As fire sweeps across large parts of Australia right now, I asked my mum what she remembers about bushfires from when she grew up in the country. Her answers as shown in this short film both stunned and cheered me.
“I have a very early memory from 1939, as a five-year-old, of one terrible day in Heywood,” Mum said of the Victorian western district town where she was born.
The day was the infamous Black Friday of Friday the 13th of January 1939, which is forever seared into the memory of generations. It was among the worst bushfires in the world. Almost five million acres of land was burned, over 1,300 homes and 3,700 buildings were destroyed, towns were entirely obliterated, and seventy-one people died.
Mum had not yet turned five when the fires raged, but her memory is certain from that incredible event eighty years ago.
“I so clearly remember standing at the front corner of our home with my mother, grandma and a sister [possibly younger sister Joy], looking up at the nearby pine trees.”
“The heat was terrific, the hot, terribly strong wind full of smoke, carrying birds, bird’s nests, dust and ash.”
Another four-year-old, Albert McGinty who was with his mother just forty miles up the road at Casterton, became panic stricken and ran into a fire and died.
The day was one of the hottest on record. In Melbourne it reached 45.6 °C (114.1 °F) which was exceeded only by the 47.2 °C (117.0 °F) of the Black Thursday bushfires in 1851 which is a record that still stands.
“Mum and the children were ready to be taken to our Grandma Beavis. Grandma and Grandpa Satchell [they lived with us] were staying to protect our home,” Mum said.
“I don’t remember what happened after that, but I must have been affected somewhat to still remember so vividly eighty years later that moment in time.”
What happened was utter devastation including Uncle Bill Satchell’s house being razed to the ground. Here’s a photo (above) of Jim Satchell (“Grandpa Satchell” who stayed to save the house) and his brother Bill. Ten years earlier, Jim and Bill’s brother Jesse was elected to state parliament, but that didn’t help them on this day.
At the government’s Royal Commission that followed, it was said that it appeared the whole of the state of Victoria was alight.
See the photo here (right) of Mum at her home in Heywood twelve months before the fire.
“Yes, that’s me at our Heywood house back door, you could see right through house, through the back porch, the hall (note highly polished lino), looking up the road towards town.”
Mum’s happiest memories as a child are at this house, playing on a swing hung from the plum tree out the back, amongst the buzzing of the bees and sunshine of spring.
Here’s another photo (below) of mum standing in front of her home twelve months after the fire. The pine trees that she remembers are clearly visible on the left. The birds and bird’s nests that were carried away by the ash-laden winds are long gone.
Five years after Black Friday, the home was sold. Five generations of the family had lived there since the block was first selected by Mum’s great-great-grandfather Thomas Satchell in 1856. Co-incidentally, this was five years after the Black Thursday bushfires.
Fires have always been part of life in the western district. Mum remembers another one just nine years after the biggest catastrophe.
“In about 1948 when we were living in Hamilton, a grass fire broke out on our sheep farm in Branxholme, started by a spark from a passing train.”
“Sadly this caused the death of many sheep as several acres burnt. The old farm house and shearing shed were lost.”
The toll was about 600 acres of grass, three miles of fencing, and thirty sheep.
“The only building left standing was the doorless wooden lavatory leaning at a precarious angle. This amusing sight was photographed and published in The Weekly Times.”
Sadly, try as I might, I can’t find a copy of that newspaper photograph that caused such amusement in the district. If anyone out there has a copy, please let me know.
There are many tragic memories from bushfires across the country, and more being created with the current events. But hopefully there’s a leaning outhouse, buzzing springtime bees, or bird’s nests flying in the wind that will cheer you up.
Remembrance Black Friday 1939-2020 – onlymelbourne.com.au
Heywood Black Friday 13 Jan 1939 – Portland Guardian Monday 16 January 1939 p.3
Brothers Jim and Bill Satchell – my family photos
Shirley, January 1938 – my family photos
Satchell dairy farm house Scott Street Heywood 1940 – my family photos