1851 Black Thursday

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria is having its centenary this year.  One of the aims of the founders of the society was to capture the stories of the early colonists of Port Phillip before they died.  I was flipping through some of the earliest volumes of its journal, and it is impressive to see papers given by people at their meetings who had been here (albeit as children) right from the start of Victoria’s settlement- just think of it: they would have seen and met these people of Port Phillip that I’ve read so much about.

At the 25th June and 3rd September meetings of the society in 1923,  a paper was read called “Reminiscences from 1841 of William Kyle- a pioneer. Communicated to and transcribed by Chas Daley”.    I hadn’t heard of William Kyle and I know nothing more about the paper than just this.  William Kyle was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1832 and came out to Port Phillip as a child with his father.  The paper extended over two editions of the Victorian Historical Magazine and traced through his arrival, life in the country and in Melbourne pre-gold rush with some fascinating descriptions of Aboriginal life on the edges of what are now the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, then right through to the latter years of the century (I’ll admit that I didn’t read the whole thing).

I was drawn to this description of Black Thursday of 1851, and perhaps to get yourself in the mood you should visit the State Library of Victoria page and have a good look at William Strutt’s painting.

And here’s how William Kyle remembered Black Thursday of 1851:

The floods of 1849, which were the result of a general rainfall throughout the colony, caused an excessively dense growth of vegetation, and much grass.  Little clearing had been done in the forests, and ring-barking trees was not yet in vogue, so that, after a very hot summer, the outbreaks of fire which swept throughout the land under the stimulus of a fierce hot wind caused the conflagration known as Black Thursday.  The fire spread with amazing rapidity.  Three-quarters of the colony was in a blaze.  The flames were so intense that trees two or three hundred yards away from the advancing wall of flame were shrivelled before the flames reached them.  In the unsettled districts there was little loss, but thousands of sheep and cattle succumbed.  The native game was almost annihilated.  The fire was so near Melbourne that the sky seemed to be a mass of floating fragments of bark and leaves ablaze with the intense heat.  Many people thought the Day of Judgment had surely come.  We could hardly breathe the stifling air.  The floating embers even set on fire some of the ships in the bay.

After the conflagration had exhausted itself the scene was one of intense desolation.  Nothing was visible but charred stumps and blackened smoking trees, bereft of all foliage.  No sound of bird, insect or animal was to be heard.  It was years before game was plentiful, and it was never so again near the settled districts after Black Thursday.  Fortunately, although there were the most wonderful escapes from death, there were not many human lives lost, owing to the sparseness of the population.

Sounds very, very familiar.


Reminiscences from 1841 of William Kyle, a pioneer’ Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol X, Dec 1925 No 4.

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