Monthly Archives: March 2009

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.

‘Turning Points in Australian History’ ed. Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts


2009, 254 p plus notes.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for some of the concept discussions for this book, published by the University of New South Wales press.   It takes a similar format to a preceding volume by the same editors which looked at Great Mistakes of Australian history. I find myself wondering whether the editors themselves pitched the idea, or whether it sprang from a marketing initiative of UNSW Press.  For there is certainly an ambivalence about the whole endeavour as even the back cover  blurb indicates:

This exciting and stimulating book examines turning points and crucial moments in Australian history.  Rather than arguing that there have been forks on a pre-determined road, the book challenges us to think about other paths or better paths that might have led to different outcomes.  It shows that a decisive event often only becomes so only in retrospect and that what seemed like a major turning point at the time often had no real impact at all.

I’m not sure that the book is as conditional and ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ as the blurb suggests.  Instead, its chapters are structured as fairly straight narratives on a particular event with, except for two chapters (Chs. 1 and 13) , a specific month and year identified as the ‘turning point’.

1. 14000 BP. On Being Alone: The isolation of the Tasmanians by Iain Davidson and David Andrew Roberts

2. 26th January 1788: The Arrival of the First Fleet and the ‘Foundation of Australia’ by David Andrew Roberts

3. 19 June 1822: Creating ‘an Object of Real Terror’: The tabling of the first Bigge Report by Raymond Evans

4. 15 July 1851: Hargreaves Discovers Gold at Ophir: Australia’s ‘golden age’ by Keir Reeves

5. 16 August 1890: The Maritime Strike Begins: On upotia and ‘class war’ by Melissa Bellanta

6. 1 January 1901: Australia Federates, Australia Celebrates by Erin Ihde

7. 25 April 1915: Australian Troops Land at Gallipoli: Trial, trauma and the ‘birth of the nation’ by Martin Crotty

8. 10 June 1931: The Premiers’ Plan and the Great Depression: High politics and everyday life in an economic crisis by Erik Eklund

9. 27th December 1941: Prime Minister Curtin’s New Year Message: Australia ‘looks to America’ by David Day

10. 16 September 1956: ‘It’s here, at last!’ The introduction of television in Australia by Michelle Arrow

11. January 1961: The Release of the Pill: Contraceptive technology and the ‘sexual revolution’ by Frank Bongiorno

12. 27 May 1967: The 1967 Referendum: An uncertain consensus by Russell McGregor

13. 1970: When it Changed: The beginnings of women’s liberation in Australia by Susan Magarey

14. 26 January 1981 The Opening of the Australian Institute of Sport: The Government takes control of the national pastime by Brett Hutchins

15. I July 1983 Saving the Franklin River: The environment takes centre stage by Melissa Harper

16. 14 May 1986 Paul Keating’s ‘Banana Statement’ and the End of the ‘Golden Age’ by Ray Broomhill.

17. 26 August -11 September 2001: From Tampa to 9/11: Seventeen days that changed Australia by Robert Manne.

There’s some very familiar names amongst the historians here- they have been chosen well.  But in several of the chapters you sense a real ambivalence with the whole project.  The concept being written about often spills out of a chronological strait-jacket, and the selection of an arbitrary date obviously leaves several of the authors feeling quite uncomfortable.  More than one author questions whether it’s really a turning point at all, or whether the concept of a turning point is even valid or useful.   The editors themselves raise this question in the introduction, and in this radio segment about the book.

The chapters are fairly uniform in length, and while not formulaic, tend to follow a pattern of ‘what happened’ then some analysis of the aptness of the designation ‘turning point’ for the event in question.  With the exception perhaps, of Susan Magarey’s chapter, you don’t really get a sense of the distinctive writing style or methodology of the authors’ other work.  The frequent use of inverted commas (‘golden age’ ,’class war’, ‘sexual revolution’)  in many of the chapter titles reflects the rebuttal of popularly-received myths, images and understandings of the events described.

The particular selection of ‘turning points’ (or not) tells us just as much about 2009 as it does about the events under consideration.  I wonder if a similar book, written 50 years hence will feature the same events- I suspect not.  Many of the chapters discuss parallels between current events and the ‘turning point’, which of course adds to its appeal today and its quaintness tomorrow.

I find myself wondering who the intended audience is for this book- well, me for a start, I suppose.  The tenor of the book seems to have been written simultaneously to feed on, and yet resist, the ‘just stick to what happened’ continuous narrative genre that has become associated with John Howard’s attempt to rewrite the history curriculum for schools.  I enjoyed it in small grabs, a chapter here and a chapter there, much as I might read essays in a magazine.  I learnt things I didn’t know; I found myself curling a skeptical lip over the inclusion of some events at times (for example, on the Australian Institute of Sport chapter which, while making an interesting link with the Cold War, didn’t make a very convincing case for its inclusion as a ‘turning point’. ) It’s a bit like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation with informed, thinking people who have considered a phenomenon more deeply than you have, and are able to place an issue into a broader historical context.   The research is sound; the arguments are well-put but it is a book of its time, so read it now, while it’s still fresh!

Before the storm

Like millions of other Victorians, today I received a text message from the police.  It read:

Extreme weather in Vic expected Mon night & Tues.  High wind & fire risk.  Listen to  Local ABC Radio for emergency updates. Do not reply to this msg. End.

It is a very still evening, just as it was before the Saturday of the bushfires a few weeks ago. It’s hard to believe that the wind is going to spring up at about midnight tonight, and blow all day tomorrow until it changes direction at about 5.00 p.m.  There are large bushfires still burning from three weeks ago which, although contained, could well jump containment lines and take off again- to say nothing of any new fires that might spring up.  I think of my parklands, the plantings along our watercourses and rivers – we are all so very, very dry.

A friend of mine at choir tonight lives in Hurstbridge, surrounded by bush, with only one road in and out.  “Keep safe” we say as she leaves, knowing that she could be plunged into a nightmare tomorrow- or maybe not.  Leave early; activate your bushfire plans we are warned; prepare for gale force winds we are advised.

We are uneasy.

You know it’s dry when…

This is not actually a complaint.  There has been so much loss and sadness with the bushfires, and so much hardship with the drought that south-eastern Australia has suffered over the past decade, that it would be churlish to complain about lack of water in the suburbs.  This is more to document how everyday life has changed in Melbourne,  where the rainfall total for February has been 3.0 mm against against an average of 47.6 mm, with our overall rainfall for 2009 a mere 3.9 mm.

So, you know it’s dry when…


Your agapanthus-es (agapanthi?) look sick


Your rose-bush is deadybones…


and your Japanese windflowers look decidedly worse for wear.


Instead of getting the lawnmower out, you cut the only bit of green grass with grass shears. The only reason this has grown is because it is under the weeping cherry…


which has been burnt by the hot weather and is lovingly watered by…


the water collected in a bucket in the shower, while waiting for the hot water to come through. You will note the careful arrangement of this photograph in a vain attempt to avoid revealing the shower scurf on the tiles, lest you think my housekeeping is slovenly.


Reading the water meter on a Sunday morning has become a bit of a ritual…


and the tension builds as the intricate computations show whether we have met the target of 155 litres per person per day.  We have!! with some to spare!!  Only 89 litres per day this week! Welcome home, daughter: your presence (and water entitlement)  makes my water consumption look respectable.

But is any of this water-dripping conservation really doing anything?  In a year or two will the government be happy for me to splosh around with their public/private desalination plant water to my heart’s content, with great expenditure of electricity, and my bank balance’s chagrin?


I have become truly pathetic, peeping through the blinds and skulking in what’s left of the shrubbery to catch and chastise the postman for running over my “lawn” with his motorbike, leaving trackmarks through the “grass”.

This is what I have come to.

Brigid Brereton ‘Law, Justice and Empire: The Colonial Career of John Gorrie 1829-1892″



I’ve  often found, when I shut the covers after reading yet another colonial judicial biography, that however much I may have enlarged my understanding of a particular colonial official, there is still an opaque screen of inscrutibility about him.  There’s the judicial mindset that sees nuances and distinctions across all aspects of human interaction, and then it’s overlaid with the expectations and restrictions of the worldview of the early Victorian colonial gentleman.  Whatever humanity or common feeling the biography may have evoked, I’m left with the knowledge that the past is, indeed, as L.P. Hartley famously announced, a different country, and the people who lived there were of a different kind too.

However, this biography by Brigid Brereton, is different.  It came to me well recommended as an excellent example of judicial biography, and it is.   Perhaps it’s the choice of subject.  John Gorrie, the son of a dissenting United Presbyterian Church minister, took from his Scottish education and bar training an emphasis on philosophy, and working from first principles rather than the English reliance on case law- and indeed, though he worked for the Colonial Office all his professional life, was was not ever admitted to the English Bar.  This meant that he was well-placed for those colonies of the Empire where England took over from another European colonial power, where a pre-existing Continental system of justice  was already in place.  Hence his initial placement at Mauritius, the former Ile-de-France, which passed to Britain by conquest in 1810.  Here he worked under Governor Arthur Gordon,  who became confidante, friend and patron, and who was largely responsible for his second posting to  the newly-acquired British colony of  Fiji.  His experience with multi-racial colonies led to his final posting to Trinidad, which was enlarged to include Tobago.

Gorrie was not particularly interested in a judicial career, even though that is what he ended up with.  He had a deep commitment to political action as a way of bringing about change, and was heavily involved with the Aborigines Protection Society.  This led him to involvement with the Governor Eyre case on the part of the mutineers, and a lifelong interest in protecting the imported and native labourers in plantation colonies.   In his youth he had contact with the English radicals, especially Cobden and Bright, stood for parliament himself, and worked as a journalist on their  Morning Star newspaper.

It is in his correspondence with Governor Gordon that we see a man who is more recognizably modern than many of the other 19th century judges I’ve read about.  There’s a intimacy and affection in his relationship with Governor Gordon, and his writing, informed perhaps by his journalistic experience, has more colour and flow than similar correspondence I’ve read. He lived life fully: he enjoyed balls and social occasions, supported different philanthropic bodies, and enjoyed sports with his family.  And, when the political causes he espouses resonate with twentieth century liberal democratic thinking, then he comes over as one of the “good guys”.

But, of course, he was not a democrat as such, and much of his temperament and courtroom interaction is strongly reminiscent of that of Judge Willis.  He rubbed up badly against the entrenched elites in the colonial societies he moved between.  And, as is often the way, they got him in the end, although he died before he had a chance to contest his dismissal properly back in Britain.

This is a wonderfully contextualized biography.  The details of the social, political and historical mileui of each of his postings make each one seem quite distinct, even though there were many commonalities between them.  Gorrie himself comes over as a complete, coherent man who acted  consistently within a moral and political framework.  I wonder if this lies in the teller, or the tale?

The Wildlife of Macleod

Seen, pecking their way from garden to garden along the street.



Go for it, girls!