Attack of the killer worms

This really did happen. It was in March 1936 when millions of giant worms attacked Ipswich in Queensland. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

The worms were unstoppable as they advanced from the Upper Logan district on a front of almost twenty miles. They stretched in almost an unbroken line from Rathdowney to Gleneagle.

The whole of the southern portion of the Fassifern district was teeming with them. They steadily advanced on Ipswich, leaving the land totally stripped of herbage behind them.

The worms seemed completely tireless, and not even water could not stop them. For example, when they reached a creek, they simply fell in, drifted to the other side, and continued on their way.

Ipswich became virtually surrounded. The countryside at Grampian Hills, Purga, Hampstead, Ripley, Brookfield, and Moggill was attacked and devastated. Farmers and townspeople braced for the worst.

At Ripley, which is just seven kilometres from the Ipswich post office, the worms attacked on a front of sixteen chains (three hundred and twenty-two metres). The line of worms was from eighteen inches to two feet wide.

One report described the worms as being about eleven inches inches long, dark green in colour, and with a black band running the full length.

Armyworms in the Brookfield district

They were a species of Armyworms, so-called because of the military precision with which their attacks progressed. They were gregarious caterpillars which means they attacked in great numbers, and they had insatiable appetites.

The larvae advanced without pause and resembled an animated dark-green carpet. There were millions of the things and they continued denuding the country as they progressed. Ipswich appeared doomed.

But then the state government called in the big guns.

There was the chief entomologist Robert Veitch and his good friend the assistant entomologist John Weddell from the Department of Agriculture and Stock.

But biggest of all was William Purcell from the Lands Department. He’d become a living legend a decade earlier when he was Queensland’s Chief Prickly Pear Warden.

William Purcell

The prickly pear had overtaken sixty million acres (over twenty-four million hectares) of land in New South Wales and Queensland, making it unusable. That’s when Purcell introduced the Cactoblastis insect from South America and so a land area bigger than size of Tasmania was saved for farming purposes. It was one of the world’s most spectacular examples of biological weed control. There are memorials to the insect and Purcell to this day.

This time Purcell had to fight a different enemy – the killer Armyworms – and they were on Ipswich’s doorstep. He didn’t introduce another insect to eat the worms, but what he did do was unbelievable.

He attacked the Armyworms with flame-throwers.

A flame-thrower at work in the Moggill district

The flame-throwers were used with such devastating effect that Purcell thought that the caterpillars could be exterminated within days.

Millions of the little blighters were fried. And Purcell got some extra help, because not only were the worms easy victims to the flames, but they also succumbed when touched by the unlit crude oil that was actually used by the flame throwers.

At the same time, the worms were attacked by an increased number of killer wasps. They were the Armyworm’s natural predator when the weather conditions are right. And so with the flame-throwers, crude oil and killer wasps, the natural balance of insect life was restored.

William Purcell had done it again – and this time saving Queensland from the attack of killer worms.

The great man passed away in 1949 and was buried quietly in the cemetery at the Brisbane bayside suburb of Nudgee (pictured top of page) where he rests with his family today.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD ON RADIO.

Photo credits
William Purcell’s headstone Nudgeee Cemetery – Find-a-grave photo by F.P. McLoughlin.
Armyworms in the Brookfield district – Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 19th March 1936, page 16.
William Purcell, Chief Prickly Pear Warden in Queensland – Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 20th June 1935 page 8.
A flame thrower goes to work in the Moggill district – Telegraph, Brisbane, 20th March 1936, page 6.

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