UPDATE DECEMBER 24—Poor little Blackheath, under siege again.
A LONG, HOT SUMMER.
Such worrying times here in the Blue Mountains and so many other parts of the country. Officially ‘catastrophic’ fire risk levels. I notice my husband quietly clearing undergrowth, and testing the petrol fueled water pump. Of course it’s imperative that he does it, but it’s a bit unnerving.
THE FURY OF FIRE
The summer of 1952 was also one of record temperatures in New South Wales. Fires broke out all over the Blue Mountains. One of the worst villages affected was Blackheath, where numerous houses were destroyed and many others threatened. Residents dragged their possessions into the street only to have flying cinders start fires in piles of bedding and furniture. It was said that almost every man, woman and child fought the fires.
Medlow Bath also came under serious attack. The Hydro Majestic lost six buildings. One was the boiler room , with its upstairs staff quarters. Another was a huge storeroom attached to an art gallery and museum. The owner, Mr Mel Ward, lost a substantial proportion of his collection, including a Cobb & Co. coach. Thankfully, many Aboriginal artifacts had been moved to safety. The previous summer had been very hot too. This had prompted the hotel to make firebreaks in the spring of ’52, but it was still not enough.
The two ladies in the photo below had been evacuated from the hotel. My thanks to friend and local mine of information Larraine Home for the information re their identity.
At Newnes, north of Lithgow, a 2,000 acre pine forest burst into flames with a roar that sounded like an ammunition dump exploding. The entire plantation was destroyed, as 90 fireman fled for their lives.
The temperatures at Lithgow’s Small Arms Factory rose to over 100 degrees day after day. For weeks the dam in the factory’s grounds was packed with residents and workers.
Some locals even risked fire and thick smoke to travel down to Blackheath, where the pool was open until late at night.
And then, another problem began to emerge. People in Lithgow began falling ill.
Chemists and doctors were besieged with patients. They were complaining of acute, influenza type symptoms, dermatitis and painful swelling of the glands. Some presented with a lump in the groin or under the arm and were given penicillin injections. Many were ordered to bed for at least two days. On Friday, February 8 , the Lithgow Mercury published an article on the crisis;
MYSTERY HEAT DISEASE ATTACKS LITHGOW RESIDENTS
DOCTORS AND CHEMISTS HAVE BEEN DELUGED BY ENQUIRIES CONCERNING THE INFECTION, WHICH IS BELIEVED TO BE ATTACKING THE VICTIMS THROUGH THE PORES OF THE SKIN.
This was the 1950’s, not the 1850’s. It seems odd that no-one could accurately identify the complaint. Public health official Dr Graham Drew of Sydney said that symptoms appeared to indicate a seasonal complaint in an extreme form, with some type of skin inflammation aggravated by extreme heat and humidity. He suggested that smoke from the bushfires carried dirt particles which would become clogged in open pores of the skin. Tepid baths and antiseptic ointments were suggested as relief (Lithgow Mercury Feb. 8). It would become known simply as Summer Disease.
Since I first published this article, Lithgow resident Stuart Charlton has suggested that the health issues may have been caused by so many people swimming in the factory dam. Thanks Stuart, that does sound plausible.
As cooler weather arrived the incidence of the infection reduced. However, it was estimated that damage caused by fire that summer in New South Wales cost £6,500,000, the highest in forty years.
I do hope we get through this summer unscathed.
Don’t forget the birds and wildlife, they will need their drinking water and baths.
UPDATE – DECEMBER 24 Despite the untiring efforts of fire fighters and their support staff , many people (and our precious flora and wildlife) have been impacted. Our love and sympathy goes out to them. Here in Blackheath it has been terrifying. Our spectacular look-outs have been burnt out, and the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens have suffered severe damage. Because we rely so much on tourism, the economic consequences will be serious and ongoing.
FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE MEMORIES OF THAT HOT, HOT SUMMER.