On 15th December 1881 James Heneker would have had no warning that when he awoke that the day would bring tragedy for his close neighbours and the town. James would have been 55 years of age at the time. A newspaper article from the South Australian Weekly Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1881 – 1889) Saturday 24 December 1881 p 7, outlines the proceedings of the inquest into the deaths of a Mrs Johnson and 4 of her children in a fire in their tent home in Beltana. It seems our James along with Peter Doig (the local Beltana blacksmith) played a part in trying to rescue this poor family. James told the court that he had seen Mrs Johnson lighting a fire (or near a fire) about 7 a.m. that morning. According to the newspaper article, James wife Mary Ann, told her husband a short while later that the Johnson’s tent was on fire, and that James had run down to the tent as quickly as possible. By the time he arrived, the tent house was a mass of flames. The house had been built of bags and tarpaulins. There was nothing James could do, even with the help of another resident Mr Peter Doig. They reported that the wind turned the flames and it was then they saw the bodies of 3 of the children on the floor. The mother, Mrs Johnson had apparently run back inside and found her baby which she handed to her 11 year old daughter who was outside and then ran back in to try to save her other children. She was not seen again. Such an unimaginable tragedy, but one no doubt that was played out many times in that unforgiving country. At that time of the year, December, it could very well have been hot and windy in the North of the state of South Australia. As anyone living here could attest that even here in the city, a hot north wind is often felt early in the morning, heralding the start of a “high fire danger”day. In fact one can be part of a conversation, even today when a hot north wind is felt early in the morning, people are saying “it’s gonna be a scorcher today, high fire risk”. One can only wonder what sort of a day it was in the far north, in 1881, when dwellings were simple, often made of timber, or in the case of the Johnson family, basically a tent, open fires, and belongings packed in as best they could, to keep them dry and safe. Add a family of small children, isolation, and probably no fire station, and it would have been a disaster waiting to happen. James must have seen many things in his life since arriving as a young 12 year old boy in South Australia. This surely must have been an horrific site, even for a man who had so many experiences, and had led an adventurous and probably tough and difficult life. Reading the Headstone (below) it can be seen that little Agnes Johnson, aged only 2 months and 2 weeks, also died. She must have been the baby that James and Peter Doig reported to the Coroner, was handed to the older daughter by her mother, before running back into the tent to try to save her children. It appears that little Agnes had been either overcome by smoke or burnt and succumbed to her injuries.
It is hard enough to imagine how the remaining family coped with this devastating tragedy, and I wonder how their nearby neighbours, James Heneker and Peter Doig coped. Such a small community would have been tight knit, each looking out for the other in this frontier town in one of the harshest areas of the hottest state in Australia. They would have rallied around and tried to help the family out as much as possible, and sadly difficult times would have been part of life for them all.
The more I read about my great great grandfather, and the things he did in his life once arriving in South Australia as a 12 year old lad, the more I come to love and respect the man. I am so proud to be part of his family, as many other Heneker family members would agree, I am sure.
The Headstone erected at Beltana Cemetery for the lost family reads:
Dearly beloved wife of W. Johnson
aged 32 years
Aged 5 years and 6 months
Aged 5 years and 5 months
Aged 3 years and 6 months
Aged 2 months and 2 weeks
Who were accidentally burned to death, on 15 December 1881
May their souls rest in peace
“Since we cannot tell today, What tomorrow’s dawn may bring,
Saviour, draw our hearts away, far from every earthly thing,
Make us in they service steady”
Erected as a mark of respect by T. Pearce.