State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 44 Spring 1989


GEORGE GORDON McCRAE: Black Thursday, 6 February 1851

When George Gordon McCrae was 17, his father suggested that he consider surveying as a profession. Though George would have preferred to become a naval architect or a sailor, he fell in with his father's suggestion and joined a government survey party as a probationer. Thus it was he found himself, soon after, working in the area around Mount Macedon in February 1851. This description of “Black Thursday” is taken from his reminiscences which, in turn, drew on his diaries.
The great fire which culminated in “Black Thursday” must have started several days earlier. The whole coastline from Gabo Westward to the Adelaide or South Australian Boundary was in flames; Ships in the Straits between Tasmania and Australia or between Australia and the islands as we came to hear later on, had their decks covered with ashes and partly burned leaves, the Sea-surface the same. The wind (direction not recorded) must have been Northerly and Easterly. By the time the fire began to approach Mount Macedon it had done an incalculable amount of damage and destruction already though we were then ignorant of the fact.
The following is copied from a couple of leaves of the diary but only gives a little what it would take several pages to describe and supplying several incidents necessarily omitted here. The Entries commence thus:
“Thursday Feb. 6
“Rose before Sun-rise. Went down to the Creek and plunged in head-foremost from a log; dressed and came back to the tent. Breakfasted in the Surveyor's tent. After breakfast he found it too hot to do any work.
Such heat as I never experienced in my life before and never wish to again. All the Sky appears of one dull leaden hue excepting near the horizon where it is red like port-wine. The Sun seems like a ball of red-hot iron and is sometimes obscured by drifting grey clouds of what seemed to us to be very likely smoke; and smoke it was indeed.
We had observed that the Eastern flank of Mount Macedon had been burning for some time and thought that this fire might possibly be nearing us. We could not see however as we were encamped in a hollow. I ascended the hill three or four times but could see nothing but volumes of smoke wheeling towards us.
Small birds were dropping dead from the branches; Crows, Eagles and Magpies were the only hardly birds that ventured out. One Eagle nearly suffocated, dropped in the air quite a couple of yards before us.
My chum and I both went up to the top of the hill. Saw the actual fire tearing along towards us. Ran down and informed the Surveyor: We three and also the men climbed the hill … saw the fire approaching with fearful rapidity … We all did whatever we could to stop it. I now perceived that the country behind the tents was on fire and pointed it out to the Surveyor who immediately set off with my chum and the men to arrest its progress if possible. He left me by myself armed with a small branch, with orders to flog back the fire should it come to crossing the road. Once it crossed the road the chances were that it would cross the creek next (leaping from bough to bough) and burn our tents, dray, baggage, stores, bullocks and horse. I stayed for about an hour flogging with might and main to keep back and extinguish the fire, but as fast as I beat it out in one place, it broke out in another. The smoke was both blinding and suffocating and here the heat of the day and the fire almost overcame me”
The fight had been a long and fierce one. I lay down for a few minutes for a spell in the smoke and semi-darkness on the hot earth but the fire passed me close on either hand almost licking me, and went roaring on. When I got up, I made for the camp —
“The horse was led down after some difficulty to the bed of the creek or rather chain of water-holes and tied up close to the water; The bullocks had to be driven away to a space clear of the fire. We then set to work again with gum-boughs to thrash off the fire nearest the baggage — The dray had a most lucky escape the fire ran right underneath without much than scorching it. The space being free for a while we rapidly struck our tents, rolled them up and sunk them in the creek, sending the poles & ends after them together with all things not packed on the dray —
After a time when all was clear everything we had was dragged out of the creek and laid down beside the dray, the tents soaked through and dripping with mud. The Surveyor's was folded up just as it was and laid beside the dray as he had gone across to sleep at Riddell & Hamilton's Station. After some trouble
my chum and I with the assistance of the men got out and pitched our wet and dirty tent and carried our things into it. We had some tea at the tail of the dray and lay down but not to sleep as it was blowing a hot wind. My chum had also felt obliged to get his box into the creek as there was gunpowder in it helping him with it I had not the slightest notion of its contents — He is very anxious about Riddell & Hamilton's Station as our “instrument” is there.
We took to the water in a body and all got astride of the trunk of a big dead tree that had fallen into the Creek — Meanwhile, the fringe of green tree scrub along both banks took fire and part of our legs dangled in the water but our faces and bodies were next to roasting.
The fire having swept over and past the dray (the sole indicator of a camp that had been.) the Chief sent Hills, the cook “ashore” for the frying pan; the man soon waded back with the long-handled pan over his shoulder and straddled across the log again in his former position in rear of the Chief. “Hills”, said he “dip your pan into the water and give me a “shower”. Which done, it set us all off laughing and some of us who were perched sufficiently near got vicariously a portion of the sprinkle though not meant for us. The fire in our close neighbourhood began to slacken; but for all that, many of the great hollow-hearted gums blazed up between the forks of the lower boughs like so many foundry chimneys. These continued to fall and crash around us as we dismounted from our wooden horse and waded ashore stiff and weary in the evening.
I had no sleep till morning. Great trees were crashing down all around us and I was in some fear lest we should be smashed by the fall of one uncomfortably close to the tents.
Towards morning rain fell and the air became so chilly that I was glad of my blanket.