Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project

Amid the restrictions of COVID-19, the Bundanoon History Group managed to complete phase one of its bushfire project in time for what turned out to be a cool and wet summer. Its messages have been distilled in a poster hanging on the History Shed in the main street and in a short video made for the National Museum of Australia’s Momentous online project.

We live with fire in this beautiful part of the world, so recording its history and is important, as was ensuring that a local perspective on Black Summer was included in the national record. One gap in our archive remains the Indigenous perspective, which the BHG will seek to rectify. Knowing about Aboriginal fire practices is now acknowledged to be an important way to avert some of the disastrous consequences of bushfire.

Wingello is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of fire’ or ‘to burn’. It was indeed such a place, not just in 2020. In 1965 – in the month of March – 31 houses were burned down in Wingello. Bundanoon fared better thanks to 1000 firefighters, volunteers, troops and police who fought back the fire, helped by wind changes. In January 1939, Bundanoon escaped the fate of Penrose, which lost nine houses, two stores, a fruit-packing shed, a church and eight farmhouses. Bundanoon’s own Holy Trinity Anglican Church was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve 1904.

When reading about these previous incidents, the similarities are stark: both the causes − climatic conditions and human error – and the way we cope with them. Writing in the Sun Herald, Max Suich observed that three things would be remembered about the horror of that week in Bundanoon in March 1965: courage, generosity and humour, sentiments familiar to all those who lived through last year’s Black Summer.

Thanks to a grant from Oral History NSW this project will continue in 2021. Contact Francesca Beddie if you wish to know more and can see how our project links with others recording the events and impact of Black Summer.

What’s in a word?

Bundanoon Memorial Hall

‘Community’ is one of those words that sounds positive. For some, it might convey a bit too much touchy-feeliness but like mother’s milk it is hard to dismiss as essentially a good thing. I live in Bundanoon, a small town which prides itself on its sense of community. I’ve had glimpses of it in the four years I’ve been here, from the fringes. I’m not much of a group person.

Yesterday, though, I got an insight into what gives community its good name. Two hundred of us, may be more, gathered in our memorial hall to farewell a bloke who had touched our hearts. Norbert Belley, 70, had died a fortnight earlier; the chemo killing him before the cancer could. He was gone much faster than anyone anticipated. His familiar scruffiness; that chortle from his roseate, unkempt face; the Croc shuffle: all gone from the café and the Men’s Shed and the community garden and the book club and the music gigs and, we learned at the funeral, from the sidelines of his grandson’s football games.

It was a community funeral conducted by Norbert’s brother-in-law, built to perfectly match Nobert’s petite sister Gabi. Others in the family put together the photographs revealing the young Norbert – he and Gabi had had a short-lived religious phase, noted one caption. Most of us had not known the adolescent, the merchant sailor, the air force signals operator. Norbert only arrived in the village five years ago.

The community gardeners did the flowers, huge swathes of wattle up on the stage where Norbert had sometimes acted in local productions and more often worked behind the scenes and afterwards to pack up the chairs and sweep the floors. The hall has always to be tidied up in anticipation of the next event: falls prevention classes aka Dancing with the Stars, Music at 10, the history group and garden club meetings, a film screening, the makers’ market and the community choir. The speeches were heartfelt, straightforward, all delivering the same message. Kindness and generosity count.

The secular ceremony was full of emotion and music. The Ecopella choir that had become part of Norbert’s life sang. A bugle played the Last Post while his RSL colleagues laid a poppy on the coffin, where his grandson had already put his rugby jersey. As they trooped past, I looked up again to those now familiar words above the stage, Lest We Forget, and those lists of names of boys from Bundanoon who did not come home from the First World War, and began to understand the essence of this word ‘community’. Here it means having time to help someone out, have a chat, share a beer and burnt sausage or a cuppa. His Canberra friend played the harp as Norbert left the hall for the last time.

The conversations over afternoon tea, brought by many friends and the local deli (Norbert would have approved of the spread), were convivial. People were pleased the celebration of an ordinary life had been pitch perfect. It had spread the seeds of kindness in the heart of the village.