The Ghosts of Black Thursday 6th February 1851

By Peter L Ellis. November 2019

My great-grandfather’s brother, Nehemiah Bartley born in London in 1830, was a consummate adventurer who arrived in Hobart at age 19. He immediately entered into business arrangements with his Uncle Edwin Tooth the brewer and the dynastic Tasmanian medico and later, Premier of Tasmania, Dr William Lodewyck Crowther. This involved sailing in the Eudora for the frontier gold-rush town of San Francisco to test the market. There the young man helped fight the horrendous San Francisco fire of 1850. Later in life he graphically recorded his adventures in his book “Opals and Agates” (Gordon and Gotch, Brisbane 1872).

Back in Tasmania and advised by his relatives to gain “colonial experience” he was given letters of introduction to a Jeremiah Ware of “Mount Elephant” a sheep run west of Geelong. So in 1851 he sailed in the brig “Raven” from Launceston to Melbourne. He was somewhat perturbed by the fact that he could see vast ash clouds to the north even before leaving Launceston.

Undaunted he sailed on to Victoria to find that it had been devastated by bushfires on a 100 mile (160 km) front. It was recorded at the time as the largest Australian bushfire in European-recorded history that burnt out an area ofabout 20,000 square miles (5 million hectares), covering a quarter of Victoria.

This event was captured in all its horror by William Strutt (1825-1915) in his confronting painting “Black Thursday, February 6th 1851”, housed at the State Library of Victoria.

black thursday 1851 painting
William Strutt, artist Oil on canvas, 1864.

It “depicts the terrible bushfire which engulfed Victoria only days before the discovery of gold. Many died and the city was filled with dust, smoke and a rain of cinders, the glow of which could be seen from far out at sea. In his journal, Strutt later wrote: I can never forget the morning of that scorching Thursday, ever after memorable in the annals of the Colony as “Black Thursday” — the sun looked red all day, almost as blood, and the sky the colour of mahogany. We felt in town that something terrible (with the immense volumes of smoke) must be going on up country and sure enough messenger after messenger came flocking in with tales of distress and horror” (State Library of Victoria/Ergo).

In context, “the year 1850 had been one of exceptional heat and drought. Pastures had withered; creeks had become fissured clay-pans; water-holes had disappeared; sheep and cattle had perished in great numbers, and the sun-burnt plains were strewn with their bleached skeletons; the very leaves upon the trees crackled in the heat, and appeared to be as inflammable as tinder… the temperature became torrid, and on the morning of the 6th of February 1851, the air which blew down from the north resembled the breath of a furnace. A fierce wind arose, gathering strength and velocity from hour to hour, until about noon it blew with the violence of a tornado. By some inexplicable means it wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame – fierce, awful, and irresistible” (Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 1886).

In fact fires had been erupting for several weeks before Thursday 6th. By midday on Thursday temperatures in Melbourne had reached 47degrees in the shade with that ferocious hot wind blasting in. Out of control fires extended from Barwon Heads in Victoria right through to Mount Gambier in South Australia. Areas in the line of devastation included the Wimmera, Portland, Gippsland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, Dandenong, Heidelberg and even the Port Phillip district. It was reported that 12 people lost their lives as well as about one million sheep, thousands of cattle and countless wildlife.

As Edmund Burke (1729-1797) has reminded us, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it”. And repeat it we will unless we demand rational Australian forest management.

Peter Ellis is an Honours Graduate in Applied Science (Geology) and in Arts (Economics and Political Science), both from the University of Queensland. He practised as a professional geologist for about 15 years, directed a private consultancy business and chaired an international bulk carrier shipping company. Prior to his retirement he was Director-General of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet and Co-ordinator-General of Queensland. He is a foundation member of The Saltbush Club.

3 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Black Thursday 6th February 1851”

  1. Here again is recorded history, which the modern day journalist will not research, and obviously all teaching institutions are of similar laziness .
    We ignore history to our peril, and if this dishonest teaching about man made climate change is not exposed, and if Australia keeps heading in the direction Governments are taking us in this matter, then Australia is undoubtedly headed for financial trouble leading to a lowering of the country’s standard of living.

    David Feez

  2. Gosh, I thought the Aboriginals managed the land better than that. Blimey, got my tongue stuck in my cheek again.

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