A LONG, HOT SUMMER.

We have gone through horrible fires here in the Blue Mountains and so many other  parts of the country. The heat has been extraordinary.  I am a firm believer in climate change, even though our beautiful Mountains have suffered badly before.

Preparing for summer, Blackheath, Blue Mountains
My partner Rob checking the fire hose and preparing for summer at Blackheath.

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 I now live. 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.

Nearby, Medlow Bath also came under serious attack. The Hydro Majestic Hotel 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.

Evacuees at Medlow Bth station 1952
Evacuees at the George Richardosn Store, Medlow Bath (Fairfax Archives)

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.

Dam at Small Arms Factory, Lithgow
The dam at the Small Arms Museum was always popular during  heatwaves (Lithgow Mercury).

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 an astronomical £6,500,000..

UPDATE JANUARY 2020 – Despite the untiring efforts of fire fighters and their support staff , many people (and our precious flora and wildlife) were impacted at Christmas time. Here in Blackheath it was 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.

THE AFTERMATH – NSW

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE MEMORIES OF THAT HOT, HOT SUMMER OF 1952.

2 Comments
  1. We’ve had one of the hottest summers on record. I hope that where you are it isn’t going to be so extreme. It has meant wild fires, severe hurricanes, and even a damaging earthquake in Mexico.It’s a relief for us in north America to be heading into Winter, although it has been forecast that temperatures at the end of the coming week will be in the upper 80’s F.

    • Pauline

      Oh dear Heather, so many dreadful weather events. Was such a hot day here. One town in New South Wales reached 40C, first time on record that has happened in September.

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