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1939 bushfires

 

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The “Black Friday” bushfires of 13th January, 1939 were the peak of a summer of devastation in Victoria. During that January, 1.4 million hectares of the state burned. 575 000 hectares of reserved forest and 780 000 was forested Crown land were destroyed. Over a thousand homes were burnt leaving 1500 people in temporary accommodation and 71 people tragically died.

The height of the fires was on  Friday 13th when very strong northerly winds on intensified the flames. Fires which had smouldered uncontrolled during the previous days combined and exploded.

Fires burned in almost every part of the State on “Black Friday”. The townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were obliterated. Other towns such as Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged. Fires raged in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne particularly at Toolangi, Matlock, Rubicon, the Acheron valley, Tanjil and Thomson valleys and Warburton. Alpine areas in the North East such as Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong suffered. The Otway Ranges, the Grampians and areas in the South West were also affected. The 1939 bushfires remain the most significant event in the environmental history of Victoria since 1788.

The following names are of the 71 victims who lost their lives in the disastrous 1939 bushfires. Whilst this page honours and remembers them, we also pay tribute to all those who have lost their lives as a result of bushfires.

The 1939 fires which swept through three states have been a history well known to me as my grandparents where midst the horrific trauma, as was my mother and many relatives. Half the town in which they lived was destroyed, being the town that has resulted in my career as an historian - Omeo

Over the years I have listened to the many stories and during my research years have gathered a lot of information on the 1939 bushfires, with the intent to one day have a monument erected in memory of all those killed in 1939 fires.  The most heart wrenching story that touched my heart in my research, which inspired me to research more was the Robinson children at Barongarook - four siblings who were amongst those who died tragically.

I was overjoyed to see the production of the online "Black Friday Story Site" produced by the ABC (see here) Produced by Moira Fahy with the assistance of the ABC - Film Victoria Multimedia Production Accord.

The site has bought together a lot of my knowledge and research. As I read and listened to the amazing stories, tears and heart felt sadness overwhelmed me. My sincere congratulations to all concerned in producing the amazing site and may the names here, compliment the most memorable site I have come across in Australian History.

If anyone has stories or photos of the 1939 bushfires that I could add to this site, please contact me.

 

Omeo
1 Death


James Ernest (Ernie) RICHARDS
aged 33 years
son of Bertha Richards
Stockman for Cobungra Station

 
Overtaken by the flames  on the alps road via Omeo and died trying to reach his wife and new-born child, not knowing they remained safe in Omeo - his body was found by Charlie Rundell
 

 

Toolangi
2 Deaths


John Hartley BARLING
aged 31 years
son of James Hartley Barling and Nettle Carlise Carson

 


Charlie DEMBY
aged 55 years
son of Charles Henry Demby and Fanny Elizabeth Humphries
(Forests Commission Overseer )

When a strong wind rose from the south-west Charlie Demby ran to warn John Barling. That was the last time that either was seen alive.

 

Rubicon
12 Deaths


Baden JOHNSON,
aged 38 years
son of William Johnson and Martha May Saunders


Alfred NEASON,
aged 46 years
parents unknown


Peter MURDOCK
aged 50 years
son of Robert Johnson Murdock and Annie Connor


John Headly WEST.
aged 52 years
son of John Hedley West and Amelia
(Forests Commission foreman,)

Four of them were killed after cramming into a recently-built sawmill dugout

 


Joseph CHERRY
aged 47 years
son of Edward Cherry and Sarah Johnson
(in charge of the party)
 


George BRUNDRETT
aged 29 years
son of Walter Brudrett and Ada Richardson


Vivian ARGENT
aged 23 years
son of George Argent and Lily Gale
 


Archibald Charles PAYNE
aged 43 years
son of George Payne and Phoebe Jane Andrews
 


Geoffrey WYATT
aged 29  years
Ernest Edwin Wyatt and Edit May Wyatt nee Awberry. of Southampton England
(parents details given by niece in England who discovered this site)

Lemuel SIMS
aged 27 years
son of Frank Sims and Emma Light
 


James Valintine CAIN
aged 36 years
son of James Cain and Catherine Campbell
 


Thomas LE BRUN
aged 27 years
parents unknown
 

Eight died in a futile struggle to save a winch high on the Blue Range. The winch was sited on a small flat, and they would not have been aware of the fire as it cam up the Rubicon Falls until it was almost upon them.
 

 

Acheron

7 Deaths


Eileen KERSLAKE
aged 25 years
daughter of William Edwards and Clara McMahon

 
 
Kenneth Mervyn KERSLAKE
aged 32 years
son of Thomas William Kerslake and Ada Jones


 
Ruth KERSLAKE
aged 5 years
daughter of Kenneth Mervyn Kerslake and Eileen Edwards

When stopped by a falling tree, the Kerslake family had to leave their car and tried to flee, Ken carrying Ruth and Eileen running beside them. When Eileen's shoe got stuck in the melted tar, Ken put Ruth down to assist - sadly the family never made it.




Francis EDWARDS
aged 23 years
son of William Edwards and Clara McMahon
 


Christos S SOLDARIS
no details found



Antonio Igoshus GOSHES
no details found
 


Pandelis Ioanis (Peter) GOSHES
aged 30 years
parents unknown

 These four men perished as they followed the same route as the Kerslake's. Aboard Frank Edwards car, they got a ride in desperation to escape the fires, leaving behind their co-workers who had tried to stop them. Those left behind survived

 

Noojee
1 Death
 


Hugh Finlayson McKinnon
aged 58 years
son of Donald McKinnon and Flora Finlayson

Following a horrific ordeal of trying to save property and lives, he and his wife tried to escape in their car, but was stopped by fallen trees. Taking refuge in the river, he survived but died five days later of pneumonia cause from extensive smoke inhalation.

Tanjil Bren

12 Deaths


Alfred Bentley SAXTON
aged 39 years
son of Alfred Thomas Saxton and Marion Gladwith Williams

 
 

Dorothy SAXTON
aged 29 years
nee Chequer

 

 

 


 

 

 

 
Michael John GOREY
aged 19 years
son of Michael John Gorey and Eleanora Sutherland
 
Taking refuge in a small dugout. they were found dead after the fire passed. It would seam the fire got in the front of the dugout causing it to collapse. The Saxtons had only been married for 3 years

 
Agnes ROWLEY
aged 32 years
daughter of Marto Pelacchi and Mary Donico



Benjamin ROWLEY
aged 2 years
son of William Benjamin Rowley and Agnes Pelacchi



John ROWLEY
aged 4 years
son of William Benjamin Rowley and Agnes Pelacchi


 

Mary ROWLEY
aged 2 years
son of William Benjamin Rowley and Agnes Pelacchi
 


William Benjamin  ROWLEY
aged 56 years
son of William James Rowley and Mary Ann MacGuiness


 

Francis William POYNTON
aged 54 years
son of John Edward Poynton and Elizabeth

Unable to find shelter, these people perished

 

Hill End
1 Death
 

 
William James LOOSEMORE
aged 68 years
parents unknown
Having survived previous fires, William thought he could again, ignoring requests for him to leave. Not realising the intensity of this one - he lost his life
 
 

Woods Point
3 Deaths
 

Ellen (Nellie) O'KEEFFE
aged 69 years
daughter of Michael O'Keeffe and Margaret Reardon
Making her way to the hospital, Nellie collapsed and a burning fence fell upon her.
 

 
Thomas Henry RUSDEN
aged 44 years
son of Thomas Henry Rusden and Margaret Moore
Thomas was a prospector, and died when he was leaving Frenchman's Creek
 


William Cyril BOLTON
aged 74 years
son of William Bolton and Ann Burr
Prospecting with his son, he was badly burnt. Taking refuge overnight, his son tried to get him to hospital, but he died on the way.

Matlock
16
Deaths
 


Vera Ada MAYNARD
aged 40 years
daughter of Robert John Whetham and Alice Woodard

Unable to escape from the burning house, Vera perished





Cecil Vincent FITZPATRICK
aged 30 years
son of James Michael Fitzpatrick and Sarah Ellen Cummings



George Arthur FITZPATRICK
aged 32 years
son of James Michael Fitzpatrick and Sarah Ellen Cummings



James M FITZPATRICK
aged 62 years
son of Patrick Fitzpatrick and Alice Maud Donlevy
 


ROGERS Clarence William
aged 21 years
son of James William Rogers and Ivy Adeline How
 


ROGERS Gilbert Bernard
aged 19 years
son of James William Rogers and Ivy Adeline How


 
James Martin Buchanan  KNUCKEY
aged 32 years
son of John Martin Knuckey and Mary Buchanan



James HOWITT
aged 30 years
son of Alexander Howitt and Jessie Preston


 
Thomas Jerimiah CROWLEY
aged 58 years
son of Thomas Crowley and Jane



Walter GLADIGAU
aged 39 years
son of Carl August Gladigau and Marie Caroline Plate

 

George William ILLINGWORTH
aged 65 years
son of Major Illingworth and Eliza Bessell


 
George Henry ILLINGWORTH
aged 25 years
son of George William Illingworth and May Murrell



Kevin KEARNS
aged 26 years
son of Daniel Kearns and Cissie Dunbar



Charles Alexander KENT
aged 24 years
son of John Charles Kent and Annie Hamilton


 
Michael John Patrick WALLACE
aged 25 years
Sone of Michael Joseph Vincent Wallace and Ellen Bridget James


 
George OSTERMAN
aged 60 years
parents unknown

These men took shelter behind the brickwork of the boiler as the fire swept over the mill site. They remained there until the heat became unbearable and they were forced out into the open. George Sellars was the only survivor. He had wrapped himself in a wet blanket and crouched in a small cleared spot for two and a half hours. When rescuers arrived, he was only just alive.



 

Bright
5
Deaths
 

 
James Charles LOWRY
aged 41 years
son of James Lowry and Lily Lee

 
Ronald Lee LOWRY
aged 15 years
son of William Henry Lowry and Edna Laurence

James and his nephew Ronald were caught by a change in the wind and both perished.


John Henry EDNEY
aged 52 years
son of John Edney and Margaret

John Edeny, a SEC employee went missing near Homans Gap on Wednesday 11 January and was burnt to death.

 
Walter SCAMMELL


 
Margaret SCAMMELL


 
Walter Scammell and his mother Margaret Scammell were not burnt, but both succumbed to the intense heat and the exertion of saving their property.

 

The Otways
4
Deaths
 



Annie Theresa  ROBINSON
aged 14 years
daughter of John Robinson and Mary Elizabeth Carlisle



Mary ROBINSON
aged 12 years
daughter of John Robinson and Mary Elizabeth Carlisle


 
Vera Joan ROBINSON
aged 10 years
daughter of John Robinson and Mary Elizabeth Carlisle



William Paul ROBINSON
aged 8 years
daughter of John Robinson and Mary Elizabeth Carlisle

 Driven from their house, the family retreated to a small patch of bare ground. In a panic, four of the children became separated from the family and tried to escape to a nearby road. All four died.  John Robinson described the fire as " .. a hell let loose, too terrible to imagine"

 

Western Victoria
5 Deaths

 


Frieda Emma Christina HABEL
aged 42 years
daughter of Wilhelm Starrick and Eliz Appelt
 


Eric HABEL
aged 13 years
son of Walter Reinhardt and Frieda Emma Christina Starrick
 


Rex HABEL
aged 10 years
son of Walter Reinhardt and Frieda Emma Christina Starrick
Whilst holidaying in the area, Freda, Eric and Rex Habel were badly burnt when their car was caught by the flames as they fled towards Stawell. Over the next month, all three succumbed to their burns.
 

 
Charles CATTANACH
aged 58 years
son of John Cattanach and Christina Sutherland
Charles Cattenach, a Moyston grazier  was killed trying to save his sheep. His body was found near his burnt-out hut with those of his dog and his horse.
 

 
Albert MCGINTY
 Albert McGinty was severely burnt after a fire was started near the Sapfor Sawmills at Casterton. McGinty, a child, later died.
 

The Urban Fringes
3 Deaths
 


TOPPING Frederick
aged 72 years
parents unknown

He had apparently packed his belongings with the intention of leaving. However, the fire took only 20 minutes to cross the township, and his body was found in the ruins of his burnt-out home


SHAFTER Ernest



PENTREATH Albert Dudley
aged 53 years
son of Nicholas Frederick Pentreath and Mary Jane Jewell
 

He was a retired journalist of Streatham, was burnt to death on 13 January at the State Electricity Commission Strathewan camp near Doreen in the Whittlesea district

 

Black Forest
2
Deaths


DOIG William
aged 69 years
son of Robert Doig and Agnes Gallagher
William Doig was trapped in a shed, he received burns and died the following day in the
Kyneton Hospital



HOUSE William Henry
aged 60 years
son of Thomas House and Hannah Johnson
William House was caught in the fire defending his home at Drummond. He died at Kyneton Hospital several days later.


 

 

FUNERAL AT MOE
The funeral of the late Mr and Mrs Ben Saxton was the largest ever seen in Moe. Upwards of 150 cars followed the hearse as it left the Saxton Timber and Trading Pty Ltd’s seasoning works on Monday afternoon. … The coffin-bearers were employees of the Saxton mills.

Alfred Bentley Saxton was the eldest surviving son of Mr and Mrs Saxton, one son (Oliver) having been killed at the war. He was 39 years of age. His wife was 29 years of age. Her parents reside in Tasmania. Mr and Mrs Saxton were married at the Ivanhoe Baptist Church on August 15, 1936.

Before going to Tanjil Bren, they resided at Moe. Like all members of the Saxton family, they were held in the highest esteem by all who knew them. The large funeral was a fine tribute, all business places being closed out of respect for the deceased.

20 January 1939 - Narracan Shire Advocate.