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.
Victoria 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.
Too 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.