Today is the 170th anniversary of the 1851 bushfires, which devastated large parts of Victoria.

Fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria (approximately 5 million hectares). Areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 human lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.

Forest Fire Management Victoria – past bushfires
Black Thursday, February 6th. 1851, as depicted by William Strutt

In 1851 among our forebears these people were living in Victoria and would have experienced the frightening conditions that day:

Greg’s third great grandparents John Narroway Darby (1823 – ?) and his wife Matilda nee Moggridge (1825 – 1868) had separated and Matilda was living with David Hughes with whom she had a daughter Margaret born 1850 at Ashby, now west Geelong. In 1851 Matilda and her daughters Matilda (1845 – ?), Greg’s great great grandmother, and Margaret were probably living in Ashby. John Darby and their daughter Henrietta may have been living in Portland where John married for a second time in 1855.

Greg’s third great grandparents Thomas Edwards (1794 – 1871) and Mary Edwards nee Gilbart (1805 – 1867), were living near Geelong at the time of the death of their daughter in 1850. They later moved to Bungaree near Ballarat but at the time of the fires they were probably in the Geelong district with their children including their youngest son and Greg’s great great grandfather, Francis Gilbart Edwards (1848 – 1913).

Samuel Proudfoot Hawkins (1819 – 1867) and his wife Jeanie nee Hutcheson (1824 – 1864), my third great grandparents, were living in the Portland district. Their second daughter Penelope was born in July 1851 at Runnymede station near Sandford which had been settled by Jeanie’s brothers. Also at Runnymede was Isabella Hutcheson nee Taylor (1794 – 1876), Jeanie’s mother and my fourth great grandmother.

The fire did not reach Ashby or Geelong but a week later a report wrote about the conditions experienced that day in the Geelong district.

The peculiarity of the phenomena of Thursday, was the extraordinary violence of the hot blast by which the conflagration was kindled. Had the hurricane continued to blow during Thursday night with the same violence as during the day, the conflagration might have approached closer to the suburbs, and we might have been exposed to the fiery projectiles which were swept through the air, and which carried devastation to stations and homesteads that were thought to be secure. The violence of the wind, the intensity, breadth, and volume of the fire, the combustible condition of grass, trees, fences, train, huts, and houses, formed a combination that baffled both calculation and means of resistance; and had the fire reached Ashby, we could not have reckoned on the safety of Geelong.

FRIDAY MORNING, FEBRUARY 14. (1851, February 14). Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1847 – 1851), p. 2 (DAILY and MORNING). Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91917049

An account of the bushfire from the Portland perspective:

BUSH FIRES.
(From the Portland Guardian.)
Yesterday forenoon was a period of extraordinary heat, and we are sorry to say, of calamity also. The heat from 11 o’clock, am, until afternoon was most oppressive ; a hot wind blowing from the N.N.W. in a most furious manner. At this time the thermometer stood for an hour by one glass at 112° while by two others it reached 116° in the sun. The dust in the streets was most suffocating, penetrating the smallest crevices, and filling the houses. In consequence of the excessive heat and bush fires, the last day of the races was postponed, until this day, when they duly came off. About 12 o’clock a bush fire in the vicinity of the town began to rage with the utmost fury. It sprang up near the racecourse, and through the violence of the hot wind, threatened to consume the booths, and to envelope the persons who had assembled there in the flames, before time could be afforded them to escape. By a slight change of wind, however, the racers escaped ; but the resistless element swept away in its course the newly erected cottage of Mr Howard the collector of Customs, leaving time only to hurry away Mrs Howard and the family out of the house, before their residence became a perfect cinder So sudden and rapid was the progress of the flames that the fowls and goats about the premises were all consumed. The fire swept along before the wind, carrying away the fences, and all that stood in its way, for about a mile and a half, when Mr Blair, with the whole body of the constabulary, and others from the racecourse arrived in time to save his own hay-stack and residence. The utmost concern was felt in town at the same time, at the approach of the fire from another quarter. Burnt particles were whirling down the streets and flying over the tops of the houses in profusion. But a constable was not to be seen in town. Those of the inhabitants in their houses were making the best preparations which they could for themselves respectively , water carts and concentrated effort was at a sad discount. Several gentlemen did their utmost to prepare against a highly probable casualty, but the utmost which they could do was to warn others of the danger. Fortunately the wind moderated about two o’clock, and the apprehension passed away.

While this fire was raging in the immediate vicinity of the town, Mount Clay and the farms in that locality were enveloped in one vast blaze. Mr Millard has again been a heavy sufferer in this latter fire, and has now lost the whole of his crops. Messrs Monogue, M’Lachlan and Dick, have partaken with him in his misfortunes. The work of years has been swept away from those industrious families and severe sufferers. Their fences, their crops, and their homes, have been annihilated at a stroke.

Just at the same hour the Bush Tavern, which has stood scathless for many years in the midst of a dense forest, and proved so often a place of shelter to the forlorn traveller from the pitiless storm of winter and the scorching heat of summer, is now a heap of ashes. The fire reached the buildings without warning ; and the few articles which were saved from the wreck ignited afterwards with the excessive heat which the burning houses created. The bridge across the Fitzroy has shared a similar fate with the house;  a dray, and it is supposed a horse, have met a similar calamity.

At sea, the weather was even more fearful than on shore. Captain Reynolds reports that yesterday, when 20 miles from the Laurences, the heat was so intense, that every soul on board was struck almost powerless. A sort of whirlwind, on the afternoon, struck the vessel, and carried the topsail, lowered down on the cap, clean out of the bolt rope, and had he not been prepared for the shock, the vessel, he has no doubt, would have been capsized. Flakes of fire were, at the time, flying thick all around the vessel from the shore in the direction of Portland.

BUSH FIRES. (1851, February 12). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4776130
Black Thursday, February, 1851. Engraved F.A. Sleap. In the collection of the State Library of Victoria.