Wednesday 7 January 2015

Rain, Wind and Fire

The month of January has a history of inflicting natural disasters on Campbelltown.  Arguably the three worst natural disasters to strike the town have all occured in January. The first disaster was in 1901 when a fierce storm struck bringing "phenomenal rainfall". The second occured in 1929 when a devastating fire destroyed property in the area and the third in 1944 when a violent tornado hit Campbelltown. I thought I would give a summary of all three, mostly sourced from newspapers of the day.

The Storm

The district had never seen anything like it before. It was Monday January 21, 1901. Campbelltown residents felt a storm brewing for most of that afternoon but none of them could imagine the ferocity it would bring. At 6pm the rain began to fall and it lasted for around 4 hours. The Campbelltown Herald reported that it "raged with exceptional severity and did incalculable damage". The worst part of it was between 7 and 8pm with the streets in the low lying portions of the town converted into river-like watercourses. Many businesses suffered severe damage but it seems that a Mr E.J. Whyte, chemist, was the most affected. He lost furniture and clothing to the value of 30 pounds and his house became a "mass of mud and filth". George Chinnocks, a butcher, also lost large amounts of stock from his slaughteryard. Roads were badly affected and cost an immense amount of money to repair.

The storm finally abated around 11pm and 6 and a half inches were recorded in the gauge. The Herald described it as "something to remember".

The Fire

"Fire- Damnable Enemy" screamed the headlines on the front of the Campbelltown News for January 11, 1929. It went on to describe it with further dramatic sub-headings of: Devastating Sights, Homeless Families, Ruination to Several Settlers and Miraculous Escape of Human Lives.

Early on Wednesday afternoon January 9, 1929 a spark from a passing train at Leumeah commenced the most devastating fire in Campbelltown's history. The flames soon reached the bush country of East Minto and swept through thousands of acres, devouring everything before it. The rural bushland now known as the suburbs of Wedderburn, St Helens Park, Airds, Ruse, Kentlyn and Leumeah was devastated. The area of East Minto, now known as Minto Heights, was the worst affected.

An account of the fire was provided by East Minto resident George Mardell.  He told the Campbelltown News "All at once I saw the flames lash out through a narrow strip right at my home and my wife only had time to pick up the baby and run". "I tried to beat off the flames, but could not...(and) we stayed in the cultivation paddock for some time, and saw we were likely to be hemmed in, so we made a dash for Bendorp's".

The houses of three settlers were destroyed and five others were severely damaged. The buildings were not insured. One of the homes destroyed belonged to a Mrs Gracey in Junction Road. When the blaze was approaching, Mrs Gracey locked herself inside. The door had to be chopped down with an axe to rescue her.

The fire caused many people to suffer very serious loss and hardship, which few could afford as the Great Depression approached. The fire was never extinguished and eventually burnt itself out with a loss of many thousands of pounds worth of property.

The Tornado

Probably the most spectacular of the three natural disasters was the tornado of January 1944. The Camden News reported: "The most violent storm in the history of Campbelltown, accompanied by rain and hail lashed through the whole width of the township. Dark clouds thickened over the town and a strong wind rose, followed by rain. A heavy gale sprung up which brought heavy rain and hail. This momentarily developed into a cyclonic tornado with power reaching a velocity at its peak of 150 miles per hour.''

No lives were lost although some of the inhabitants suffered injuries and were very shocked. However, more than 30 buildings were severely damaged and there was a blackout. Smaller buildings such as stables and sheds were demolished and there were many residents who suffered great inconvenience when their outhouses were blown away. Many trees were uprooted. The town was strewn with sheets of iron and rafters from the buildings that were damaged. The town received about 13mm in 10 minutes.

Let's hope this January passes quietly with no dramatic weather event!

Written by Andrew Allen


The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 17 January 1944, page 4
Campbelltown News, Friday 11 January 1929, page 1
The Campbelltown Herald, Wednesday 23 January 1901, page 2

McGill, Jeff 1995
Campbelltown's Streets and Suburbs

Fire Fighters of Kentlyn: History of the Kentlyn Bush Fire Brigade 1946-1996

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