In the summer, when it sizzles - 1940 Queensland heatwave

From the front page of the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper, 25 January 1940

From the front page of the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper, 25 January 1940

In late January 1940 central and southern Queensland sweltered under an oppressive heatwave, which saw maximum temperatures exceed 46°C, including Winton 47.2°C, Longreach 47.2°C, Eulo 46.7°C and Roma 46.7°C. Brisbane suffered through 9 consecutive days of heat, reaching a record temperature on Australia Day of 43.2°C. On that day it was recorded that 43 people in Brisbane collapsed from the heat and 3 horses died in Brisbane streets. Overall the  intense heat throughout Queensland caused the death of a least 80 people. In a period when air-conditioning was scarce, how did Queenslanders cope?

Two boys cool off as Brisbane swelters. Photo taken from The Telegraph, 26 January 1940

Two boys cool off as Brisbane swelters. Photo taken from The Telegraph, 26 January 1940

These days electricity consumption during heatwaves soars due to our reliance on air-conditioners. In 1940, Brisbane reported that gas and electricity consumption during the heatwave had dropped, which was attributed to people having cold showers and abstaining from hot, cooked meals.  The consumption of soft drinks, ices and beer were up by 100 percent, which meant factories and breweries had to work extra shifts to cope with demand. There were also record sales of shorts and petrol. 1940's smart dress standards went out the door; men were seen in half-sleeve shirts and open necks (no ties) and women wore shorts.

The heat affected livestock and produce. The Queensland Egg Board reported more than 50,000 chickens had perished during the heatwave. On the Sunshine Coast, pineapple farmers suffered “heavy losses from sunburnt fruit”. Fruit on sale at the Roma Street Markets quickly withered in the humidity.

On 25 January, the Courier Mail reported that “thousands of Brisbane residents rushed off to cool at beaches at night”. “A continuous stream of cars crossed the Hornibrook Highway between 7pm and 9pm” with 1,500 bathers at Clontarf.  In Sandgate at 8pm there were more than 1,000 bathers on the beach. Trying to find a car space within half a mile of the beach was a difficult prospect. The Gold Coast reported a record number of visitors during the Australia Day long weekend when the heatwave was at its most intense, with over 20,000 visitors.

To survive the heat Brisbane Medical Officer, Dr Weaver, prescribed  "avoid over-eating; wear light clothing; expose to the air as much of the surface of the body as can be done with modesty" .

Some retreated to the few public air-conditioned buildings, such as cinemas. The Rex Theatre decided to cash in the heatwave by promoting its air-conditioning in its ads - "Keep cool at the Rex Theatre - equipped with air conditioning".  The Tivoli Theatre also gave its air-conditioning top billing over the main feature - "Big stage show tonight at cool, air-conditioned Tivoli".

In Emerald the "unrelenting heat was described as "intolerable". Some residents took to sleeping outside on their lawns and verandahs - as the Central Queensland News put it - "the mosquitoes serenading being preferred to the stifling heat of indoors".  The intensity of the heat kept people away from the local Emerald dance. At the time Emerald had no swimming baths and recognised swimming holes along the Nogoa River were described as being in a filthy state. Covered with a "green algae scum", swimming was not an attractive proposition.

Winton reported it had ten days of extremely high temperatures. The two local ice-works were kept very busy, as the demand for ice was high. Many residents "placed blocks of ice in their bath-tubs, so as to have a cool plunge".

One Winton local had a very lucky escape. 56 year old kangaroo shooter Jim McDonald was out on McKunda Commons, nearly 200 kms from Winton, on a day which saw temperatures soar to 45.5°C in the shade. At 10am Jim fell from his horse and fractured his leg. It took him 4 hours to crawl the half a mile to the Winton-Boulia Rd in his injured condition, where he laid in the middle of the road hoping to be rescued.  He was covered in burrs and he had no water.

There was a waterhole about 400 yards away but he was unable to move. Luckily Jim's dog was with him and had already gone down to the waterhole to cool off and came back wet. Jim then had the idea to tie his flannel shirt around the dog's neck. The dog went back to the waterhole and came back with the flannel shirt soaking wet, which Jim then used to quench his thirst by sucking on the fabric. He then unsuccessfully tried to tie his boot around the dog's neck, thinking he could get more water that way. The dog did not think much of this idea and according to the Winton Herald, "sulked and would not go back to the waterhole".

Eventually a motor lorry discovered Jim at about 7pm that evening. He was rushed to Winton Hospital in a weak state, but recovered, attributing his survival to the water obtained by his dog.

Myles Sinnamon - Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland



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My elderley great-grandmother Isabel Norris died in the heatwave on 20 January 1940. She wore a black dress with heavy undergarments which was thought to have contributed to her death.

What an amazing article. I often wonder how people survive in the very hot weather. Thank you for this insight.