Keith Cameron of Greenwood

Year of the Big Sun - 1914 - 1915

Our local district diarist Keith Cameron (pictured left) of Greenwood, wrote: “Drought very bad, worst since Grandpa was a little boy, good hay very scarce.” Keith was working as a boundary rider for J.S. Ross of North Gums and recorded the ongoing dry.”

In 1913 rainfall in western Victoria was well below average for the normally wet April- July period. As the Victorian Meteorological Bureau (the Met) records: Timely rain in early Spring then saved the wheat crop and raised prospects. However there was to be no such respite the following year. Southern Victoria started off very hot, suffering from widespread bushfires in February and March.

Good rains fell over most of Eastern Australia in March April 1914 but extremely dry conditions then set in over most of the southern half of the country.

The Penshurst Free Press of 4 July 1914, reported that the long dry spell is causing uneasiness amongst the farmers whose dams are not yet full…in September, to make things worse, a plague of caterpillars descended on the district, doing great damage on the Gums and Blackwood Estates…the caterpillars appeared to be increasing in numbers and if the present weather conditions continue much longer it will be a sad outlook for the whole district.

The Free Press also noted that grass is very short and the ground in most places is as hard as mid summer. The frosts have caused the grass on the sides of hills to wither and have had a trying effect on young trees and potato crops.

Except in coastal NSW, drought became widespread and severe from July to October. Across large areas of the southern states the period May through October 1914 remains the driest such period on record.

Locally, conditions only worsened as the weather heated up in October and the hot dusty days had a disheartening effect through out the district. The price of horse feed rose alarmingly.

Tom Johnson (Stock & Land Columnist, Diary of a Farmer) wrote that the Year of the Big Sun began well in the Western District but ended up with an almost rainless Spring and there was no grass until the following May. I was then very young however I don’t think I’ll forget the starving animals - the dead and dying sheep, cattle and horses. Tom’s family was farming at Laanecoorie in the Bendigo district.

According to the Met rain in the eastern states in November and December did replenish farm dams and generated some grass growth, but dry weather returned early in 1915 to most eastern areas. It was not until April 1915 that the drought began to break in most of Victoria and for NSW, May. Even then the May rain was too late for strong pasture growth because of cold weather.

Keith’s observations provide an insight into the daily tasks undertaken during the big dry. The following have been taken from his 1915 diary entries:

“Jan. 6 Cold showery weather, stock all tucked up.

Mare Kitty died in No 5 (paddock)

25 No 5 pulling necks (“rabbitting”)

26 Putting netting around stables to stop rabbits there is a power of them about the buildings

28 Got 27 rabbits out of the woodheap (north Gums)

Cycled to Hawkesdale

Feb 1. Took 62 lbs of rabbit skins to Colin (brother)

Jim McNiece pulled up pump in No1 mill

Warracknambeal horses have fallen away terribly of late

Pulled a cow out of the creek (cleaning out dams)

15 Robin (brother) started work for Leslie Murray (Burnbrae)

23 Dave (horse) in the creek (Mustons)

25 Mustered 7 horses in No 1, should have been 8, one down (the horses were sent to Ararat)

Mar 4 First sheep pulled from dam (dead) Chanter died (horse)

I don’t remember such a day in my lifetime. Frightful wind from the NW and dust was appalling. Could not see 5 chains off in the paddock. The loose grass and manure piled up against logs and hollows inches in depth.

10 Picked up 19 bags of spuds at Purdeet railway station (cattle feed)

15 Boiling taties for horse feed (mixed with chaff)

16 Eeling (in the mud) at dip dam

17 Old Dave (horse) drowned in creek.

20 Very cold - hard on the stock.

22 4 dams are nearly dry, too boggy for sheep.

30 Very cold again, the poor stock do feel it.

31 Shot my horse McKie bogged in the No 17 creek (paddock)

Apr 6 Drafting the worst sheep off to feed

Grand fall of rain 46 points

Steady rain at North Gums 27 points, Dolly died in the creek.

Saw an eye doctor in Melbourne about my eye, scratched by a possum (younger days)

The grass is looking well now but needs rain.

May 13-18 Cold wet and windy

20 Still picking up spuds from the Purdeet Station (spuds came from Haberfield Bros, Koroit)

Australian losses at the Dardanelles in today’s paper were 36 dead and 200 wounded. Amongst the latter was Penshurst lad Private W J Lewis.

24 Picked up 6 tons of mangols (swedes) @ 24 pounds. Skinning lots of (dead) cattle.

June 26 Very blowy but fine, shaved the whiskers then cycled to Penshurst for football match Penshurst V North Hamilton. Penshurst beat North Hamilton by 3 goals 8 behinds.

29 Death of Mr Fairlie and F J Olle Gallipoli, both school teachers.

July 6 Penshurst Station busy place, 6 trucks of imported Lucerne hay.

8 Recruitment night at Penshurst. Des Kelly, Alf Downes and Phelps volunteered.”

What Keith’s diary shows is that even as the drought broke early in April 1915, there was not enough feed for the cattle and horses going into a cold wet winter. Keith spent a lot of time skinning the cattle and horses that had either starved to death or drowned in the muddy, boggy Muston’s creek. Keith Cameron volunteered for the fist AIF but was later invalided home because of his eye. Des Kelly was killed in action.

Nowadays we have the ability to bring in fodder and truck out stock. The farmers in the 1914/15 drought had very limited options – they were also coping with the start of the Great War which eventually enlisted over 140 young men from district families.

by Phillip Doherty, Mount Rouse & District Historical Society Inc.

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