The beginning of 1898 was preceded by the longest drought on record, making the whole of Tasmania tinder-dry. By mid-January, bush fires began breaking out in many parts of the state. The worst were on the West coast, around Queenstown and Gormanston, where over 250 people lost everything, barely escaping with their lives. Then on 5 Feb 1898 came ‘Black Saturday.’ Strong gale-force winds blew from the south-east, igniting many ferocious fires that brought catastrophic destruction to many parts of the island. In the Kentish district, three separate fires broke out almost simultaneously along the slopes of Mt Roland: east of the Minnow River, at Claude Road and at Staverton. The roaring sounds of these ferocious fires together with the crashing of burning trees spread panic everywhere. Throughout Saturday, volunteers arrived to help farmers protect their properties. Buggy loads of women and children were removed, while scores of farm animals had to be driven or led to safer locations. On Sunday morning, gale force winds caused the bush fires to travel along the front of Mt Roland and all join up. By Sunday evening the most extensive fires ever known in Kentish were burning on a 20-mile front from Beulah to Staverton. Within a week or so, these bush fires had spread to all parts of Kentish. Before taking a comprehensive overview of this catastrophic disaster across all of Kentish (next issue), let us get up close to the settlers’ plight in Paradise.

Upper Paradise

This small district consisted of seven or eight pioneer families occupying bush blocks on the highest plateau of Paradise. Out the back of their primitive homes they could almost touch Mt Roland, while from their front doors they could see the Bass Strait in the distance. Despite being steep country, it was good, fertile soil. Early on ‘Black Saturday’ morning, wild winds quickly drove a large bush fire around the eastern end of Mt Roland, across the dry Minnow waterfalls, and over the hill into the Upper Paradise settlement. The smoke was so dense that the fire burnt its way close to their homes before they realised their imminent danger.

First affected was Mrs Caroline Smith (59), widowed three times, who lived with her son Andrew Smith on a 50-acre block at the end of what is now Dawson’s Rd. Close by lived another son from her 2nd marriage, Henry Bishop (31) and newlywed wife Annie. These families had little time to save anything before being forced to flee. Returning after the fire had been through, they found their sheds, animals, crops and fencing all destroyed, but amazingly Caroline Smith’s house had survived.

Also up Dawson Rd were James (59) & Elizabeth Hoare on 102 acres with two of their sons James Jr and William, each having a block across the road. Coming back to their burnt-out properties, James Sr discovered 16 of his sheep huddled together, burnt to death. His sons failed to find another 36 sheep. Like many other young Irishmen, James Hoare (b1839) left Emerald Island for an adventure in America. Arriving in New York aged 18, he immediately enlisted in the American Army as a mercenary soldier fighting the Red Indians and later the Mexicans. In the meantime, his Irish family migrated to Tasmania and settled in the Deloraine district. So James decided to join them. In 1866 James Hoare (27) m Elizabeth Cubit (17). They had 10 children and eventually moved to Paradise. Of his five sons, three of them met tragic deaths long before their father died. James Jr drowned in the Mersey River, Michael burnt to death in a raging bush fire at Stowport, and Jack Hoare was murdered at Wilmot.

Ted (34) & Alice Eagling (6chn) had recently taken over a 70-acre bush block half-a-mile in off the top of Paradise Road. Originally, it was granted to Ted’s pioneering parents George & Martha Eagling who, after five years of clearing and planting crops, decided to return to Sheffield and re-open George’s bootmaker business. On this farm Ted Eagling had his youngest brother Tom (24) working with him. Recently these brothers had cleared more land by cutting down hundreds of Sassafras trees, which lay thickly upon one another. When the fire came through, these dead sassafras trees fuelled a blazing inferno. The story of how Alice Eagling, home alone with her six children: Herbert (12), David (10), Ernest (8), Archie (6),  Ethel (4) & Claude (2), escaped this fire is related by George Eagling himself to end this article.

James (63) & Alice Manning (9 chn) had lived on their 144 acre Paradise property for over 20 years and were helped by their two sons Harry (23) & Robert (19). James tried to reap a paddock before the fire came but smoke drove him away. On top of this hill, a paddock of peas – pulled and lying in heaps to dry – caught fire. A whirlwind picked up some of these blazing pea stalks, lifted them thirty or forty feet in the air, and carried them nearly half a mile before dumping them on other farmers’ properties and igniting everything around them. Scores of dry ring-barked trees standing amid Manning’s grain crops were soon ablaze from bottom to top. Days later, these big monsters would sway in the wind, then crash across his crops. James Manning suffered a heavy loss, with all his grain, fences, haystacks and livestock destroyed. Across the road, fire threatened the new Paradise State School built three years earlier. A woodshed and the fern-logs used as entrance steps to the school were burnt, yet the locals managed to save the school itself.

The fire then spread to William (63) & Jane Milne’s place (10 chn) where strenuous efforts were made to save their house. They loaded a cart with household goods and pulled it to a supposed place of safety. But after constantly fighting the flames till 11pm, the Milne family were forced to flee to save their own lives. Exhausted, William Milne with two sons Harry & Robert were conveyed by cart to Sheffield’s doctor in a state of collapse. Wm Milne lost everything he possessed, including his house, sheds, horses and crops.

When the Black Saturday fire first came through Paradise, it was too high up the mountain slopes to catch the properties of Lewis Newman and William Treloar. Lewis (37) & Florence Newman, with four sons and eight months pregnant with their fifth, lived over the top end of Paradise on the last farm before the steep descent to the Minnow River where William (42) & Grace Treloar (10 chn) owned 94 acres on the Minnow River flats. By Wednesday, the wind had changed and was now blowing from the West, so the bushfire turned back on itself; this time, much lower down the mountain, severely damaging both Newman’s and Treloar’s properties.

Lower Paradise near Dasher River

The fire began spreading downhill towards the Dasher River on the Old Paradise Road. Part way down the hill was the farm of George & Amelia Morse (8 chn) with baby Arnold just five months old. At the river crossing lived elderly settler James Green and nearby Harry & Annie Day (5 months pregnant with 2nd child Arch Day). Back off the road was widower Charles Dell and three children: Charles Jr (12), Georgina (9) and Edith (7). Saving these properties was a growing band of volunteers who began firing the scrub and bush in front of the main body of fire. Others felled trees to keep the roads clear. Those arriving to help included Constable John Carr (Sheffield), Constable Beams (Elizabeth Town), Police Sergeant Cole (Deloraine), local bank manager Richard Roberts, and many others. Much anxiety was felt when they realised Charles Dell’s house was surrounded by fire and could not be reached. Charles Dell with his three children had put all their efforts into saving their new barn containing this season’s harvest. Using saturated blankets, they tried to cover the barn without success. When it finally burnt, the Dell family discovered they were surrounded by fire, cut off from all means of escape. The father and his children were forced to retreat back inside their flimsy wooden house, to await its imminent destruction. But providentially it escaped. The next morning at daybreak, two volunteers Tom King and Arthur Murfet bravely forced their way through the burning bush to discover the Dell family still alive, but in a pitiable condition. The fire having burned within two feet of their house, they were utterly prostrated, suffering terribly from smoke and heat. Later that day, a dozen men worked feverishly to prevent the fire crossing the Dasher River. It was feared that once it crossed the Dasher and the wind got up, the fire could easily reach Sheffield.

George Eagling’s Eye-Witness Account (condensed)

My boot shop in Sheffield has a small window looking towards Mt Roland. Looking out at 7am on Saturday 5th Feb 1898 I noticed a fire had started on the east end of Mt Roland. Not an unusual thing so I kept working. Soon it had reached frightful proportions and it was coming towards my sons’ farm. When I could stand it no longer, I borrowed my neighbour’s horse and galloped out to Upper Paradise. Other people anxious to assist did the same.

Arriving at Jim Manning’s farmhouse, I found some ready to assist were already there. I hurried to the brow of the hill. From there I could see my house about 250 yards away. Someone was moving about outside. I said: ‘Their lives are in danger, I’ve got to help them.’ Jim replied, ‘You can’t go there.’ I started down the hill, but had not gone a hundred yards before I met the flames coming up the hill at a fearful rate. I ran back as fast as legs could go with the fire close behind me. I called out to Jim, ‘Your barn will burn in 10 minutes”. I was right. We all retreated to Jim’s house in a safer place.  

The main road into my house was about half-a-mile round to the East, so away I went on foot, followed by Sheffield policeman John Carr, local bank manager Richard Roberts and others on horseback. I got there first and on reaching my house found my two sons Ted & Thomas were away. Ted’s wife Alice was there alone with her six children (between 2-12 years). They were frantic with fear. The policeman ordered Alice & her children to leave immediately. So, we grabbed all the bedding and clothes that we could carry. I told the policeman there were two mares and a foal out there somewhere. He replied: ‘Horses won’t last 10 minutes in this heat.” The men called ‘We must leave quickly, or we’ll be cut off.’ Escorting Ted’s wife Alice and children, we left all else to Providence’.

Almost exhausted, I reached Jim Manning’s farmhouse again. A family offered to take care of Alice and her children. I asked, ‘Where was my borrowed horse’? They told me it was taken down to James Green’s farm by the Dasher River where it was much safer. I was in a fix. There was now a bush fire between me and my borrowed horse. ‘I must get back home to Martha in Sheffield as soon as possible’. Local farmer Henry Day had a bridle but no saddle.  He said, ‘Jump on my horse, she will take you down to James Green’s place. Leave her there, take your own horse and get off home.’ They gave me a heave up, and off I went. I had not gone ¼ mile when I found the log fences on both side of the road ablaze. Nothing but fire and smoke ahead. I must have been momentarily out of my mind, but pulling my cap over my eyes, holding my breath, clapping both feet into the mare’s sides, the horse broke into a gallop. I hung on to the mane and bridle. Fortunately, the fire burning on both side of the road was only a short distance or I wouldn’t have lived through another minute. At James Green’s, I found my horse waiting, left Henry Day’s mare, and abandoned the place.

For two days there was no news about my family. The suspense was awful! I couldn’t work, Martha was very much worried. We heard homesteads were burnt out, others lost barns, sheds, animals, and miles of fences. At length we were told both our sons, Alice and the children were alright, which was a great relief. Their house and shed were both burnt, but the furniture spread about the orchard was saved. Early on Sunday evening the first search for their horses and foal failed. By 2am Monday morning, the dew had somewhat dampened the fire, so my sons tried again. Pushing past Sassafras trunks still glowing red, they thought they heard a whinny, so they pressed on. They could scarcely believe their eyes. There stood Jess and Floss, with the foal between them. The horses had shielded the foal with their bodies. Falling pieces of blazing bark had burnt their backs. Ted said ‘Come on Jess’ and she followed exactly in his footsteps, the foal next and Floss behind. Apart from burns, the horses had incessant coughing and discharge from their noses, eyes, and mouths. It took a long time to get them back to normal condition’.

Just 15 years later, in May 1913 most of Paradise including the school was destroyed by fire for the second time.

Next time: Kentish on Fire (2) All Districts Disaster – Feb/Mar 1898