Reading ecological decline in nineteenth-century bushfire serials and reporting

In recent years, the scholarship of Bruce Pascoe (bolstered and supplemented by environmental historians such as Bill Gammage) has arguably shifted mainstream Australia’s understanding of Indigenous culture from nomadic to agricultural, and the disaster of Black Summer has further moved settler Australia towards an appreciation of Indigenous cultural practices as an amelioration of ecological disaster and climate change (Pascoe 2018; Gammage and Pascoe 2021; Gammage 2011).

At least part of the rhetorical power of this work is owed to its drawing directly on the settler archive that presents early historical accounts of land as ‘verdant, open, pleasant and gentle’, as ‘gentleman’s parks’, thereby, demonstrating what pre-invasion land looked like under Indigenous custodianship, management, and care (Gammage and Pascoe 2021:25).

Although the discussion of perceptions and representations of land, the landscape, the bush and other spatial imaginaries is well established in the study of colonial Australian fiction and in the writing of early settlers, the last thirty years have seen the gradual erosion of the referential function of literature in Australian literary studies. That is, unlike the writing of the 1960s cultural nationalists, scholars who took the bush in Australian literature as a corollary of geographic space that forged the ideals of mateship in an antagonistic relationship between man and environment, today it is more common to read scholarship that situates the landscape as a symbolic projection of settler psychic despair from which doubt and feelings of guilt, uneasiness and alienation are excavated. My contribution to this discussion may be modest, but it offers a middle ground: an approach that recognises the referential function of literature by placing it in context with other genres of writing. Specifically, this article focuses on the representation of Australian bushfires in the serialised fiction and journalism published in Australian newspapers between 1850 and 1900 that, when read together, constitute a record that details exponential environmental decline across the nineteenth century.

Although Pascoe’s use of settler writing as historical fact has met resistance, the continued popularity of his writing has broader implications for the field of Australian literary studies as a forum for historical enquiry. What would it mean now, for example, to read the literatures of the Bush Tradition or the Australian Gothic as records of ecological decline, rather than simply reflections of the settler Australian psyche? Of the approximately 243 serials that featured a bushfire published in Australian newspapers between 1850 and 1900, many are historicising narratives, set years or decades prior to their date of publication. Accordingly, many are also representations of landscapes that no longer existed at the time of writing, while those published contemporaneously feature compromised and degraded environments. This presents the possibility that funereal or unsettling landscapes may also be a response to an aesthetic of environmental degradation rather than singularly a projection of the individual’s psyche.


Black Thursday

Black Thursday on 7 February 1851 was perhaps the first great fire disaster in settler Australian history and was to become a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century writing. Summer bushfires were already an expected element of settler life, but the magnitude of Black Thursday exceeded anything colonists had previously experienced, and shaped popular perceptions of the land and of bush life over coming decades. According to contemporary estimates, almost a quarter of the Victorian colony was burned and a million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost. Although there were relatively few reported fatalities, the social and economic impact was profound (Pyne 1991:222; Griffiths 2001:64; Collins 2009:74).

In the years succeeding Black Thursday, bushfires began to take on a greater narrative role in literature set in Australia. Two of the earliest narrativisations of bushfire are Ellen Clacy’s vignette ‘The Bush Fire’ (1854) and William Howitt’s short story ‘Black Thursday’ (1856), which directly respond to the events of that day. Charles Harpur’s poem ‘The Bushfire’ was not written as an account of Black Thursday but was published in Australian newspapers just one month after the disaster, which produced for readers an equivalence between poem and event (Charles Harpur 1851). More generally, Black Thursday became a recurrent motif in later nineteenth and early twentieth-century newspaper serials. In stories of the gold rush, for example, the event acts as a known catalyst that drives characters to the diggings. In others, the event serves to establish the masculine credentials of the bushman and confers heroic status on individuals who lived through the day (Morgan 2021). Howitt’s graphic story proved particularly enduring over decades. Of nearly 250 serials featuring bushfires and published in Australian newspapers between 1850 and 1900, ‘Black Thursday’ is the only bushfire narrative to be consistently republished in Australian newspapers for the remainder of the nineteeenthh century, and it remains a point of discussion and reference well into the twentieth century. The story itself is a rather unremarkable tale of settler endurance that features a young settler, Robert Patterson, navigating the dangers and devastation of Black Thursday. Howitt’s 1856 narrative is partly a revision of his own reporting of the event, where he drew together different newspaper accounts to present a sensational report of unprecedented destruction (Howitt 1854).

Amalgamated works of this nature, combining undisguised reportage with a fictional storyline, also provided opportunities for editorialising on the provenance and implications of this emerging scenario of environmental and human catastrophe. While Howitt’s reporting presents Black Thursday as a disaster ‘without parallel’, he also contextualised such events as entirely avoidable, being the cumulative product of drought and the indiscriminate and reckless use of fire (Howitt 1854). Howitt gestures towards complacency by new settlers and the Victorian government as he notes that there is a legal penalty for leaving a fire unattended ‘but nobody ever regards it, because I do not believe it is ever inflicted’. Subsequent Black Thursday narratives, such as ‘An Australian Squire’ (1878) by Rolf Boldrewood, present a more realistic reappraisal of the disaster, as it is suggested that no amount of preparation could be sufficient to mitigate a disaster on the scale of Black Thursday. Even here, however, there is a focus on the role of humans in managing danger through prudent measures as this account concludes with a journalistic excerpt that attributed the disaster to ill-advised backburning (Boldrewood 1878).


A changing definition of disaster

Such mid-century literary accounts of anthropogenic disaster are especially interesting given that it would take nearly half a century, and another major disaster, for significant fire reform to be implemented in the colony of Victoria (Royal Commission on State Forests and Timber Reserves 1900). Fire historian Paul Collins argues that ‘the practical lessons that could have been learned from the disaster were quickly forgotten, setting a pattern that has been followed after every major bushfire since’ (Collins 2009:75). Fire histories of Australia are largely silent on the years between Black Thursday and the next heavily reported fire disaster, Red Tuesday, which took place in 1898. Collins argues that the paucity of primary material on fires for this period can be attributed, ironically, to the ubiquity of bushfires themselves. He writes, ‘It is clear from many nineteenth-century sources that bushfires had become an inescapable part of summer life in Australia. But the history of bushfires in the second half of the century is fragmentary because they were so common that they were not reported unless they were close to settled districts, widespread, or disastrous’ (Collins 2009:78). Collins’s observations warrant more elaboration and scrutiny. There is some evidence that perceptions of fire were undergoing redefinition, while the incidence of events was in fact growing. Bushfires were occurring more frequently and with greater severity during the second half of the nineteenth century; they were not underreported, but information about bushfires was more commonly found in localised correspondent reporting focusing on specific regions affected, rather than in articles that dealt exclusively with the topic of bushfires.

A strong example of the shifting understanding of disaster is found in Black Monday, an event occurring on 27th February 1865, when the colony of Victoria experienced what, at the time, was described as the second great fire disaster of the colony. Nonetheless, the event quickly faded from cultural memory, and by the turn of the century, this fire was completely forgotten when it was excluded from a list of significant fires in the ‘Victorian Royal Commission into Fire-Protection in Country Districts’ in 1900 (Royal Commission on State Forests and Timber Reserves 1900). Across the late 1870s and early 1880s, Victoria experienced regular and devastating bushfires, but unlike the extensive multi-page features that followed disasters such as Black Thursday (Argus 1851) and Black Monday (Australian News for Home Readers 1865), bushfire reporting became increasingly succinct and locally focussed.

One possible explanation as to why Black Thursday is disproportionately represented in literature is because the definition of disaster itself was unstable. The nomenclature Black Monday is seemingly erased as bushfires of greater geographic scale and higher fatalities occurred with increased frequency. The second half of the nineteenthth century was evidently a period of rapid environmental decline, and newspaper reports tell a story of a deepening environmental crisis propelled by economic gain. In the immediate months succeeding Black Thursday, opinion pieces appeared that speculated on the origin of the disaster, and advocated for immediate reform. In the article ‘Bushfires—Their Causes and Their Effects’, the author attributes the cause of most bushfires ‘chiefly [to] the imprudence of the men themselves’, as well as ‘transplanted British habits which offer in our arid climate peculiar facilities for conflagration’ (Adelaide Observer 1851:1).

In another article simply titled ‘Bushfires’, the author appeals to the reader to educate themselves on fire prevention, as ‘amongst the mass of population which has poured into the colony during the last two years, there are tens of thousands who know very little of what a bush-fire in Australia is’ (South Australian Register 1854:3). Both articles advocate reform that was seemingly never achieved in the colony of Victoria. In the wake of the later forgotten Black Monday (1865), parliament refused calls for disaster relief for farmers left destitute by the disaster, on the basis that the ‘house was too frequently appealed to in cases of this kind …’ and if relief were granted, it would mean the provision of disaster relief every single year after (Argus 1865:6). The next year, recommendations were made for alteration to the Amending Land Act (1865) on account of deforestation in the regions of the goldfields near Ballarat. ‘It is quite evident, however, that no attempt is made to conserve our magnificent forests for the use of posterity. On the contrary, they are being diminished, year by year, by bush-fires lighted for this purpose, and which may be frequently seen on Summer nights extending along the ranges of the Australian alps for many miles in length and in breadth’ (Geelong Advertiser 1866:2). In the 1870s, as settlers pushed into the Gippsland region, there was an increase in articles that connected settlement with disaster. ‘There is reason to fear that the losses caused by bushfires this season are greater than have been known for many years past. The spread of settlement and cultivation in the interior has not diminished but rather increased the danger and intensified the infliction when it unfortunately occurs’ (Gippsland Times 1875:2).


Lost landscapes

Although most of the bushfire serials explored for this research were published during the 1880s and 1890s, many of them present historical or historicising narratives that refer to events that happened just a few decades earlier. How writers organised their depiction of this recent past is of particular interest. Despite the relatively short time span between the events and the writing, these narratives necessarily depict an environment that appears to have already undergone significant and irreversible change. This focus on lost landscapes is particularly evident in later narratives of Black Thursday, which are often nostalgic in tone, referencing the catastrophe in relation to the degradation and transformation of the landscape. ‘A Tale of Black Thursday’ (1894) by Gordon Gerald is a romance that takes place amid the disastrous events of 1851. Much of the narrative, however, is taken up with imagery of the landscape as it existed prior to both disaster and settler expansion, conflating these two events as though they are one and the same. And the change wreaked is represented as irrevocable. In the wake of the fire, it is acknowledged that ‘the face of the country was completely changed’. ‘The Mount Macedon Mystery’ (1891) by Ivan Dexter takes place in the same landscape. Not only is Black Thursday the force that ‘ravaged the celebrated forest’, but the destruction it effected is also discussed as providing access and ease of passage for the coming waves of free selectors and diggers as they journeyed further inland.

Because of the pace of settler expansion, many of these stories are representations of places that at their date of publication were already lost to history. In this excerpt from ‘John Woodford’, published in 1880 but set at some time in the 1850s in Gippsland, Mrs Woodford surveys a changing environment from her verandah:

the country looks much less wooded than it did when she surveyed it. Trees that have not been felled or grubbed, are, with very few exceptions dead and blackened from bush fires, or ringed ready for grubbing. To the right, however, still stretch the impenetrable mazes of the hazel scrub, not yet encroached upon by the selector, save slightly at one place where the undergrowth is not so dense. But to the left the view is almost unimpeded by growing timber of any kind. The space between Quondong and Dr. Field’s, and away back for many miles, is crossed and subdivided by dog-leg and brush fences, and dotted here and there with selectors’ huts. (St Pierre Foley 1880)

This excerpt presents the frontier as a visible material line, dually marked out by the removal of ‘forest’ and the installation of dog-leg and brush fences that operated as provisional territorial markers prior to land surveyance (Flüh et al. 2021).

Even Howitt’s ‘Black Thursday’, written only five years after the disaster, emphasises dramatic change to the environment. The opening passage of Howitt’s tale begins in the present tense as a passenger ship approaches the promontory of Cape Otway. From the viewpoint of a passenger who is seeing the continent for the first time, the region of Apollo Bay is dramatically portrayed as ‘a vast region of primeval nature … in which the tall white stems of the gum-tees stand thickly side by side like so many hoary columns; and, here and there amongst them descend dark ravines while piles of rocks on the heights, alternate with projecting spars of the mountains and present their solitary masses to the ocean.’ And yet, this description only prefigures its imminent destruction, and the narrator abruptly changes tense to foreshadow that ‘in one day … a hurricane of flame opened its rude and impracticable wilderness to the foot of man’. It was only six days after Black Thursday that gold was discovered in New South Wales, setting in motion a mass emigration to Australia. Five months after Black Thursday, and only two weeks after Victoria had been declared an independent colony, gold was then discovered east of Melbourne on the Yarra River near Warrandyte. This timing meant that Black Thursday played a pivotal role in shaping a transformed colony, psychically and physically. The destruction wreaked by Black Thursday ultimately benefited the new colony, as previously impassable land was now opened to pastoralist and prospector alike and, for the remainder of the century, the event became a reference point for all subsequent fire disasters.

The enduring cultural significance of Black Thursday in fiction and reporting both normalises and diminishes the severity of subsequent bushfires. In journalistic accounts, Black Thursday is often invoked as a means of contextualising and containing the scale of disaster, as if nothing can approach this level of devastation. In fiction, Black Thursday is then presented as an unfortunate accident that can be attributed to the careless use of fire, rather than the result of systemic impacts of colonisation: the alteration of the land’s biota through agricultural practices and the interruption of Indigenous fire management regimes. Rather than ensuring that the practical lessons of disaster are heeded, such narratives seem to operate only to reassure settler culture that Black Thursday was an aberration, an accident, and part of the growing pains of the new colony until, of course, the next disaster. Such an approach seeks to qualify readings of settler anxiety and unsettlement, suggesting that inhospitable or funereal environments may not singularly be a projection of settler psychic despair, but a response to a deepening ecological crisis propelled by colonisation.


Works referenced

Adelaide Observer 1851, ‘Bushfires—Their Causes and Their Effects’, 12 April.

Argus 1851, ‘The Late Bush Fires’, 10 February.

Argus 1865, ‘Parliament’, 6 May.

Australian News for Home Readers 1865, ‘Alarming Bush Fires’, 18 March.

Boldrewood, R 1878, ‘An Australian Squire. Chapter XXI.’ Australian Town and Country Journal, 20 July.

Collins, P 2009, Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, Scribe, Brunswick, Australia.

Dextor, I 1891, ‘The Mount Macedon Mystery’, Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 24 October.

Flüh, M, J Horstmann, J Jacke & M Schumacher, eds. 2021. Toward Undogmatic Reading. Narratology, Digital Humanities and Beyond, Hamburg University Press.

Foley, St P 1880, ‘John Woodford; or, Mother & Son. An Australian Story’, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 8 May.

Gammage, B 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Gammage B & Pascoe, B 2021, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming, Thames & Hudson Australia.

Geelong Advertiser 1866, ‘Thursday Morning, Aug. 30, 1866’, 30 August.

Gerald, G 1894, ‘A Tale of Black Thursday’, Northern Star, 27 October.

Gippsland Times 1875, ‘The Gippsland Times’, 28 January.

Griffiths, T 2001, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, VIC.

Harpur, C 1851, ‘Original Poetry’, People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator, March 15.

Howitt, W 1854, ‘Black Thursday: The Great Bush Fire of Victoria’, Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, vol. 1.

Morgan, F 2021, ‘An English Tale for an Emergent Nation: William Howitt’s “Black Thursday” and the Narrativisation of Bushfire’, in Black Thursday: and Other Lost Australian Bushfire Stories, i–xv., Orbiter Publishing, Braddon, ACT, Australia.

Pascoe, B 2018, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, New Edition, Magabala Books, Broome WA.

Pyne, SJ 1991, Burning Bush, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

Royal Commission on State Forests and Timber Reserves. 1900. ‘Eleventh Progress Report of the Royal Commission on State Forests and Timber Reserves : Fire-Protection in Country Districts : Being a Report on the Measures Necessary to Prevent the Careless Use of Fire, or the Spread of Bush or Grass Fires on Public and Private Lands, Melbourne.

South Australian Register 1854, ‘Bush Fires’, 22 January.

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Fiannuala Morgan

Fiannuala Morgan is a PhD candidate in literature at the Australian National University and a librarian and archivist based in Canberra. Her recent publications include Aboriginal Writers and Popular Fiction: The Literature of Anita Heiss and the edited collection Black Thursday and Other Lost Australian Bushfire Stories.

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