In the first months of 1898, Tasmanian residents faced the worst drought in living memory. The one cry on everyone’s lips was ‘rain’ – even the animals and crops seemed to be begging for it. The summer harvest, which began with every promise of being a good one, ended up in many instances withered and worthless. The soil became baked and parched, even more than the previous summer’s dry season. Bushfires began to burn in different parts of the state and continued to do so until the drought finally broke about the first week of April. The West Coast was first to suffer great damage, over 250 people there had lost everything in early January, barely escaping with their lives.

By late January, in the Kentish district, bushfires were burning in the back country at Middlesex, along the Forth Valley, Wilmot, Barrington and Lower Beulah. Then on 5 February came Black Saturday’s ferocious fire that wiped out Paradise (see last issue). The next day, Sunday, it spread along the front of Mt Roland to join two other fires. That evening, the most extensive fires ever known in Kentish were burning on a 20-mile front from Beulah to Staverton. This began several weeks of serious conflagrations that caused catastrophic destruction throughout all Kentish districts. So much so, dense smoke covered our northern coastline, crossed the Bass Strait, and cast a thick blanket over much of southern Victoria. This impenetrable fog seriously impacted shipping navigation, putting our passenger & trading vessels in great danger of collisions as they sailed between ports.

As bushfires threatened properties, neighbours and volunteers arrived to help farmers save their homesteads, outbuildings, and crops. Particularly dangerous were the scores of huge dry ring-barked trees standing like scrawny ghosts on every farm. Once alight, they burned for days, dropping limbs and showering sparks up to a hundred metres away. Eventually they would crash to the ground, indiscriminately killing all humans and livestock around them. Miles of log fences were destroyed, allowing animals to wander anywhere. With pieces of burning fern, leaves and hot cinders dropping from the sky, settlers became aware of just how close the fires were. The sun, penetrating through the huge volumes of vapor, threw a yellow, sickly-looking glow everywhere. Buggy loads of women and children sought shelter in Sheffield or other homesteads. Remaining residents became so scared that they stayed up all night checking the progress of the fire. One farmer said, ‘I have been forty-three years in this locality and never before remember seeing such heavy losses from bush fires.’

What follows is a comprehensive overview, condensed from many different reports of this catastrophic disaster. Taking each district in turn, let us see how the stricken settlers physically and emotionally coped with their devastating losses.

Claude Road/Gowrie

As mentioned above, by Sunday evening 6 Feb 1898, the south-eastly gale force winds had caused the disastrous Paradise fires to travel six miles along the front of Mt Roland and link up with fires burning at Gowrie & Staverton. The whole community was in a state of intense anxiety. At Claude Road, the homes of James Barker, John Cox, Joseph Hetherington, John Steers and James Reed were all threatened. The latter’s wife, Mary Reed, had given birth to baby Ernest the day before, so Mrs Elizabeth Wilson, the wife of the proprietor of the Sheffield Hotel, offered Mary, her children and newborn baby accommodation; however, the brave mother chose to stay with her husband. Further along the Dasher River, Thomas Hortle, lessee of James York’s blocks, was able to save his house. But up under Mt Roland, Sam & Mary Pointon lost their house and all belongings including horses, cattle and crops. Similarly, Jock & Alma McCoy lost everything, but managed to save their house. Fear of the fire sweeping across the road to the well-known ‘Gowrie’ property forced William Henry to move 16 head of cattle to a safer area. Miraculously, when the wall of fire did reach his Gowrie farm, it divided and burnt the country clean on both sides of his property. Over the Dasher River, Thomas Cock and Edwin Strawberry both lost their crops and log fencing. Throughout Claude Road, the loss of miles of log fencing allowed farmers’ animals to roam freely from one district to another and any remaining unburnt wheat was so tainted and discoloured by the smoke and heat that it was only fit for pig feed.

Staverton/Promised Land (now Roland)

On the Sunday, strong southerly winds drove the bush fires from Staverton on a wide front towards the Promised Land (now Roland). Properties threatened included George Day’s, John May’s, Andrew Smith’s, and Jens Anthon’s. Because so much effort went into saving their homesteads, several barns were burnt and flocks of sheep lost. At David (29) & Emily Duff’s home, everything was moved outside and their small children lowered into the well for safety, while David and 3-months-pregnant Emily fought to save their house. Nearby, at the height of the fire threat, baby Ella was born to Arthur & Louisa Cox.

Later that afternoon the fire reached the Promised Land. In addition to losing all their crops and fences, James Boutcher lost 16 cattle and several pigs, his widowed neighbour Lucy Byard lost several sheep, while William Excel lost three mares. The struggle to save the houses of another widow Mary Bramich and Thomas Jubb was difficult because the fire came between their homes and their wells. Angus McNab’s house caught fire six times, but with great difficulty was saved. At one point, cyclonic winds lifted several burning sheaves from Angus’s paddock and dumped them onto Thomas Jubb’s property. John Harris carried no less than 100 buckets of water to keep his house saturated and save his barn. John and Alf Excell lost everything. Sam and John Lamprey’s grain was destroyed along with stables and barns, but their houses were saved. With great difficulty, the Baptist Tabernacle was saved with only one side scorched, but a storage shed close by burnt to the ground. With miles of fencing destroyed, one farmer was prompted to say: ‘The Promised Land is all one farm now.’ Several persons became hysterical because of their losses, as only a few had insurances.

Carey’s Rd/West Kentish

The fires, which burnt fiercely along Claude Road & Gowrie on Saturday and Sunday, jumped the Dasher River on Monday and by nightfall reached the upper end of Carey’s Road.

Towards midnight, a strong southerly wind sprang up, which at times reached gale force. This caused the fire to rage fiercely in the vicinity of Carey’s Road, threatening several properties including John Carey’s, Wm Excell Snr’s, Wm Jackson’s, Wm. Morris’s, Dan Davies’s, John W Hutton’s and John Arnott’s, whose wife, Charlotte, had given birth to baby Freda four days earlier. About an hour after midnight, they dispatched a rider to Sheffield requesting assistance. At once, Constable John Carr together with William York, John T Wilson and Richard Roberts (bank manager) gathered up some 15 volunteers and sent them on horses and in wagons to the fire-front at West Kentish. At daybreak others joined them. About 40 volunteers worked laboriously all that day to contain the fires. Eventually most buildings along Carey’s Road were saved, although many chains of fencing were destroyed. The amount of fallen timber was very great and numerous roads around West Kentish were blocked. Some residents had narrow escapes from falling trees, but, fortunately, no one was injured. Dense smoke hung like a pall over the whole of West Kentish. Henry Rockliff of Vermont Vale took it upon himself to collect wandering horses whose stables and boundary fences had been destroyed and care for them until claimed. Two weeks later, a letter appeared in the newspaper from 28 residents of the Promised Land and West Kentish expressing sincere thanks to those who willingly assisted them during the recent bushfires.

Sheffield Township

As the scope and intensity of the enormous bushfires that began on ‘Black Saturday’ (5 Feb) began to sink in, the whole township was roused into action. Scores of helpers from Sheffield went first to Paradise, later to the Promised Land, then West Kentish. The dense smoke, blinding heat and falling trees were a constant threat to their safety. The fact that several fire-fighters were brought into Sheffield in a semi-conscious state for treatment by Dr Davis indicates how heroically they fought the flames. Others were so traumatised, they could not speak. On Sunday, everybody turned out to help: residents, shopkeepers, bankers, hoteliers and clergymen working shoulder to shoulder. Sheffield’s Baptist Tabernacle closed because Pastor John Casley was out fighting fires. Buggies and traps conveyed those rendered homeless from the scenes of the fires to various safe havens. Smoke smothered Sheffield like a dense fog and all doors and windows were kept closed to stop ‘Sheffielders’ from getting stinging eyes or choking on the smoke.

On Monday morning, all the Sheffield shops remained closed as the townsmen continued to assist stricken farmers. Businesses like York Schmidt & Co (later the Don Co) and T J Clerke rendered vital service by sending out men and materials. Elvin Atkinson’s mail coaches carried volunteers to the scene of the fires. John T Wilson, host of the Sheffield Inn, not only threw open his doors to provide shelter for the homeless, but, ever thoughtful of those in the heat of battle, sent out a cask of ale to the scene of the fires. Latrobe’s horse-drawn fire engine was ordered up to Sheffield under the control of George Crooks. Because of the scarcity of water, Dodder Creek was dammed up where it crosses Main St to ensure a plentiful supply. On Monday night several men in Sheffield didn’t go to bed in case their services were required. When a horseman arrived from West Kentish about 2am seeking help from Carey’s Road, the first group of volunteers left immediately and others at daybreak. News kept arriving throughout that day telling of other fires spreading at Nowhere Else, Barrington, Nook, Newbed, and Beulah, so Sheffield was now practically surrounded by bushfires; the nearest one only about three miles away. Remembering how rapidly the fires spread at Paradise during Black Saturday’s gale, this caused them great alarm. That night on the surrounding hills the townspeople witnessed a terrifying firework display as several bushfires, fanned by strong winds, lit up the night sky with their fiendish flames frequently flaring up to the tree-tops before dying away.

Very late Tuesday night Sergeant Cole (Deloraine) and Police Constable Beams (Elizabeth Town) along with local policeman Constable John Carr arrived back in Sheffield utterly exhausted to be greeted with gratitude and much praise. They had been fighting fires at Paradise, the Promised Land and West Kentish since last Saturday. Risking their lives, they had pushed through flames to rescue people from various houses. Had it not been for them, some people would certainly have perished. Constable Carr added: ‘It was a terrible time no one wants to see again. But thanks to Providence, no lives were lost.’ Beams and Cole continued riding on horseback to Elizabeth Town Police Station where Beams lived, while Sergeant Cole reached his home in Deloraine at 4.30am the next morning.

Upper Barrington

The worst bushfires that ever occurred in Upper Barrington took place on Fri 18 February.

Early that morning, a strong wind swept a bushfire from the Forth River Valley up the hill into the back of John Ellings’s and Sam Goss’s properties. It came through the trees at a very quick speed, burning green scrub as if it were dry wood. Soon it became evident that the situation was serious. James Carpenter’s stable was the first building to burn, followed by John Nevin’s barn containing 800 bushels of grain. Fortunately, help soon arrived from all around the district, and with hard work firefighters managed to save Nevin’s stable, which was only fourteen yards from the barn. The heat was so oppressive that one helper up a ladder collapsed. Had the wind not changed around, nothing would have saved John Nevin’s house, where his wife Sarah lay seriously ill. While Nevin’s barn was burning, John Hegarty’s stable and barn were also found to be on fire. The gang operating the Barrington threshing machine had just finished filling Hegarty’s barn with this year’s harvest and had moved on to Tom Reeves’s and John Robertson’s farms. Upon seeing the fast-approaching fire, they stopped work and headed back to Hegarty’s farm where they were able to carry about 100 bags of oats to safety before all his outbuildings, barn, stable, pigsties, etc. were swept away by the fires. His house, however, was saved with great difficulty. Other buildings threatened were owned by Robert Bye, James Wyllie, and John Robertson. 

The fire approaching the Barrington township along Dog’s Hollow Lane, burnt everything in its path. For a while the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Ellings’s store and outbuildings, and Mrs Smith and her post office were all threatened, but many willing hands eventually saved them. That same day the funeral of Andrew Balfour (86) was postponed twice: first until 6pm, then to 3pm the next day. The fire came right up over the Wesleyan church, and was only saved because of its iron roof. Fourteen years earlier, their first church on this site was destroyed in a bushfire. The present fire crossed the road to the Barrington school where its veranda caught alight and burnt a large hole in the roof before it could be extinguished. Then it went into the bush belonging to George Newman and George Waterhouse. That evening 50 men fought along the fire-front using wet bags or axes to chop down burning trees. Miles of log fencing were burnt. Thirty men fought all night and luckily the wind kept down or the whole of Upper Barrington would have been ablaze. Old hands in Barrington say they have never seen anything like it.

A week later, another large fire from the Forth Valley burnt its way up through the bush at the back of Wm Fauld’s, Ephraim Crack’s, and James Ratcliff’s farms, destroying a large amount of cut wood and palings. The fire threatened the grain paddocks of Wm Fauld and Tom Bennett, but with the assistance of about 100 friends and neighbours, they managed to gain control by cutting fire-breaks through the scrub and back-burning towards the bushfire. About 40 trees were also felled to prevent the fire spreading.

In March at White Hawk Creek – halfway between Barrington and Sheffield – a fire burnt across properties owned by John McFarlane, George Newman, and Fred Glover, and was threatening Wm Stewart’s place. As Alf Newman was felling a burning tree, his axe glanced off the tree and struck Robert Bye in his chest. The injured man was conveyed by horse and cart into Sheffield where Dr Robert Davis treated Bye for broken ribs.

Lower Barrington

A weatherboard cottage belonging to David Cocker of Lower Barrington narrowly escaped being burnt down in the January bushfires – sparks set the roof alight several times during the afternoon. A great deal of damage was done to the fences throughout the district, but luckily for several farmers their grain ripened rather late and escaped with just a slight scorching. Two weeks later, fires still raged throughout the Barrington district. This time John Cocker was a heavy loser, with his harvest only partly completed. In some paddocks, the grain was uncut and still standing, in other paddocks it was cut and tied in sheaves. He lost four acres of wheat and a couple of acres of oats. The previous day all his neighbours had worked hard to save these crops.


In mid-January, bushfires began raging around Nook on every side. Close escapes from being burnt out were experienced by Lachlan McInnes, James Aitken, and John Williams. With the assistance of neighbours, they battled hard to keep the flames back from their farm buildings, losing mainly crops and log fencing. In February, at Kelcey’s Falls on the Don River, the houses of William Bilston and others were only saved by the greatest exertions of willing workers. On their northern boundary, the fire burnt through many acres of grain and oats belonging to George Ratcliff. Again, a great many chains of fencing were destroyed and when the large ring-barked trees burnt through and toppled, they created huge messes in the middle of their crops and paddocks. George & Louise Ratcliff, laid up with influenza, couldn’t go out to assess this latest damage. He said this was the third fire they had had there within the last week or two. George believed he got a chill last time by turning out in the middle of the night to save his house and farm buildings. On the south side, Edward Smith and others worked hard to keep the fire from crossing the Nook Road.


On Black Saturday morning (5 Feb) a fire broke out at the foot of Badger Hill between Lowe’s Bridge and Railton, and a southerly gale rapidly carried the flames through the treetops towards the cleared farms of Newbed. The first property threatened was Peter McGuire’s, whose house, its contents, crops and fences were all burnt. Battling the heat, smoke and fire alone, McGuire was overcome with exhaustion. If it hadn’t been for the arrival of Constable John Burns (Railton) and Henry Jones (Sunnyside), who, at considerable risk, rescued him in a very dazed condition, he would have perished.

With great rapidity, the fire next spread into Thomas Midgely’s oat paddocks and then into his bush, where the standing timber created a ferocious fire. Some of the huge trees were 150ft high, so the wind was able to carry the fire all over his farm. About seven helpers were frantically trying to gather up sheaves from the paddocks and put them into Midgely’s big new barn. Only two loads were left when Midgley was forced to take the gasping bullocks down to the creek for a much-needed drink. Meanwhile, despite the helpers beating the barn with wet bags, a spark got behind a split timber slab and in a few seconds the barn was a burning inferno. When Midgley returned with his watered bullocks, all that was left was a smoking ruin. Not only did he lose all the season’s wheat and oats, but a valuable chaffcutter, a four-horse wagon, farm implements and a quantity of sawn timber. Several times his stable and outhouses also caught fire, but neighbours and volunteers were able to save them. Sadly, Midgley, who was suffering with a bad leg at the time, had no insurance.

Thomas Goss was another unfortunate victim. He lost his paddock of stooped sheaves and all the fences on his farm. More tragic, however, was the sad incident that occurred that day on his farm. James Castles (38) had been reaping with Goss all day through the heat and smoke. Upon completing their day’s work, Castles – hot, tired and sweaty – quickly drank a large amount of cold water to cool down, then almost immediately collapsed and died. He was a church warden at the Railton Church of England. The day Castles was buried, the rest of Goss’s farm burnt. By Saturday evening the fire reached Cornelius (Con) Allen’s farm with strong wind blowing sparks 30 yards onto his wheat and oat crop. But through the efforts of a big party of volunteers under Sub-Inspector Collett (Latrobe) and Constable Burns, his farm was saved. Here Thomas Midgley saved Con Allen’s life by warning him to jump clear of a falling limb just in time. Fortunately, at daybreak when the wind changed to the north-east, the Newbed properties of Frank Roe, Michael Leo, John Walker, Mrs O’Neill and Michael Mahoney were saved.


After another bushfire broke out on Col Allen’s property the following Wednesday, Constable John Burns again organised a team of Railton helpers to go, including James Blenkhorn, John Singleton and Vic Hall who worked hard to contain the spreading fire. Around Railton the smoke was so heavy it remained dark all day as showers of ashes fell like rain. Some people were up two consecutive nights fighting fires.

In mid-March a fire commenced close to Railton and strong wind soon drove it towards the railway station. After several chain of chock and log fences were destroyed on both sides of the railway line, it surrounded the large new goods shed full of grain. This caused great anxiety for Chas Kirkham who was responsible for dispatching it by train. The straw caught alight twice, but the station staff and others with buckets of water were able to extinguish the flames. Close to the goods shed, a large stack of sleepers was saved by the same helpers, while a few nearby houses had their front fences catch alight several times. At the other end of Railton another fire that had started in the scrub opposite the Catholic Church and burnt towards Sunnyside came close to burning down Henry Jones’s house. Later, Railton residents paid tribute to the excellent services rendered by the police during all these conflagrations. Apart from organising volunteers to attend each fire and to render all possible aid, it was not unusual to see these police officers themselves looking blackened and grimy, labouring with all their energy to beat back the flames; or with coats off, chopping down trees that were in danger of igniting and fuelling fires.


Another disastrous fire broke out on Saturday afternoon 12 Feb on John Brown’s farm, where it destroyed about one and a half acres of splendid wheat, which was expected to yield about forty bushels to the acre, besides destroying his fencing. Here the stringy bark trees were very inflammable, owing to the cockatoos scratching out the bark. Soon the fire spread into the crops of J Bourke, Edward Weeks, and Robert Shields and burnt within a few feet of Edward Weeks’s homestead. If not for the strenuous efforts of the local helpers, the homestead would have burnt down. On Sunday, Constable Burnes and fifteen volunteers from Railton did well to keep the fire under control and save other crops. They were able to cut the standing wheat and get the sheaves carted into the barn. At 9pm Sunday night, volunteers had the satisfaction of seeing the fire thoroughly under control and all danger being then passed.

An extensive bushfire broke out on Tuesday 15 Feb at the western end of Sunnyside, near the Railton to Sheffield Road. Owing to so much dead timber lying on the ground – much of it left by the sleeper-cutters – the fire burnt fiercely and threatened the farms of John Nottage, Henry Richards, John Hayes, Edward Sheean, Wm Scanlan and others. A huge tree fell across Sunnyside Road, completely blocking all traffic. A week later, a fire broke out at Merseylea on Henry Weeks’s farm and spread into several farms on Foster Estate. Another large bushfire broke out on Alex Hogg’s property at Native Plains and burnt its way through the bush towards Fossil Banks and Sassafras


In late January bushfires began burning between Dynan’s Ford and Lower Beulah, causing many trees to fall across the long bush track that joins the two places. On this road

John Murphy and Robert Cox barely escaped with their lives when their team of bullocks took fright as the flames – blazing on both sides of the road – closed in on them. Panicking, they rushed along the road until blocked in front by fallen trees and were forced to stop beneath an overhanging one. When a large limb cracked and fell, it just missed both Murphy & Cox, but smashed the wagon behind where they were sitting.

An unnamed Beulah woman wrote a letter about her experience in the bushfires on Black Saturday 5 Feb that was published. In condensed form, this is what she wrote: ‘I shall never forget that morning. Frank Hogkinson came rushing up to say a big fire was coming around the Minnow Hill and to let my neighbours know. I galloped over to my nearest neighbour, then across the paddocks to tell the others. Later, James McCarthy rode up to say that in the last three hours the fire had rushed along Gog, over Battery Hill, on to Mt Roland, and up onto the button-grass plains. You could hear the roar six miles off. By Sunday morning the fire was heading straight towards James McCarthy’s and Frank Hodgkinson’s properties. About thirty willing hands started cutting and clearing a 3ft-4ft wide fire-break along James McCarthy’s sideline towards George Stephens’s, then three miles back towards the Dasher River. By the time this was completed, the smoke became thick and blinding and the flames roaring like thunder. The fire-break was lit to back-burn toward the approaching fire. Fortunately, the wind dropped, allowing the workers to keep the fire under control during the night. By now it extended from Hodkinson’s four miles to Stephens’s. With men stationed half a mile apart, they kept watch over it night and day. On Tuesday when the wind got up again, the fire jumped across the fire-break when there were only five persons there to fight the flames. Not long afterwards, however, twenty-two volunteers arrived, and for the rest of the day they had a very hard time getting the fire back under control. Twice, in Wednesday’s wind, it broke out again and by Thursday it reached Duck Marsh. Our part of Beulah with our new State school were the only places not burnt. We stand a very poor chance of escape, for we are so hemmed in. All the men of the place are reaping or helping fight the fires and the women are carrying provisions for the men. We are half-blinded and half-suffocated, ready to run at the first sound of fire crackling in the bush, for if the big fire once gets away, it will be on us in half an hour. It has seemed such a long week; this waiting and watching is dreadful.’

Summing up the damage.

In the Sheffield district, the farmers’ losses exceeded  £20,000. While there were many heart-rending stories, everyone was amazed that so many homesteads were saved and not more lives lost. The drought didn’t really break until the first week in April and was followed, thankfully, by the best autumn and winter season ever for re-fencing and clearing up fallen trees from roads and paddocks. By May, Sheffield Bush Fires Relief Committee, established on 16 February, had raised about £230, which – with the State subsidy doubling that amount – meant £460 could be distributed to farmers affected by the recent bushfires. Most Sheffield businesses treated the affected farmers very generously. One farmer who brought everything he had to a storekeeper for part-payment of the debt he owed had his money handed back to him. He was told to go buy the essentials he would need to start again and if he could settle his account in the next couple of years, that would be alright.

Next time: (77) The Sheffield Hotel (1) First Turbulent Years