The 1926 Black Sunday bushfires are largely forgotten now, being overshadowed by the catastrophic 1939 Black Friday bushfires thirteen years later.
The fires on Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1926, swept across large areas of Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, the Dandenong Ranges and Kinglake.
The figures vary, but it’s thought that as many as 60 people lost their lives.
The amazing story of fifteen-year-old Florrie Hodges, who later captured the hearts of the nation, has mostly been forgotten too.
Florrie lived with her family at the small Horner and Monett’s sawmill, deep in the bush on Mackley’s Creek, about 7 miles east of Powelltown. There were no roads, only narrow timber tramlines.
On Sunday morning she was at home when the bushfire exploded all around them and the mill caught fire.
Her mother instructed Florrie to go with some other families fleeing from the mill and take the children to safety at Powelltown.
Florrie walked through the bush for some miles with her sisters, Rita aged 7, Vera aged 4 ½ and Dorothy 18 months. Rita was on her back with Vera and Dorothy in her arms.
When she saw the fire ahead of her, they turned back and dropped into a small creek. Florrie soaked all the children’s clothes, but they could not stay long in the water because the trees and scrub growing along the edge of the creek were alight and branches were starting to fall on them. The water was getting hot, so they hurried out but there was fire all around them.
Trapped by flames and unable to reach safety, Florrie sought refuge on the timber tramway track. They huddled together, blinded by the thick smoke and scorching heat. Rita was then taken by one of the others in the party trying to escape.
Florrie was then all alone and frightened but remained with her two little sisters as the bushfire swept over them. She crouched on the tracks over the children to shield them from the flames.
Burning bark was falling on them. Her hair and clothes caught alight, and her legs were badly burnt.
They remained in the smouldering bush for two hours until the flames had passed. Her distraught father then arrived, searching, but not expecting to find his children alive.
All three survived but Florrie suffered severe burns and was hospitalised for many months at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. She was left disabled and disfigured.
Stories of the heroics of “the little bush girl of Powelltown” emerged and Florrie quickly became a national celebrity.
The Royal Humane Society awarded Florrie a bravery medal and the Timber Workers’ Union raised some £1,000… a huge sum which was held in trust until she turned 21. The money was presented in a special purse.
A souvenir booklet of her exploits was published, 100,000 photographs were distributed to school children across the nation, her story was retold in schools on Empire Day and a gramophone record was released by the Columbia Company of Florrie telling of her heroic deeds.
Photographs of the “Australian Heroine” were presented to Queen Mary and the Duchess of York. A version of Florrie’s story as told by celebrated author Mary Grant Bruce was published in The School Magazine produced by the NSW Department of Education.
Politicians, unionists, even famous actors were all keen to share the stage with Florrie at various events held in her honour around Australia.
But when asked to speak, Florrie humbly replied that “she thought that any Australian girl would have done what she did”.
Florrie married soon after the accident when she was sixteen. Her husband Bill worked in the timber mill and had also been burnt in the fire. They lived a simple life together.
Florrie is remembered by her family as a tough, no-nonsense woman, who didn’t talk much about the fires of Black Sunday 1926. She passed away in 1972.
There has been a lot of talk about heroes in recent times, whether they be firefighters, police or front-line health workers. It’s become a bit of a throwaway line… but to my mind, the real heroes are the quiet ones like Florrie Hodges.
Posted on Facebook – 13 February 2022. https://www.facebook.com/groups/forestcommisionheritage/posts/7830157683677180/
Main photo: Source: National Library of Australia.
John Schauble (2019). “Where are the others?” Victoria’s Forgotten 1926 Bushfires. Page. 301-17.