Melbourne hill to the north of the town residents receive ample warning to evacuate their homes before the fire descends on them. In the country between Warrandyte and Croydon numbers of cattle and horses are caught by the fire and injured. Later, Constable Bercherson, of Warrandyte, has to go out and destroy over 60 fire-maimed animals.
Of Warrandyte itself only the cluster of a dozen or so buildings round the post-office and the hotel-a few stores, guest houses, a garage, and another group about the bridge across the Yarra, are left standing.
Officers from the gas works branch of the St. John Ambulance Association have arrived in the stricken town and render first aid to fire fighters overcome by heat and smoke. During the afternoon food for 100 persons is rushed to the township from the city and made available at a local hall which, together with the hotel, has escaped destruction.
The fire fighters have been insuperably hampered by the absence of water. There is no reticulation system in the township. Most of the residents depend on rain water collected in tanks for their supplies. Only the hotel, and a few of the more pretentious homes in the district, have pumping plants to draw water from the river. These, for the most part, are electrically driven, and early in the afternoon the fire severed the town’s electricity supply.
Only at the hotel is there any considerable storage of water, and this is poured on to the post-office, saving it after an hour’s struggle.
South Warrandyte and the homes in the town standing in heavy timber, are the worst affected parts, a clean sweep having been made of the town’s dwellings. The towns-people watch helplessly while building after building disappears in smoke and flame.
Saturday, 14 January
The fire burns itself out this morning, and only at Wonga Park is there any danger from a future flare. There is plenty of food available for the 200 odd victims, who have been provided for at the Masonic Hall, but there is urgent need for more blankets and clothes.
We find the town stark and devastated. Piles of tin and chimneys are all that remain of more than 100 dwellings. Along the road, stock caught in the fences give evidence of the speed and destruction of the fire.
Reported missing Friday, Mr Frederick Topping, 72, pensioner, of Warrandyte, has been found dead among the ruins of his home near his packed goods. It appears that the fire, which blazed through the town in 20 minutes, came on him before he could make his escape. Mr Topping was for many years the Warrandyte correspondent of “The Advertiser,” and was an active worker in all public movements for the good of that town. He was also an authority on cricket, and a great cricket enthusiast.
Only the presence of the river saved many others in the hills.
Alarms are sent out at 10.45 for more volunteers to fight the blaze at Stony Creek between Warrandyte and Kangaroo Ground, and there is a fear that if the wind changes, Kangaroo Ground will be in serious danger.
Several artists have lost houses at Warrandyte. In Mr Adrian Lawlor’s home, more than 200 of his paintings were destroyed, and Mr Henry Hoile lost all his pictures. The building known as the “Old Studio,” in which the annual art exhibition has been held in recent years, was burned. It was owned by Mrs Connie Smith.
Later in the afternoon fires in the Warrandyte, Eltham and Kangaroo Ground districts are brought under control. Seventy-five men are standing by a fire at Christmas Hills. At Research the fire is being kept to the gullies.
Warrandyte and district has received a paralysing blow. Apart from the destruction of homes, hundreds of acres of orchards, which provide the district with its means of livelihood, have been scorched into unproductiveness, and substantial relief is an urgent necessity.
It is unfortunate that the Eltham Fire Brigade did not have enough hose to reach the place where the fire started, for they might have put out the blaze before it did any further damage. The nearest fire plug was near Mr. Percy Leason’s property in New street, and from this the firemen ran out 1200 feet of hose – all they had – but it was still 300 feet short. Nevertheless, the fire fighters, both members of the brigade and volunteers, working under Capt. W. Allan, Lieut. A. Parsons and First Constable O’Donnell did splendid work. They were on duty continuously from Friday to Sunday, and on Friday afternoon were reinforced by volunteers from the city. There were three casualties. Mr. W. Deards cut his foot; Mr. Berry, the sustenance officer, tripped in some burning ashes at Morrison’s and severely burned both hands; while on Sunday, Mr. G. Carver twisted his ankle while descending a step hill to fight a renewed outbreak near Beauty Point.
Residents of Eltham freely made available their cars, and trucks for the carriage of fire-fighters to the danger points.
Too much praise cannot be given to the ladies of Eltham for the manner in which they rallied to give assistance. When volunteers began to arrive early in the afternoon, and women and children from the Research and Warrandyte districts were brought into the town for safety, Mesdames E. M. Andrew, Ford, Pyke, Parsons, Browne and Crick formed a nucleus of workers, which soon increased by many more, who provided meals for the 150 volunteers who made the fire station their headquarters, and also for the five families who had taken refuge in Eltham. The latter were fed at the fire station, and were provided with sleeping accommodation at the Eltham Hall. They were returned to their homes on Saturday, with a hamper of food for each. The Eltham ladies were cutting sandwiches, preparing tea etc., from early on Friday afternoon until 2.30 a.m. on Saturday morning, and were back at the station by 6 a.m. on Saturday. Ninety men were supplied with food donated by local people, but later on supplies were sent out by the Red Cross Society.
Bush Fires: A pictorial survey of Victoria’s most tragic week, January 8-15, 1939, pp2-3.
THE WEEK REVIEWED
THE fiercest bush fires Australia has known since its discovery are quiescent at the moment, and Victoria, in the comparative coolness of the change which came with rain on Sunday night, has begun·to count its losses.
In the fiery eight days, from Sunday to Sunday, at least sixty-six men, women and children have lost their lives in forest fires, or have succumbed to burns and shock; many others have died from heat; and several serious cases of burns are being treated in hospitals.
Two babies in Narrandera district have died, and ten others are in hospital, because of milk soured by the record temperatures of those eight days.
Forest damage totals at least a million pounds, and incalculable damage has been done to the seedlings which were to have been the forests of the future.
Water conservation will be seriously affected by the silting-up of reservoirs and streams from which protective timber has been taken by the all-engulfing flames.
More than a thousand houses have been destroyed, and these, with 40 mills, and schools, post-offices, churches, and other buildings, represent a loss of at least half a million.
At least 1500 are homeless. For their aid, money raised in appeals has now passed the £50,000 mark, and the biggest relief organisation ever set up in peace time has swung into operation.
The First Hint
Victoria’s first hint of what was to come appeared on Sunday, January 8, when most parts of the State awoke to find a blistering day awaiting.
At 12.20 p.m., when the thermometer reached its highest for the day, 109.6 degrees, the first fire victims were at that moment going to their death on a bush track five feet wide off the main road to Narbethong.
They were the forestry officers Charles Isaac Demby and John Hartley Barling, who went to warn Demby of his danger when he parted from his companions, and was himself surrounded by the treacherous fire.
It was not until 8 o’clock next morning that the tragic news was flashed throughout the State.
Searchers found the two charred bodies close together, one seeking protection in the nook of two logs. Barling’s watch had stopped at 1.20.
In the meantime, tragedy was spreading its cloak.
By Monday, big fires were raging at Toolangi, Erica, Yallourn, Monbulk, Frankston, Dromana, Drouin South, Glenburn, and Blackwood, with smaller outbreaks at many other centres.
In the ensuing week, while women and children were evacuated as fast as the flames would permit, Erica-scene of the 1926 fire disaster-thrice escaped doom by a change of wind.
Indeed, those who have been in the fire country these past days say that the numbers of times a change of wind has saved towns from destruction is amazing.
In the towns they speak of miracles.
The escapes from Monett’s Mill at Erica and from the Hardwood Company’s Mill at Murrindindi, near where Demby and Barling went to their death, were Monday’s miracles.
Twenty came out alive from each mill. At the first a 60ft. dugout provided an oven-like refuge; at the second, 12 women and children survived in the smoke-filled gloom of a three-roomed cottage while their eight men, their clothes sometimes afire, poured water on the wooden walls. Three houses out of ten remained when the fire had passed.
Sunday had been the hottest Melbourne day for 33 years; Monday dropped to a 76.1 degree maximum; but Tuesday dawned hotter than ever, the mercury reaching 112.5.
By now rumor was racing ahead of fact; whole towns were being reported lost; the alarm was raised for scores of missing persons. But fact soon overtook rumor, and within a few days the staggering toll began to mount to a figure beyond the wildest imaginings of the panic-stricken.
Six died from heat on this torrid Tuesday, and the fires spread in a wide swathe from south-west to north-east across the State. Fish died in shallow streams.
A curtain of smoke hid the sky from all Victoria, and hung far out to sea. It alarmed passengers on ships. On the Ormonde, on the voyage to Sydney from Burnie, women ran on deck, believing fire had broken out in the hold.
Days later the smoke reached New Zealand.
In Melbourne thousands of fire-volunteers were leaving in cars: vans, motor-buses-anything reliable on wheels-to aid the country in its grim fight.
In the fires at Rubicon and. Narbethong, seventeen were facing death this day. But not till Wednesday, when Melbourne breathed again in a cool change, while the country still sweltered in temperatures up to 117 degrees, did the news come through the tree blocked roads.
A woman and her little daughter, trapped on the road, were among those who died. Their bodies, and those of menfolk with them, were found strewn out at intervals along the road, where the furnace of the surrounding fire had dropped them in their tracks as they ran.
Twelve died at a Rubicon mill, five on the road at Narbethong.
At Alexandra, not far distant, a baby was born while the fires raged, and stretcher-bearers brought in the injured.
On Thursday the State Government voted £5000 for the relief of fire victims. The Governor (Lord Huntingfield) and the Lord Mayor (Cr. Coles) visited some of the stricken areas, and dipped into their pockets personally. Later, the City Council, too, voted £5000.
Friday, The 13th
Friday, the Thirteenth, justified its evil name.
A blistering northerly came early in the morning, presaging destruction, and forcing the mercury to a new record of 114 degrees.
Racing fires killed at least ten in those terrible 12 hours.
Four children were engulfed in the furnace at Colac. Panic drove them, uncontrollable, into the smoke-filled road when the fire raced down behind their home. They choked to death.
In other parts fires were joining to make fronts of scores of miles.
Kinglake was being menaced on two fronts, £60,000 worth of timber was going up in smoke in Ballarat district. Warburton was surrounded. Residents at Lorne, favoured resort, were being driven to the sea-front by a fire which destroyed at least 20 homes. Healesville, with flames visible from the town at one stage, was in a trough between two fires which burned four guest-houses, seven homes and left its surrounding beauty-spots wastes of bowed-over, blackened tree-fern fronds; with its famous Sanctuary, however, intact.
Most of Omeo was destroyed this black day: Noojee. while 200 residents crouched in the river, was being reduced to a waste of buckled iron and smoking timber; Erica was once again saved by a change of wind.
Beneath a pall of smoke, the Rubicon victims were buried at Alexandra.
Friday night and the early hours of Saturday saw the streets of beleagured towns strewn with exhausted fire-fighters. Their flails beside them, ready for the next call, they lay where exhaustion overtook them-on footpaths, beside lamp-posts, in gutters, in cars, under trucks.
Saturday’s dawn brought clear skies and lower temperatures in many parts, and from the burnt-out areas came a great rush of tragic reports. The death-roll rushed past the fifty mark with incredible speed.
Some had been trapped on roads, others at mills; some, after burying their treasures, had clung too long to the places they had made their homes for many years. Four men lost their lives because one went back for his dog.
By Sunday, when the first of the saving rain came, nearly another score of names had been added to the list.
Summer 2019: A year of anniversaries
This summer, not only do we mark 80 years since the Black Friday bushfire of January 13th, 1939 (2 million hectares burnt, 650 buildings destroyed, 71 lives lost), but also 50 years since the last bushfire to burn parts of Eltham and district on January 8th, 1969. And on 7 February it will be 10 years since we endured the hottest day ever and the disastrous Black Saturday fire (450,000 hectares burnt, in excess of 3,500 buildings including 2,029 homes destroyed, 173 lives lost). Stay safe and diligent everyone, let’s hope 2019 does not add to this trend.
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IN MEMORY OF ALL VICTIMS OF BUSH FIRES
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- Bush Fires: A pictorial survey of Victoria’s most tragic week, January 8-15, 1939
- 1939 ‘ELTHAM MENACED’, Advertiser (Hurstbridge, Vic. : 1922 – 1939), 13 January, p. 1. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56962508
- 1939 ‘FIRE SWEEPS WARRANDYTE’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 14 January, p. 25. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205965125
- 1939 ‘VAIN FIGHT TO CHECK RELENTLESS MARCH OF FIRES’, The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), 14 January, p. 3. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article243359114
- 1939 ‘100 HOUSES LOST AT WARRANDYTE HALF TOWNSHIP RAZED’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 14 January, p. 2. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12086301
- 1939 ‘Arduous Work in Hot Winds’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 14 January, p. 7. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12086171
- 1939 ‘MANY HOMES DESTROYED’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 14 January, p. 26. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205965097
- 1939 ‘Bush Fires Sweep Wide Area’, Advertiser (Hurstbridge, Vic. : 1922 – 1939), 20 January, p. 1. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56962561
- 1939 ‘VICTORIA RAVAGED BY FIRES’, The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 – 1946), 21 January, p. 4. , viewed 08 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article141813607
- Victoria showing areas swept by bush fires, January 1939 [cartographic material] / drawn by R.J. Love ; Forests Commission of Victoria ; M.E. Bill, chief draughtsman, Forests Commission, Victoria. (State Library of Victoria)
- Black Friday bushfires, Wikipedia article
- Black Saturday bushfires, Wikipedia article
- Diamond Creek Fire Brigade, Facebook Page post, 8 Jan 2019
- 1937 ‘MR C.A. HURST. ELTHAM’, Advertiser (Hurstbridge, Vic. : 1922 – 1939), 11 June, p. 5. , viewed 10 Jan 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56845110