Mountains On Fire, or Bushfire Perspectives February 2009
On 2nd December 1957 my family experienced a loss that was to dog our parents for the rest of their short lives. These are the memories, impressions and interpretations of that day and its aftermath, as related by five of us – my three sisters and brother, Merrilyn, Pam, Michael and Jayne. I am the eldest and was 13, and the others, in order, were 11, 9, 5 and 2, nearly 3. All of these accounts have been written only recently, and largely in the wake of the recent Victorian fires and their disastrous consequences, and the emotional pull these have had on us. Apart from very strong feelings of empathy that seem to have arisen during every major bushfire since 1957, I believe we all then tap into wells of grief about this event in our lives that affected us not only for our own more or less childish losses, but for the traumatic effects on our parents. Here then, unedited, are all our accounts. There are some discrepancies about who rescued the family from the house and school. I’ll begin with my own account, which deals only with the day of 2nd December 1957
Bushfire! I remember the day when the Black Monday bushfire came through Leura, in the Blue Mountains: 2nd December 1957. It was very hot and windy and there was an uneasiness in the air. Our large, Canadian redwood house was situated on the edge of the township, the front facing a gently sloping hill which rose to the railway and the Mall, the back overlooking a slope downwards into a wide valley at that time only sparsely populated. Recently we had experienced a very close call: a fire had sparked into being in the bush between us and the house just over the road, and had come very close to our front hedge. Now, on this December day, my father, whose wholesale stationery business office was in Sydney, was on edge, not wanting to leave that morning to spend the week in Sydney, and he planned to increase his insurance on the house, to reflect more nearly its true replacement cost.
I set out for high school in Katoomba as usual that morning, and two of my younger sisters and my little brother went to the local primary school. Our youngest sister was still at home with our mother, and our grandmother was there too. Recently I learnt that Merrilyn had left school to walk home, and had seen the flames taking hold of our house.
Looking back, it all seems a bit surreal. That morning my class went to the swimming pool. Known rather grandly as Catalina Park, it was a large, deep, muddy-bottomed dip filled with water and surrounded by some concrete pathways and grass, down at the back of the Katoomba shops. The swimming was quite welcome on such a day, and I participated as well as I ever did, with my minimal swimming skills.
At some point we became aware of smoke in the air, and I was called over when someone arrived with a message for several of the students. The news was bad, for we were told that our houses had been destroyed by fire. After that I remember only that I could see flames leaping high into the air as I looked in the direction of Leura from the Katoomba shopping centre. At some point I met up with my mother and the others. They’d had to flee the house as it caught alight at diagonal corners. Fortunately, a family friend had come to the rescue and taken them all to safety in her (or his?) car.
My poor mother! My father had always told her that if she had to leave in a hurry to grab their metal documents case that contained all their important papers, such as deeds to the house, wedding and birth certificates, and so on. In the heat of the emergency she grabbed only her jewellery box, probably for two reasons: the document case was too close to the fire, and her jewellery box was valuable and closer to hand.
So there we were, in Katoomba Street, with nothing to our names but the clothes on our backs. Friends rallied. We were offered accommodation at the Cecil Guesthouse, which was owned by friends of my parents, and stayed there for a day or two. Meanwhile, the news of the fire and its destruction of close to 200 homes and shops in Leura and Wentworth Falls had reached America, where a business associate and friend of my father’s heard the news and soon offered us the use of his empty house in Leura, if it was still standing. My father had received the awful news as soon as he’d reached his office, so had turned around and headed straight back.
That first night I remember my parents having a discussion in the room where I was sleeping. I felt so helpless, and so sorry for them. They seemed to be at a total loss about what to do next. Where to start? How to deal with the loss? When the ashes had cooled enough, a couple of days later, we returned to see them; I can remember how the melted bits of glass, piles of ashes and the charred bricks of our fireplace cracked my, until then, fairly stoic façade. And the things that upset me most were the loss of all the old family photos, and my own; the yellow and white seersucker dress my mother had recently made for me; the petunias she had planted and that had been flowering brilliantly; the grand piano Dad had fairly recently bought, that was his pride and joy. My heart ached for us all at that time, and tears came. Not long after that, a female reporter from the Australian Woman’s Weekly took a photo of us standing in the ruins, and interviewed Mum and Dad.
Interestingly, Dad did all the talking, but in the resulting article, Mum was quoted as telling a story with quite different details. This was the start of a new chapter in our lives, and I believe affected each of us in different ways, and for a long time.
Merrilyn: Memory fragments from the Blue Mountains Bushfire 2 December 1957 My siblings and I grew up with the sound of cicadas ringing in our ears; it pervaded our childhood summers. I don’t remember hearing the cicadas that day. They say smell is the most powerful of the senses and the one most likely to bring back memories. Smoke is what I remember from that summer; it wafted into the nostrils and left a stain. Fires were everywhere, one towards Mt. Wilson, another at Mt. Hay, one in the Grose Valley, another in the Burragorang. Nobody imagined they could all join up. A week or two earlier there was a fire on the vacant allotment across the road from ‘Park End’, our large, comfortable, much loved house in Victory Lane. It was very exciting when the fire truck came to put the fire out.
I was eleven years old, about to finish my primary years at Leura Public, looking forward to the school formal and the new adventure of high school the following year. That 2 December day, my friend Marion and I decided to go home at lunch time to see if we could get together at her place after school. She lived not far away, just along the highway a bit, around the corner at the top of Victory Lane, where we parted company. Her family home was wiped out that day too. Another friend, Alexis, lived on the opposite corner in the imposing ‘Chateau Napier’, also soon to become a pile of rubble.
The smoke seemed thicker, it was very hot and blowing a gale, and there was an eerie light. Hurrying down the lane, for the first time I felt a shiver of fear, realising the fire was too close for comfort. I think I could hear the roar and crackle of flames just then, but that could be my memory playing tricks. Mum was at home with Jayne, my youngest sister, who was only two. She was looking terribly drawn and worried, clutching her carved wooden jewellery box under her arm. ‘Uncle’ Bert was there too, trying in vain to lift the grand piano. I don’t know what he thought he was going to do with it. We were all bundled into Bert’s car just as the giant old pine trees in our ‘secret’ garden on the western boundary, the very ones I had climbed for sheer joy so many times, burst into flames. Along with the huge cypress hedges on the eastern and southern sides (that provided such wonderful cover when we were ‘sleuthing’), they were like tinder to the ravenous, rampaging fire.
The thing I remember most then is confusion and a sense of panic. As we drove up the lane I looked back and saw the Mahoneys’ house next door well and truly alight, and flames licking at our roof. At that moment I thought of my treasured possessions, including a fairy costume lovingly made by Mum out of crepe paper, stored in an old suitcase under my bed. It was only later, in dribs and drabs, that I remembered the photos, the school prizes, Mum and Dad’s awards and trophies, Dad’s music, his office at the back of the garage, Mum’s sewing, her classic Singer sewing machine, the old wireless in the breakfast room that played the theme music for the news on 2FC every morning, the irreplaceables.
Driving frantically, Bert took us down Leura Mall past the shops, a few of them very soon to be gobbled up by the approaching inferno. I remember my big sister Jannine saying, ‘don’t cry, pray’, so I think she was in the car with us, but I’m not certain; maybe she said those words later. [Jannine: I said these words on the day of the earlier fire, as we stood watching the firemen put it out.] So much remains a blur (post traumatic stress disorder, not recognised in those days, does that to you). Then Bert turned into the Cliff Drive towards Katoomba. It was a life and death race against the flames (though I don’t think that was understood at the time), roaring towards us as we zigzagged down around the bends, through the bush, past Leura Baths, finally to come out safely the other side and arrive at Dad and Uncle Neville’s Newsagency in Katoomba Street, Katoomba. It’s there that Dad, who had been working at his business in Sydney, finally managed to join us. Visibly shaken and relieved at the same time, he hugged us to him and said the most important thing that mattered was that we were all safe.
Having only the clothes we stood up in, we were kindly offered temporary accommodation in Katoomba by friends Bob and Di Sumner, who were fellow members with Mum and Dad of the Blue Mountains Dramatic Society. They owned the ‘Cecil’, a rambling, rabbit warren of a guesthouse, which had a lovely ballroom where parties were held and plenty of fun was to be had. At their son John’s birthday party I remember being enthralled by a magician hired to entertain the children, and for some time after having a passion for magic tricks. I also recall playing tennis with gay abandon on their court. Those happy images are more vivid to me than any cloudy wisps of memory I am able to conjure up of our short stay there after the fire.
It must have been 3rd December that we went to the Katoomba Community Hall, that also doubled as a theatre for the Dramatic Society, where we had watched Mum, Dad and their friends perform. Now it had a new role; it was where all the donated clothing and goods were delivered and put into some sort of order by volunteers. This was where our family of seven rummaged for suitable clothing to tide us over. Friends gave us clothing too. Another generous friend gave us the use of their Leura holiday house, ‘Argyle’, until a new home could be found. To give Mum and Dad some breathing space, time to take stock and be able to start stitching their lives back together, three of us, Pam, Michael and I, were sent away to a charitable Children’s home by the sea at Collaroy. I’m sure the people running it were very well meaning, but that Christmas holds the worst memories for me. I still find Christmas a trying time of year. ‘White Gables’ would become our new home in Leura. By an amazing coincidence it was similar in style, size and vintage to ‘Park End’. But perhaps this is not so remarkable if, as family lore has it, the same person designed and constructed both houses. Unlike ‘Park End’, it had a lucky escape from the fire: some of the Canadian redwood timber [Jannine: I remember the brick foundations, which were quite high because of the fairly steep slope, being blackened] at the back was a bit singed and the bushland running down the hill behind the house was burnt. Before we could move in there was a lot of work to be done, but that’s another story.
Some facts: “On 30 November , four of a party of nine bushwalkers died while attempting to outrun a bushfire burning up a steep slope at Blackheath. The five survivors had moved down slope to the relative safety of a river. By 2 December the huge fires raged through Blue Mountains towns. Worst-hit were Leura and Wentworth Falls, where 158 homes, shops, schools, churches and a hospital were destroyed (130 at Leura alone). Homes and shops etc were also destroyed in northern Sydney and the central coast.” From the EMA (Emergency Management Australia) Government database.
N.B. Aunty Sheila told me that, fearing for their lives and home, she and Graeme fled the flames by rushing through the bush down the gully behind the house, where they immersed themselves in the creek
Pam: BUSHFIRE Sticky children ran in all directions; calling to each other, screaming out above the roar of a westerly. The disorderly wind whipped the sand and dirt into eddies of choking, whirling dust, stinging legs and tugging at hair which streamed across gritty eyes, hindering vision. The new electric train thundered along the track alongside the playground, exacerbating the cacophony of sounds.
Maypole ribbons escaped from their restraints and danced gaily, creating their own wild and original piece of choreography. Clutching billowing dresses, my friends and I shrieked with laughter as we tried to capture the dancing strands of colour.
Currawongs appeared stationary as they failed to negotiate the currents of air created by the howling wind. I imagined that the birds had stopped to watch our hilarious attempts to restore order to our maypole dance rehearsals for the forthcoming Christmas fair.
Now a new sound invaded the scenario; the distant whine of the fire station alarm gradually pervaded our senses, already heightened by heat, wind, noise. I remained oblivious to the havoc these combined elements could create on the Australian landscape. On hearing the alarm, we incorporated the sound into our games, blissfully unaware of the potential of that day.
The siren droned endlessly. Anxious eyes of teachers on playground duty glanced nervously at each other, seeking reassurance, as they searched the surrounding bushland for any warning signs, that first puff of smoke, willing it to be a false alarm in these nightmare conditions. Frightening odours assailed nostrils. Fire engine sirens wailed. The dreaded appearance on the near horizon of a thick pall of smoke confirmed the teachers’ worst fears. BUSHFIRE. A terrifying word in the Australian vocabulary.
Puzzled children paused in their pursuit of the errant ribbons and of each other, hearing the teachers’ voices above the sound of the school bell as it rang and rang. Frantic voices, anxious faces, now nervous children – wind, sirens, birds screeching, bell ringing.
Frightened parents began to arrive. The headmaster and teachers worked frantically to supervise an orderly evacuation and to account for each and every child as confused, protesting children were gathered up and bundled into the arriving cars.
My mother and aunt materialised and urgently pushed me towards the car, where my grandmother and 3 of my 4 siblings already waited nervously. Aunt Betty drove as fast as the early model Holden would allow through the township, where flames were already inflicting their violent hunger on memories and livelihoods. Malodorous smoke billowed and huge angry red /orange flames devoured the bushland lining our escape route. I was oblivious to the fearful potential of that desperate journey.
“Promise you won’t cry if I tell you something?” whispered my sister. I turned towards her. “Of course I won’t cry,” I replied indignantly. “Our house was burning down – I saw the flames.” I stared at her uncomprehendingly as we sped away from danger and towards an uncertain future.
And lives began to unravel.
Michael: (from Germany) I felt and feel a pang on hearing of the bushfire victims in Victoria. We know quite intimately what havoc bushfire wreaks, even though no lives were lost in Leura on 2 December 1957. Thank you for sending me what you’ve written. I have only a little to contribute to your project. I therefore send you the following lines: Vivid memories: I am a nipper of five-and-a-half standing on the playground of my school, Leura Primary, looking north with all the rest of the school. North is where our home is. The smoke from the bushfire is billowing, the smoke haze has darkened the sun. — I’m piling into the old grey ’38 Chev of my ‘Auntie’ Betty (Lambert, later Preston), an intimate of my mother, at the school. She has the mission of bringing me to safety. I can’t remember who else was in the car. — Driving from Leura to Katoomba via Leura Baths down in the gorge, flames are leaping over the road. Fire on such a day can spring up anywhere, as if by magic. That week I’m in the Australian Women’s Weekly with a photo of me in my burnt-out, no-longer-red toy tip-up truck. Was that my fifteen minutes of fame already? Later on, in 1969 after my dad’s death, Mum destroyed the copies of that issue. She’d had enough of stories of the fire that had wrecked my poor dad’s life and also her own.
Jayne: My memory, that I think is my own, is of the rubble left of the house, and us searching through it. I have a memory of finding little china ornaments (the patterns burned off them, so that only little bits were left). The rest is probably things that were told to me: like that Mum didn’t get the metal box that Dad had said to grab. As an adjunct to this, (and I must have been told this), I believed she wasn’t able to grab it because she was trying to get Nanna, who wanted to get her hat, out of the house !!! (Fact or fiction?) (Jannine: quite possible.) Betty Preston and Sheila told me a bit too I think – it was Betty that came and got us at the house? That we drove through flames? That Sheila and Neville and the boys sat in a creek? (Jannine: it was only Sheila and I think, her younger son Richard, who escaped to the creek, covering themselves with wet blankets. The flames destroyed their shed and part of the garden, but their house was spared by a contrary change of wind direction.) I remember being told (I think) that Dad has spent a good part of the morning hosing down the house, and was indecisive about leaving for work. (Jannine: I think Dad left for work as usual quite early. It was our Uncle John that stayed with his house two or three hundred metres up the hill towards Leura Mall, and was lucky enough to have a trickle of water from his hose with which to keep himself and the roof wet.) That when he did arrive at his office, he received the phone call that told him our house had burned down, and he had to turn around and come home. I have dim memories of Argyle (probably because of a couple of photos). I also have the memory that you all were sent to Stewart House – and must’ve been told that also. I also think I have a deeply buried memory of flames and smoke, because I have such a strong visceral reaction to seeing fires now.
That’s about it I think. Oh, and of course, I have pictures in my mind that come from the Australian Women’s Weekly!!
Jannine: These accounts, each from a personal perspective and each reflecting particular memories which may or may not be accurate nevertheless tell the story, for our family, of that day. If our parents and Nanna, who was also there, had still been here to give their accounts also, I’m sure we would get a different picture again, and a more complete one. If they had been persuaded to tell their stories at the time, and in the years following, I wonder what effect being heard would have had on them?
As it is, I leave this collection of remembrances for our children, if only to give them the opportunity to get a bit of insight into their backgrounds.