This is my mother as a child, in a snowball fight with her best friend Lorna (they are still friends). Aren't they delightful? (And can you possibly imagine how cold Mum's bare legs must have been?) She grew up in a tiny mountains town north-west of Sydney, Australia, called Leura. When my mother was 10, her school burned down. You'd think that having your school burn down would be every 10-year-old's dream come true, wouldn't you. But the day my mum's school burned down, it very nearly took the children with it.
The school fell prey to a devastating bushfire that destroyed more than 158 homes (130 of them in Leura), shops, churches and a hospital. Four bushwalkers died while trying to outrun the bushfire up a steep slope at Blackheath.
It is terrifying to think how close those little students came to disaster, back in the days before fire drills and 'orderly exits'. Can you imagine, today, a school principal racing through the halls yelling "Everybody run!" and watching the children scatter?
Recently that same school asked Mum to write down her memories of the fire, to share with the Years 3 and 4 children who attend the school today. This is Mum's story.
When I was a little girl I lived in Lett Street, Katoomba, with my mother and father. My dad was an electrician. His job was to put electrical wires in houses and buildings, so that the lights and ovens and other electrical things worked. He would have to get up very early to do his job, and I used to eat breakfast with him at five o’clock in the morning. Even though that was many years ago, I still like to get up early.
Every year in December the owner of Everglades Gardens, Mr Sorenson, held a Christmas party for the children. I think I remember going to that party the weekend before the fire. When I woke up on the morning of the big bushfire in December 1957, I was thinking about how much I had enjoyed that party. I remember that it was a very hot day, even at five o’clock in the morning!
I was 10 years old. After I had breakfast and got dressed for school, I met my friends from next door, Lorna and Allen, and we walked to Leura School together, carrying our school cases. Our school cases were called Globite cases, and you carried them in your hands. They were very heavy. You could buy little leather satchels like the backpacks you have today, but they didn’t hold very much so most of us didn’t use them.
To get to school, Lorna and Allen and I walked up the steep hill to the Mall, then crossed the road and walked past the church. (In autumn, we liked to collect the leaves from the Liquidamber trees outside the church as they changed colour, and use them for art projects.) Next we walked over a wooden bridge to get across the railway lines, and finally crossed the highway, which was not very busy or dangerous back then, to arrive at school. Leura School had been converted from a little house, and each class was in a different room of the house. The stairs to that old house are still in the front garden of the school today.
When the bell rang, we sat down to our lessons with no idea that this was to become one of the most frightening days of our whole lives! We worked until the bell rang for Recess (which we called Play Lunch). No-one had much energy to play because it was so hot, but we still enjoyed the short break from lessons.
Not long after we went back to class, we heard the voice of the Principal (then called the Headmaster), Mr Hartcher, sounding different and a bit panicky. He hurried into our room, saying “Run! There is a fire coming very close to the school!” We could hear him running through the hallway with the same message in all the other rooms. When we ran into the hallway at the entrance of our school, we could smell smoke and the sky looked red and angry.
Some of the parents had realised the fire was heading for the school, and they arrived to pick their children up, but they blocked the doorway of the school so we couldn’t get out! They hadn’t realised that we all had to run away quickly, and they were blocking the only door that faced away from the fire. Mr Hartcher ordered them to move, but many of us children were too shy to push past them. I think I was one of the last to leave, because I did not want to squeeze past a mother who had started to panic.
At last I ran out the door and across the highway without even taking my school case, trying to get home as fast as I could. I ran across the railway bridge and the fire was so close that I could see flames in the grass next to the railway tracks. When I ran down the stairs of the bridge and onto the street, I caught up with a little boy who was only in Kindergarten. I ran with him for a little while, and the flames came closer and closer in the bushes and gardens behind us. Suddenly, the little boy cried out and I turned around to see he had dropped his school case, which he had been clutching tightly all this while. He tried to pick it up, but the fire was almost on top of us by now so I grabbed his hand and told him we needed to get away, and that he could always get a new school case.
By this time, some of the parents had gone to the school to pick up their children, only to discover that we had all left. So they were driving around the streets of Leura and Katoomba, looking for the children. The little boy’s parents arrived in their car, and took him away with them, leaving me alone. I kept running, and was very relieved not long afterwards to see my Dad’s car! Dad and I drove back home without really knowing what was the best plan for escape, as the fire seemed to be moving behind, in front and all around us.
It was a very scary time at our house. My parents packed our car with things like clothing and family photographs and insurance documents, thinking that these were the most important things to keep if our house burned down. We had to evacuate to the theatre in Katoomba Street. A truck stopped by our house and the driver offered to pick up anything large that we wanted to save, but Dad said “No thanks,” the important things like people were his only priority. Then the Principal Mr Hartcher and his wife arrived looking hot, with burns from the fire, to check that all the children had made it to their homes safely. Finally Dad drove us to the theatre. Mum and I waited there with all the others, while Dad went back to help fight the oncoming fire.
It is interesting how different people react to dangerous times. There were a few people in the theatre who tried hard to take our minds off worrying, by telling jokes and stories. Other people were quiet, some were agitated, and one or two were crying. Mostly, we were worried about our family members – usually men – who were fighting the fire to save their own and other people’s homes.
Later we heard that one of the teachers, Miss Nelson, had stayed at the school to make sure the children all made it out. That meant she was one of the last to leave and as she crossed the railway bridge, flames licked around the supports. I don’t really remember, but I assume those supports were made of wood.
The school burnt down completely on that day, but my Dad managed to save our house and some others in Lett Street. The fire came so close to our house that our garage wall was black and charcoaled. Mum said that the truck carrying everyone’s belongings was piled high, and there were things like fur coats (which were very expensive) with a goat sitting on top!
I seem to remember we had a very long holiday after Christmas that year, as we had no school to go to when the New Year began. Christmas was always exciting, and I usually thought it was the best thing about the summer holidays. But this year, it was hard to be really excited about Christmas. Some of my friends had lost their houses as well as all their Christmas presents, and it just didn’t feel right to be celebrating. Normally we went to visit my Nanna in Sydney every Christmas, but we didn’t go this year. Everybody was a bit unsure what to do next, and how to reorganise our lives after such a big change to our normally peaceful Mountains lives.
Finally in February 1958, a few days after everyone else, we started school again. But we still had no building to go to, so we had school in the Church of England hall in Leura. We were given pencil cases to carry to school every day, and exercise books and other supplies, but we didn’t have any library books. Since there were no computers in schools in 1958, library books were the only way we could research our projects. Encyclopaedias were very important but they were expensive, and most of us didn’t have them in our homes, so we just had to muddle through until our school library was replaced.
Eventually our new school was built. It was just one building (the one your office is in now), and it seemed very spacious and clean to us. It was wonderful to have desks to store our books in again, and stationery, and a library with exciting new books to read. We missed our little ‘house school’ but soon became used to the new one, and settled in nicely.
As long as I live, I will never forget the day of the 1957 bushfires. That day, the fire burned all the way from Katoomba Hospital right down as far as Springwood. It burned down many houses and buildings and trees.
* When Mum wrote this story for the children at her old school, she called it "A fierce mountains day" because when she recently went back to visit the school, the children sang a song by a local composer called "A mountains kind of day." Mum said, "The song was very evocative and talked about mists and trees. I loved it."
(All photos of the 1957 Blue Mountains Bushfires used here are from the Blue Mountains Library's Flickr stream. The 'before and after' of the school are from an invitation to the official opening of the new school in 1958, that Mum kept.)
ps. This last photo is of a family in front of what used to be their house. The little girl's name is Marion Weiss, and she went to the same school as my mother. In the comments under the photo another of my mother's fellow students, Jean Collins, wrote this:
"I used to play with Marion Weiss when we were pupils at Leura Primary School - also burnt out in the 1957 fire. I remember running from the school that day, up the highway, with fireballs flying through the air and houses exploding. We took shelter in corner store, down past the Baptist Church. The church burned down, so did the corner store. Our house caught fire, but my brother Barrie put it out, and also saved the house next door to ours, in East View Avenue. The owners gave him five pounds reward. I have lots of memories of that dreadful day."