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Jan 29, 2009

Heatwaves: now and then

To modern-day Australians, heatwaves mean potential fires, crowds at the beach, thirsty koalas, crippled public transport services and frenzied Twittering about how goddamn hot it is. But what about in 1939?

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It’s a bit hot in the southern end of Australia right now.

To modern-day Australians — or at least the ones represented in the nation’s media — heatwaves mean potential fires, crowds at the beach, thirsty koalas, cancelled horse races, crippled public transport services and frenzied Twittering about how goddamn hot it is.

The Sydney Morning Herald is taking no small delight as Melburnians apparently “unravel” in the heat. 

Adelaide’s Advertiser went big on the news du jour:

So too the Herald Sun with its retina-burning front page:

But were Australian papers always so obsessive about the heat? We had an air-conditioned wander through the archives.

In 1927, the Northern Territory Times and Gazette was more interested in an Agatha Christie-worthy murder than Adelaide’s heatwave:

In March of 1934, The Courier-Mail focused on how the heat was affecting individuals: a pony was struck by lightning, two people died (one of them married!), judges took of their wigs and people camped out at the beach.

In January 1939, in the blistering, record-breaking heatwave across southeast Australia that led to the “Black Friday” bushfires, “stock collapsed and fowls dropped dead in the blistering heat at Sea Lake” and “several elderly people have been prostrated”, according to The Sun-News Pictorial.

Fish were dying in the hot water, said The Age, and in a small piece titled “Cockatoo”, it was reported that a “yellow tailed black cockatoo” had “landed on a boat 120 miles into Bass Strait, fleeing from smoke and fires”. Water shortages led to restrictions, according to The Weekly Times.

At the end of it all, as rains helped cool the earth, 438 deaths were linked to the heatwave and 71 people had died during the fires.

The Canberra Times reported that more than 600 insurance claims had been lodged in Sydney, New Zealand had been thanked for its condolences, and bathers, “many of them physically fit”, were being criticised for casually lounging on the beach as houses burned.

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