Fire in the district

Here in Tasmania, our worst disaster is caused by bushfires or fires that have got out of control. When we have a wet winter and spring, then a dry summer and the lush grasses and undergrowth start dying and going brown, then we know we could be in for a terrible fire season. Much of our land is protected forest or used as farmland with crops and animals. Our forests are predominantly Eucalyptus species which catch alight quickly and the burning leaves and bark leap ahead of the main fire front especially if backed by heavy winds. This will cause lots of spot fires which then develop into larger fires.

pinterastudio / Pixabay

When I was 11 years old, I lived in Glenorchy on the western shore of Hobart and saw the effects of the 7 February 1967 bushfires on the slopes of Mt Wellington. In total, 64 people lost their lives, 900 were injured and about 7000 left homeless across the state. About 1400 homes were destroyed and a further 128 buildings included schools, halls, churches. There were 110 fire fronts burning over 652,000 acres of land within a five hour period. The local paper The Mercury put together a 50th anniversary booklet including memories from the south east of Tasmania. Just today I was shown a link to a Facebook post celebrating the 54th anniversary of the Black Tuesday bushfires. These fires also affected the municipality of Sorell. Read about some memories further down this post.

Another disastrous fire season was in January 2013 when the township of Dunalley in the southern section of the municipality was virtually burnt to the ground. There were 40 fires burning across the state and more than 49000 acres of bushland were burnt out. Dunalley had 65 buildings lost to the fire including the police station, primary school and bakery. People from the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas had to evacuate as the fire was bearing down on them from the north.

History of bush fires in the district

Researching this topic, I found as early as 1804 (the year after Van Diemens Land was first settled) the Lieutenant Governor was warning people about burning the stubble on their land.

In 1841, one fire was thought to be started by a convict road party but when requested verbally to help fight the fire, the overseer refused as it was not a requisition in writing.

By 1844 many settlers were taking out fire insurance for their houses and property.

In March 1850, a fire in the district affected property owned by the following families: Kearney, Blyth, Glover and Zelly.

January 1854 another conflagration was mentioned in the local paper. Some of the surnames mentioned were: Morrison, Phipps, Wicks, Wright, White, Burslem, Bellett, Grimes and Blyth.

In March 1856, a fire at Carlton mentioned the extra undergrowth that caused the bushfire to burn quickly onto the local property.

 

Some people lost their lives while helping to fight fires. Mentioned in March 1886 is that of Mr B Reardon, an old resident of Forcett, who while fixing a fence, must have been overcome with smoke and heat, fainted and the fire then went over the body.

In February 1914, there must have been many fires in southern Tasmania, including around Kellevie and Carlton River. Many buildings destroyed and this was the second bushfire that season.

Council meetings such as this one in 1925, often mentioned the role council had in keeping drains, culverts and blocks of land clear in case of bushfires. Another meeting in 1930, discussed the availability of fire plugs in the town of Sorell. Councillor McDermott made an objection and a few comments from other members came straight to the point.

With the temperature reaching 98 degrees in Sorell in March 1940, some buildings on properties were again affected by bush fires.

 

By 1952, Sorell had its own fire brigade and only one day after being approved by the Rural Fires Board, it was out protecting property from a large fire in the Forcett area.

Memories about Black Tuesday around the Sorell district from members of the Sorell Historical Society

RN: people say the old man (Trakka Newitt) saved Sorell…he back burnt the racecourse before the fire front hit….well before back burning was in vogue…..he learned it from his time on Bathurst Island with an Aboriginal tribe….now that’s a story in itself…… I remember a lot about the ’67 fires……..

LR: my mum told me the circus was in town and the kids from the school were ushered down to the causeway to stand in the water with the circus animals

RN: I remember they took us out of school, we were put onto buses in Forcett street and taken down to the causeway…we got off the bus and sat on the rocks….it was like a movie scene right in front of us…..the smell of burning sheep I remember

LD: The smell is what lingers in my memory too and the mounds in the paddocks that lingered for years

  • LD: My dad was one of the Sorell residents that perished in the 67 fires . Fred Weil aged 39, he would have been 93 this month.
  • GB: Yes, Fred and Geoff Davis(father of Neil Davis) both perished together fighting the fires out Shark Point Road, Penna.
  • LD: I remember being told that dad and Geoff were found together dad facing the flames and Geoff facing away. Apparently dad went back to get Geoff after he had collapsed.
  • LL: Think you will find that Geoff Davis and Manfred Weil died fighting the fires on my father’s property at Penna which was called Preston

LR: My mum was in Hobart and on the bus on the way back, they were stopped at Mount Rumney and told that Sorell and Midway Point was gone. I was 2 months old, my sister was one and learnt to walk that day

KC: I remember the 67 fires like it was yesterday. From being down at Park Beach swimming and getting home at lunch time. After going to the causeway because it was so hot, my friend and I noticed ash falling from the sky, we decided to go to our homes. When I got to the Blue Bell Inn (which was our home, my father was Allan Newitt) I went up stairs to the kitchen and Dad had been eating lunch. You can see Reynolds Hill from the window and dad had seen the fire coming from that direction. So he and Len Tapp who was staying with us went down and lit the race course because the fire would have jumped Arthur St and the whole of Sorell would have gone. I went up to the primary school and found Dad, he could hardly see out of his eyes for the smoke. The fire had come up behind the primary school. Dad asked me to drive him and the local police man back near where the sale yards used to be. We went down Pelham St to the Arthur Highway. I was scared because I didn’t have a licence but when I said this to the policeman he just said that I had done a good job girlie. Then Dad wanted to go to Penna and when we got there, there was all these poor sheep all charred and burnt. There were some local lads hanging about so Dad got them to help him to put the sheep down. The only thing that Dad found was an old railway spike to use to put them down with. It was an awful sight but Dad did the only thing he could to put them out of their misery. That’s what I remember about the 67 fires.

Readers: What has been your memory of bushfires or a disaster in your area of the world?

Sorell windmill

If you were living in the Pitt Water area of the district of Richmond around 1815, you would have seen a windmill. Is this an image of Robert Nash’s original windmill or another built later in the century or maybe his original mill was removed and rebuilt after his death?

Robert Nash was the son of a millwright and born at Edenbridge in Kent, England in 1771. But at age 19 he stole some boots and shoes and was sent out to New South Wales in 1791 on the Albemarle as a convict. Before being sent to Norfolk Island, he married Ann Hannaway, who was also a convict from the Second Fleet. Ann already had three children and bore Robert four daughters while on Norfolk Island. Nash was very well behaved on the island, received a grant of land and an absolute pardon in 1800.

In 1808, Robert Nash and his family was one of many who departed Norfolk Island to settle in Hobart Town. Again he was given a grant of 10 acres near the New Town Rivulet where he built his first flour mill. This unfortunately was swept away in floods in 1809. In 1810 he built a second mill, this time on the Hobart Rivulet. More land was granted as the colony needed more wheat for its growing population. He received 200 acres near Pitt Water. He built a mill at his own expense in 1815. His land was south of the present day school and bounded by Sorell and Pittwater Rivulets.

By 1817 he was supplying the Hobart Town commissariat as one of its largest contractors. Robert also put an ad in the Hobart Town Gazette warning people who lit a fire in his paddocks to summon the ferry at Pitt Water to refrain from doing so until the end of the harvest.

Robert’s health suffered with all this hard work in the early colony and he died in 1819 at age 48.

Did his windmill survive? Or was it sold after his death to pay his debts. Edward Lord and James Lord were the principal creditors of Robert Nash’s estate.¬† The windmill was still standing in February 1820 when Robert’s property went under the hammer at auction.

Robert’s mill in Liverpool Street, Hobart called the Old Mill was still in operation in June 1821 when Mr J A Motton opened it. It was owned by Walter Crammond. Cost for grinding was one shilling and threepence per bushel or 8lbs of wheat. The mill and acreage around it was again sold in 1824.

Update to this post:

Since mentioning this post on the Sorell Historical Society Facebook page, Karina Looby nee Newitt has added a photo of a replica of Nash’s Mill which can now be found in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery TMAG. The replica was built by her father Alan Newitt, who had lived in the Blue Bell Inn.

Replica created by Alan Newitt, father of Karina Looby, member of Sorell Historical Society Facebook page.

Sources: Much of the early information was found in Robert Nash’s biography. Information about flour milling found in this thematic study.

Windmill images courtesy of Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, George Billing Collector – Windmill at Sorell –NS479/1/41 and NS479/1/42

Clicking on a blue link or image will open to the digitized document or book.

Readers: What do you know about the Nash family and flour milling in the district?

McGee’s Bridge

The $20 million McGees Bridge was the largest single infrastructure project funded by the State Government for more than 15 years.
The new bridge was named as a tribute to Dr Rodney William McGee, ESM, who died after a long battle with cancer on 1 February 2002, aged 47. At the time of his death he was a senior engineer with the Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources and recognised interstate and internationally for his expertise in bridge engineering.

The state government decided in the mid 19th century that if a crossing at Pittwater could be made, it would reduce the time to Sorell. It was decided to build a causeway for two-thirds of the length of Pittwater and have a bridge complete the rest of the crossing. The bridge was given a 50 year life span back in 1957.

Statistics:

1000 metres (causeway)
460 metres (main bridge).