Lots of weather out there!

We’ve had a lot of rain in Sydney in the last few days. It has gone from low-40s heat a week ago to pouring rain and low-20s all this last week. And there’s more to come.

bushfireVictoria has had hot days of such intensity that bushfires have raged for days.The last count I heard was 181 people dead. Thousands of  people are homeless and have lost everything they have.

The rain in Queensland has caused major flooding in so many areas. Houses full of water have been evacuated and, again, many people have lost everything they have, although their waterlogged houses are still standing.

We hear a lot about global warming and how the weather is changing for the worst, but I was curious to know about natural disasters in the time of our ancestors. Has the weather only now turned ugly?


The “Federation Drought” in 1895-1902 was the worst drought in the history of European settlement. Fifty million sheep and five million cattle were wiped out, about half the national stock population. Riverboat traffic, the lifeblood of many inland settlements, dried up; much of it never resumed operations. What little vegetation that remained was eaten by starving livestock, and the topsoil blew away.

There have been many other droughts in the 19th century (from Wikipedia):

  • 1835 and 1838 Sydney and NSW receive 25% less rain than usual. Severe drought in Northam and York areas of Western Australia.
  • 1839 Severe drought in the west and north of Spencer Gulf, South Australia.
  • 1846 Severe drought converted the interior and far north of South Australia into an arid desert.
  • 1849 Sydney received about 27 inches less rain than normal.
  • 1850 Severe drought, with big losses of livestock across inland New South Wales (NSW) and around the western rivers region.
  • 1864 – 66 (and 1868). The little data available indicates that this drought period was rather severe in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
  • 1877 All States affected by severe drought, with disastrous losses in Queensland. In Western Australia many native trees died, swamps dried up and crops failed.
  • 1880 to 1886 Drought in Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); New South Wales (mainly northern wheat belt, Northern Tablelands and south coast); Queensland (1881-86, in south-east with breaks – otherwise mainly in coastal areas, the central highlands and central interior in 1883-86); and South Australia (1884-86, mainly in agricultural areas).
  • 1888 Extremely dry in Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); Tasmania (1887-89 in the south); New South Wales had the driest year since records began; Queensland (1888-89) had a very severe drought, with much native scrub dying and native animals perishing; South Australia had one of its most severe droughts; and Western Australia (central agricultural areas) lost many sheep.

Drought is the mostly likely disaster to hit ancestors on the land, or those who supported them in country towns.


flood1Too much rain is a more common problem. My mother remembers when the Macquarie River took over Macquarie Street in Dubbo in the 1950s.

Here is a selection of Australian floods:

  • 1852 – Gundagai was wiped out by the rising Murrumbidgee River leaving 89 people dead, a third of the population, and only three houses left standing. The town was relocated to higher ground as a result.
  • 1893 – Brisbane broke the previous high flood mark by three metres set in 1890. Edward Street was under 2.5 meters of water.
  • 1916 – Claremont, QLD was hit by the effects of a cyclone in the Whitsundays, leaving 65 dead.
  • 1955 – Hunter Valley, NSW was hit by the torrential rain that flooded every river system in NSW. 24 people died, thousands of homes flooded, many destroyed completely, and 40000 people evacuated when the Hunter River reached 11 metres. Roads, railways and bridges were destroyed.
  • 1974 – Brisbane and south east Queensland were swamped with rain from Cyclone Wanda flooding one third of Brisbane and sweeping away 56 houses completely. 13 people drwoned and 3 suffered fatal heart-attacks during evacuation.
  • 1990 – Nyngan, NSW was inundated when the Bogan River broke its banks from torrential rain further upstream. All 2500 people were evacuated to Dubbo.


Here is a selection from Wikipedia of the deadliest fires in Australia, including this last one:

  • 2009 – February 7, “2009 Victorian bushfires“, Victoria (181 confirmed deaths)
  • 1983 – February 16, “Ash Wednesday“, Victoria, South Australia (75 deaths)
  • 1969 – January 8, Victoria (23 deaths)
  • 1968 – January, New South Wales (14 deaths)
  • 1967 – February 7, “Black Tuesday“, Tasmania (62 deaths)
  • 1962 – January 14-16, Victoria (32 deaths)
  • 1944 – January – February, Victoria (51 deaths)
  • 1939 – December – January, “Black Friday“, Victoria (71 deaths)
  • 1926 – February – March, Victoria (60 deaths)
  • 1898 – February 1 “Red Tuesday“, Victoria (12 deaths)
  • 1851 – February 6 “Black Thursday”, Victoria (12 deaths)

This list does not take into account bushfires that destroyed property but not people. A farmer or grazier has little or no defence against a bushfire that has come from a neighbouring property, then or now. Crops that took months to grow could be wiped out in half a minute. Cattle or sheep, restricted by fences, could be destroyed just as quickly.

What about your ancestors?

Settlers arriving in this country from the lush green countryside of England or Ireland had no conception of the conditions that awaited them here. They bought their 40 acres or 100 acres, built their houses, bought a few cattle, planted their crops, and survived from day to day. All could be wiped out in a day, or a night. People were at the mercy of the weather, then as now.

Were there any natural disasters in the part of the country where your ancestors lived? Did they live near a major river? Or near the tropical cyclone regions? Were they farmers or graziers, did they live in a small town, or even a large one such as Brisbane or Newcastle, or in the Hunter Valley?

Do some research into the local history of the area. Read books on local history from your library, read newspapers on microfilm. Look on Picture Australia for photos of your area – if there was a disaster there should be photos.

Even if you can’t find the names of your ancestors, you can see photos of the time, read accounts from the locals, see what your ancestors read in the paper the next day, or the next week. Try to get a feel for how they got on.


Cannon, Michael, Life in the Country. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1988

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Natural Disasters in Australia. Website. http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/naturaldisasters/, retrieved on 16 Feb 2009.

Wikipedia, Bushfires in Australia. Website. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushfires_in_Australia.

Wikipedia, Drought in Australia. Website. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drought_in_australia.

Wikipedia, Floods in Australia. Website. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floods_in_australia.

Photos courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved from website http://www.schools.ash.org.au/paa2/cwabook/chap4.htm.

You can make a donation to the Red Cross Victorian Bushfire Appeal here.

Australian Newspapers digitisation project

Sydney Gazette first issue

The first issue of the Sydney Gazette (image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

The Australian Newspapers project coordinated by the National Library of Australia in conjunction with Australian State and Territory libraries was initiated to digitise early out-of-copyright newspapers. To complement this process an online service was planned to provide access to these images free of charge.

At least one newspaper was chosen for each state, including the earliest one for each state. New South Wales newspapers selected are:

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 1803-1842

The Sydney Herald 1831-1842 (became The Sydney Morning Herald in 1842)

The Sydney Morning Herald 1842-1954

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 1843-1893

Digitising began in July 2007. Scanning has been been completed for these newspapers and the process of putting them online has begun. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation has donated $1 million to enable the digitisation of the Sydney Morning Herald to 1954.

Last month a beta version of the service was released. For New South Wales the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser is available from the first issue in March 1803 up to the end of 1815 and the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser for the 1840s, early 1850s and early 1880s. This represents a total of nearly 13,000 pages, or roughly 5% of the total. Click here to see the latest statistics.

The website is terrific. It shows you the whole page and shows a transcript of each article on the side. You can enlarge each article individually and turn the whole page into a PDF file or image to be downloaded. A warning – the transcripts have been created using OCR, or Optical Character Recognition. The quality of the printing is highly variable and quite often the characters are mistaken by this automated process and so you see things like “V oTi.cK” instead of “Notice”. We can see by looking at the text that it is “Notice” but computers are not that smart yet.

Another thing to watch out for is the old use of the letter “f” instead of “s” so the word might say “reforted” instead of “resorted”.

There is advanced searching capability which is necessarily dependent on the OCR.

You can add tags and comments to articles, and you can correct the text that was generated automatically. If every one does this when they find an article it will be a great website very quickly, and much easier to search.

If you sign in you can add your own private comments and tags to articles. This is very useful for your own research – you can add tags for the name of your ancestor and the type of article.

The National Library and everyone involved are to be congratulated for getting this project off to such a great start.

Newspapers for family history research

Sydney Gazette nla.news-issn18336310-s1-gOne of the best ways to fill in some detail of the lives of our ancestors is to find a mention of them in a newspaper, or, better still, a whole article or obituary. In small country towns such as those in which many of my ancestors lived the death of a prominent local citizen was a newsworthy event for small local newspapers. No-so-prominent citizens may have been included in birth, death and marriage announcements, gossip columns, and legal notices such as for the granting of probate. Even if we can’t find our ancestor or other relatives by name, we can still get a very good idea of what their lives were like.

Current newspapers

For current newspapers try the Guide to Australian Newspapers which has a town search in the top right corner. Entering “Blayney” gave a list of three newspapers that all include Blayney in their coverage, with links to the individual newspapers. Even if your family no longer lives in the area these newspapers can give you an idea of what life is like for the locals and how it may be different from yours. For example, the website of the Blayney Guide has news from the Blayney Chronicle and a link to Sydney for Kids. It is easy to forget that for kids that grow up in the country a trip to Sydney is a big deal, as it was for me when I was growing up in Dubbo. A newspaper story discusses locks being put on another of Blayney Shire Council’s bores to stop people from stealing the water, and another gives the finding that residents of western NSW are more likely “to be overweight, binge drink, and smoke” than in the rest of the State (Blayney Chronicle, 31st May 2007, 11:10am).

Old newspapers

For historical newspapers that may no longer be published you can search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (or the National Library of Australia or your State library in other states). The National Plan for Australian Newspapers is a joint project between the National and State Libraries to locate, collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia. Searching in the catalogue of the SLNSW shows me what is actually immediately available to me (with a delay of 20-30 mins) in the library itself. A keyword search for Periodicals Only for “Blayney” gives a list of 18 results which are either newspapers or council reports and publications. The dates for available issues are given and whether they have been microfilmed or kept in offsite storage. Once you have found the paper and the date that you want you request the microfilm at the Library, wait a short while for it to be retrieved, stick it on one of the microfilm readers with the larger screen, find the page you want, and print it off. Couldn’t be simpler.

Australian Periodical Publications 1840-1845 is an Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project that has digitised and made available online periodicals that began publication in 1840-1845 relevant to Australia. They may have been published beyond these dates. Pages have been scanned and made available as multi-page PDF files. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) does not appear to have been used to enable indexing and searching of names and other words. The free software Adobe Reader is required to read them. Even if you can’t find mention of your ancestors’ names in these publications there is a wealth of more general material that can give you an idea of what life was like for them.

An example, chosen at random, is the first issue of the South Australian Colonist, which began publication in London in 1840, which gives a copy of the commission of, and detailed instructions to, the first Land and Emigration Commissioners to enable them to sell “waste Crown land” and use the proceeds to bring emigrants out of England to settle in the British Colonies; first-hand accounts of immigrants and settlers and instructions for new or prospective settlers; and a report of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, all in the first six pages! The last page contains advertisements for ships about to sail to Australia, land available for purchase, and other necessary equipment such as iron bedsteads that folded up and attached to the chest for travel (presumably it attached to one’s luggage, not to one’s person!).

Early Sydney newspapers

Of course, the early papers of New South Wales were begun before these dates. The first Australian newspaper was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The first issue has been digitised by the State Library of NSW and can be seen here. Further issues up to 1842 are available in Mitchell Library on microfilm. The Sydney Morning Herald, which followed after 1842, is available on microfilm at the State Reference Library of the State Library of NSW from the first issue in August 1842 up to three months ago, with more recent paper issues available on request.

A brief history of newspapers in Australia can be seen at the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal here, and another one, from the National Library of Australia, here.

Yellowed cuttings from newspapers are often found in scrapbooks or loose among the old photographs with no note of which paper they came from or on what date. It is very satisfying, to me anyway, to have a photocopy of the relevant page in a newspaper that shows the name and date of the newspaper as well as the small portion that was cut out in which my ancester was mentioned.

Further information, including available indexes, can be found in Cora Num’s excellent Websites for Genealogists.

Further reading

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

As well as the chapter in this book on newspapers I suggest following the many links to websites inserted through the text.

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