Bush Fire at Willunga in 1874

Event Dates:

January 1874

Every hot, dry summer brings the threat of bush fire to South Australia. In 1874, the threat became real. A bald announcement in the (South Australian Register 3 Jan 1874, p. 5) declared: “SERIOUS FIRE AT WILLUNGA – Willunga. January 2. Night. A great fire is raging close to this town and several families have been burned out. The safety of the town itself is dependent upon the direction of the wind.”

The fire started on the property of Andrew Doolan on the Meadows Road in the Hundred of Kuipto, while Mr. Doolan was away at the races. The wind rose, his log fence caught, and Mr. Doolan’s house and property were utterly devastated. The fire proceeded onto the farm to Thomas Pendergast, but although all the grassland was burnt, his house was saved. The fire raged on. Properties belonging to Richard Hill, Mr. Pointon, Thomas Dennis Jackson, Mr. Dunn, Charles Small and Thomas Oldham were burned, and crops destroyed, but the people of the area had mustered, and the houses were kept clear of fire. Mrs. Taylor’s house, having a thatched roof, was certainly in danger, but backburning and saturating the thatch managed to save it. The fire proceeded to obliterate grass, trees, crops and fencing on the properties of Mr. Marshall, Mr. John Cook, David Beattie and Mr. John Brown. Fears of the fire sweeping through the Aldinga Plains were not realised due, in large part, to the efforts and organisational skills of Police Trooper McKeevor. There were no church services on Sunday as people were involved in fighting the fire or staying at home ready to take flight.

Mr. A Hopkins wrote to the editor of the (South Australian Register 8 January 1874, p. 6) applauding the courage of the women who climbed the steep hills with buckets of water to reach the men fighting the flames: “I feel assured I am but expressing the feelings of the entire community in asking you the favour of recording its obligations to so many ladies for their untiring efforts, both day and night, in the abundant supply of food and drink for the famishing and weary men engaged in battling with the fiery elements… where men wore known to be among the hills and could not be reached by horses and carts, men on horseback and on foot as well as females, put forth all their energies to reach them…. The deep sympathy with the exhausted men was seen in farmers’ daughters toiling up steep hills, with buckets of water, through the mid-night hours and midday sun— speaking volumes of the daughters of Australia.” Mr. Hopkins particularly named the following ladies – Mrs. J. Allen, Thomas Culley, Henry Malpas, Thomas Martin, Thomas Atkinson, Richard Hill, Thomas Marshall, Henry Dowty, T. Adam, J. Pointon, JB Bennett and Simon Sibley. Over nine miles of country was scorched.

One correspondent noted that: “It seems little wonder that the people of Willunga say that such a fire has not before occurred in this country, as a more desolate block of forest land than that which has been left can hardly be imagined …. The trees and ground are perfectly black, and all that had life, except close to the farmhouses, has been destroyed.” (Adelaide Observer, 10 Jan 1874, p. 3) At the inquest held after the fire, Dr Richard Jay, the coroner took evidence from a number of people. It became clear that the behaviour of John Dwyer was deeply suspicious. John Dwyer was the brother-in-law and former partner of Andrew Doolan and the brother of Mrs. Doolan. The partnership had ended badly, and Dwyer had punched Doolan and broken windows of the Doolan house. Mrs. Doolan claimed at first that she had seen an unknown man lighting fires, and others came forward to testify that they had seen Dwyer come from the direction of the Doolan farm after the fires had started. There was some conflicting testimony, however, with other witnesses stating that Dwyer had been at home. Witnesses also noted Mrs. Doolan’s hysterical behaviour at the time of the fires, and her references to “her enemy”. Then Mrs Doolan changed her story — the man she had seen was indeed her brother, John Dwyer. The verdict of the inquest jury was “That we find that the fire at Doolan’s originated by the wilful act of John Dwyer and not otherwise”. (Chronicle and Weekly Mail, 24 January 1874, p. 7). The matter was referred to the Supreme Court, where John Dwyer was acquitted due to the contradictory evidence.

References:

1874 ‘SERIOUS FIRE AT WILLUNGA‘, South Australian Register 3 January, p. 5. , viewed 25 Jan 2024,
1874 ‘THE WILLUNGA FIRES‘, South Australian Register 8 January, p. 6. , viewed 25 Jan 2024,
1874 ‘SERIOUS FIRES‘, Adelaide Observer 10 January, p. 11. , viewed 25 Jan 2024,
1874 ‘THE WILLUNGA FIRES‘, South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail 24 January, p. 7. , viewed 25 Jan 2024,
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