Pre-1893 Floods in Brisbane and Ipswich

For Brisbanites, the floods of 1893 have gone down in history as being the most destructive to hit their city. There were, however, many different flood events to hit Brisbane and Ipswich before that time. The following article was written by JJ Knight in the aftermath of the 1893 floods as a reminder of those earlier deluges, all of them still within living memory.

Charlotte Street (from the corner of George Street) during the flood of March 1864. SLQ.

Queenslander, 18 March 1893

'Some Early Day Floods.

BY J.J. KNIGHT.
The recent floods afforded an excellent opportunity for a controversy as to the extent of former day inundations as compared with the trio which visited Brisbane last month. Thus, while some affirmed that at least one flood of bygone days (1841) equalled in magnitude the latest visitation, by far the majority have declared that the disaster of 1893 occupies the premier position. Of course, what are now high lands were in 1841 depressions subject to the action of ordinary high tides (thanks to the creeks which at that time crossed some of the present principal thoroughfares), while a large volume of water which now finds its way through dredged channels would in days gone by have been almost sufficient to cover parts of what were described by Dr. Lang as "the alluvial flats of Brisbane." There can, however, be no question as to the fact that the floods of 1893 were the highest in the recollection of the white inhabitant.

It is interesting, too, to note how while one section has systematically abused the Stanley and other tributaries of the Brisbane River another has laid the blame at the doors of those who ignored the just claims of Nature and fixed the site of the city on what has practically been proved to be part of the river bed. As a matter of fact, when the site of Brisbane was selected its liability to flooding did suggest itself to the mind of the discoverer (Oxley), but it was quickly dismissed as improbable. Oxley found the country looking its best, and "there being no appearance of its being flooded, no mark being found higher than 7ft. above the level, which is little more than would be caused by the floodtide at high water forcing back any unusual accumulation of waters in rainy seasons," the gallant lieutenant may be exonerated from all blame in the matter. Besides, Oxley had been sent out to search for a site not for a city but for a penal settlement, one of the chief recommendations for which would be the presence of fine agricultural country. Oxley never dreamt of a Stanley or a Lockyer (though he had found and named the Bremer), as is shown by his own words:
"I felt justified in entertaining a strong belief that the sources of the river will not be found in a mountainous country but rather that it flows from some lake which will prove to be the receptacle of those interior streams crossed by me during an expedition of discovery in 1818!" 
From the remarks of Oxley just quoted it is apparent that for some years prior to 1823 no flood had occurred in the Brisbane. In 1825, however, the penal settlement was visited by an inundation, and the fortunate circumstance that Major Lockyer was examining the upper reaches of the river at the time served to dispel Oxley's illusion about an interior lake. Lockyer had on the 21st September camped at a place "which, from the colour of the soil, was named Redbank," when the first effects of the flood were felt. For a day or two previous heavy rain had fallen, but on the day in question it had cleared up. In the early morning Lockyer had noticed that the water level had risen 1ft. within an hour, and its discoloured appearance indicated that a flood was coming down. "The rapidity of the current increased every hour, and the river had risen upwards of 8ft. by 11 o'clock" - three and a half hours after the first rise had been noted. 

Lockyer was compelled to camp for a day or two. He then made another start, but travelling by boat was extremely difficult, and after four days' exertion a narrow escape from losing his boat and provisions caused him to decide to pursue his investigations on foot. The tributaries of the Brisbane must have been doing their best to sweep out of existence the one dark spot in Northern Australia known as Moreton Bay if we may judge of the experience of Lockyer on his memorable trip. Lockyer's idea as to where these tributaries were is as amusing as Oxley's opinion as to the source of the river. He says: 
"I think it very probable that the large swamp into which the river at Bathurst loses itself occasionally overflows, and is the cause of the tremendous floods that at times take place on the Brisbane River!"
It would thus appear that inundations here were known to Lockyer if they were not to Oxley, and his remark that "on our way we had many proofs of a small flood; a large one must be terrific," plainly demonstrates that Lockyer was possessed of information concerning the place which in later years would have been extremely useful had it been available. 

The next flood I can trace was that of January, 1841. Unfortunately no complete records were kept, but Mr. John Kent, who died many years ago, took the level of the Bremer and found the rise to be 55ft. What the rise in the Brisbane was I am unable to discover, but the late Mr. John Petrie in my many interviews with him often alluded to "the great flood of 1841." The rainfall here was nearly 20in., and if we add to this the 55ft. rise in the Bremer and the water from the Stanley, which was heavy, we can readily understand that the inundation was a serious one. There is an anecdote about a coloured man named Cassim (who died a few years ago at Cleveland, where he kept a hotel) coming down from Ipswich on a pumpkin to report that the place was out of provisions, but in the absence of reliable records I take the story with the proverbial grain of salt. 

Heavy floods followed in January, 1844, and December, 1845, and the intervening years to 1852 were marked by minor deluges. Even the opponents of Dr. Lang gave him the credit of being a far-seeing man, and that he was not misjudged in this respect is shown by his views as to the eligibility of the site, which I am led to quote even at the risk of offending property owners on the south side. The doctor had experienced difficulty in crossing the river, and complains thusly:
"So late as the month of December, 1846, I had to wait from 9 o'clock in the morning to nearly 4 in the after-noon till I could get my horse ferried over from Brisbane town in the miserable apparatus even then available for the purpose. In this way a local interest was established on the south side of the river, where the Government was moved to lay off and sell building allotments at a somewhat lower minimum price - in a perfect swamp, however, liable to fearful inundations."
The veteran then goes on to designate South Brisbane as "unsafe" and "insalubrious," and urges the Government to place on the river a good punt, and thus aid in the concentration of the population on a spot in the immediate neighbourhood in the highest degree salubrious and beyond the reach of inundations. 

The flood or, to be more correct, the floods of 1852 were in many respects similar to our latest experience. Rain set in on the 16th March and continued until the 20th, when extreme wet gave place to extreme heat. This rain caused a considerable fresh in the river, and Stanley-street, among other low-lying places, was covered. The Courier in its weather report on the occasion remarked that "Stanley-street might be more appropriately called Stanley Creek!" Anyone standing on the roadway at McGhie, Luya's, and looking at the level of the ground on each side of the street, will be struck with the slight difference that exists between the river level and that of the bank. However, the flood subsided, only to be followed a fortnight later by one of greater dimensions. Rain recommenced falling on the 8th April (Thursday), and was accompanied by heavy squalls. This sort of thing continued until Saturday, when there was a lull, and it was expected that the worst had been seen. Doubts were dispelled on Sunday when the rain again tumbled down, and the Stanley and Bremer waters came down, bringing with them casks of tallow from John Smith's boiling down works, wool, produce of all kinds, trees, and other debris. 

Only the other day a resident of the forties gave to a well-known gentleman in this city his recollections of the '52 inundation. These were committed to paper and kindly handed to me. The narrative reads:
"On the occasion of the 1852 flood the water came up Albert-street above Elizabeth-street. It covered the late Mr. William Sheehan's property in Queen-street, long known as the site of St. Patrick's Tavern, and crossing Queen-street it went into Adelaide-street at the Albert street corner, now known as the saleyards. From Sheehan's property down to the north side of Edward-street was under water, as well as the bulk of the land fronting Queen-street and lying between Edward, Adelaide, and Creek Streets. On the river bank the water entered the old building known as the Colonial Stores, and the flood mark was fixed at the foot of the arch, which in those days existed over the steps leading from near the present Queen's wharf up to St. John's Church, between the Colonial Stores and the present Museum Building. South Brisbane was all under water, the only part visible being two ridges, which looked like whalebacks standing out of the water." 
As a matter of fact, however, the '52 flood was not nearly so high as that of eleven years before, and it is possible that the old colonist errs when he says the water crossing Queen-street from St. Patrick's Tavern (which, by the way, stood where the People's Cash Store is now located) went into Adelaide-street. Other old residents assert that the water never crossed Queen-street at the point in question, and I incline to the belief that the water at the Albert-street corner of Adelaide street got there up the creek which flowed from the river at Creek-street, thence by a serpentine course under Alfred Shaw and Co.'s premises, along Adelaide-street, and terminated in a chain of waterholes between the present Town Hall Reserve and the old Reservoir. 

Be this as it may, the fact remains that the 1852 experience was a mere flea-bite, though there is no denying it did a deal of damage to property. The Condamine was in heavy flood about the same time, and - strange coincidence - a similar state of affairs existed in the South. In view of a suggestion which has been made by a correspondent the following proclamation issued in 1852 may not prove uninteresting:
"The Governor-General directs it to be notified that, in consideration of the distressing circumstances attending the recent inundation of the village of Gundagai, his Excellency, with the advice of the Executive Council, has been pleased to sanction an arrangement by which holders of allotments in that village which are liable to inundation will be permitted to obtain land in some other situation and of a like value as nearly as may be estimated."
This concession was not extended to Moreton Bay, probably because we were not in such a plight as our Southern neighbours. On the occasion referred to the valley of the Murrumbidgee was converted into an inland sea; the town of Gundagai was swept away, only seven buildings remaining out of seventy-eight, and eighty-nine persons out of a population of 250 perished. 

May of 1857 saw a big rise in the Brisbane and the consequent flooding of streets, but this was a mere circumstance to that which occurred in February of 1863. On this occasion the inundation was heralded by a terrific cyclone which played great havoc along the coast, and caused the captains of the immigrant ships Everton and Wanata to choose the open sea rather than remain at anchor in the Bay. Two days later (the 15th) the waters from the Upper Brisbane came down, and sent the Brisbane up to the 1841 level. 

Another flood followed in 1864, but this was scarcely equal to the one of the previous year; 1869 and 1875 also witnessed floods, but it was not until 1887 that we really began to realise the area drained by the river and its tributaries. If any doubts existed with respect to this the occurrence of 1890 would set them at rest, and I make bold to say that not one out of every hundred persons would even then have thought the Brisbane capable of such a surprise as was furnished by the three floods of last month. It is of course a moot point what the next will be like, but it is a painful fact that high as the last floods were they did not reach the boundary shown on the geological map which marks the original bed of the Brisbane River. Indeed from a study of the map in question it would seem that Nature is slowly bat surely taking revenge for the encroachments made on her preserves by the civilising agency of man. 

Drifting away from floods in the Brisbane it may be remarked that other towns in the colony have at various times had awful experiences, and it is not a little remarkable that these have been coincident with our own. To go into them fully, however, would take more time and space than can at present be devoted to them, but in passing it may be mentioned that the Fitzroy has shown an especial aptitude for breaking out of bounds. The largest of the earlier floods there, I believe, happened in 1862, '63, and '64. In the first year the trouble was caused by a phenomenal rainfall (22½ in. in thirty-nine hours), which sent the river up on the 1st April 20ft. above spring tides, and enabled the Messrs. Archer to sail seven miles across country on a rescue expedition.'