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Grandmother Adams' bushfire story

By Roger Underwood - posted Friday, 6 January 2012

Patsy Adam-Smith is one of my favourite Australian writers. She has a simple, clean style and she wrote about places and people that I love: the bush, the sea, timberworkers and railwaymen. I also like the way she wrote about her family with such pride and affection, and the stories of her grandmothers who were pioneer settlers in Victoria, one Granny Smith and the other Grandmother Adams.

Her relationship with Grandmother Adams was not a particularly happy one, although they had one thing in common.

We admired the pioneering spirit," [Adam-Smith writes in her first book, Hear the Train Blow, in which she records her childhood, growing up in a railway family during the 1930s]. "She would tell me stories by the hour of the pioneering days, and I would listen for as long as she would talk. She and my Grandfather had pioneered the hills of Gippsland.


Grandmother Adams had lived in a slab hut with an earth floor, her husband taking work where he could find it to buy their stock, and the mother and children milking the cows while he was away shearing, fencing or sleeper cutting. Adam-Smith goes on: "Grandmother Adams had been burnt out twice in the Gippsland hills. Once she narrowly escaped with her life. My grandfather was away."

I sent your aunt Anastasia to neighbours to tell them we needed help; the fire was surrounding us [Grandmother Adams recalls]. Not long after she left the wind changed. I looked at the track she had taken and now flames criss-crossed it, and as I watched a blazing tree fell right across it. She was a wonderful horsewoman, you know, and I knew she would get to the neighbours, but I thought she would never get back. The bigger children helped me pull my sewing machine outside and I covered it with wet bags and I gathered up what we could carry. As we left the house I looked across to the only gap that was clear of flames and there was your aunt, sailing over a fallen log, her horse bringing her home at a gallop.

"How did you find that gap?" I asked her.

"I followed the two men," she said.

"What men? There are no men here,"

"Oh yes, they jumped the log ahead of me. When the wind changed I didn't know which way to go and these men rode out ahead and beckoned me to follow them.

At this stage in her story, Adam-Smith writes, her grandmother always blessed herself, before going on.....

There had been no men. It was God Himself that led the girl home.

But men did come through the gap after her. Grandmother Adams and her children were rescued.

There are several things I like about this story, not the least being the importance placed on saving the sewing machine. This is a telling reminder of the importance of these machines (their first, and only 'labour-saving device') in the lives of many bush wives and mothers, and also of their value as a hard-won investment. My wife's maternal grandmother (also a Granny Smith), a pioneer group settler in the karri country in Western Australia, acquired a 'Singer' sewing machine during the 1920s, and it was her pride and joy. The machine was inherited from her own Grandma Smith, and was by then already 30 years old. It was worked by a foot treadle, connected to the works by rubber driving bands. We have it still today. We keep it clean and oiled, and it still works. Both my wife and her mother learned to sew on it.


I also like the spiritual side of the story, and I am happy to accept Grandmother Adams' explanation of divine intervention. I can recall two mysterious experiences myself at bushfires many years ago, times when I was exhausted or under extreme stress. And I have heard stories from others about the apparent intervention of a mystical power that saved the day. My old mate, the forester Brian Cowcher, once told me how, when working in the jarrah forest one day, he had stepped off a log and just before his foot touched the ground, he saw that he was about to land on a tiger snake, which had its head up and was looking at him. Brian said he never knew how it happened, but somehow he found himself again back on the log and standing upright, even though, he said, "he had passed 45 degrees" on the way down.

I have always liked the thought of God intervening to save Brian, who was a mentor, a good bloke, and to whose wonderful bush yarns I loved to listen, for as long as he would talk.

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About the Author

Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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