Floods and memory

My mother told me only last week of a memory that came back to her during the recent flood in Brisbane.  She says she clearly remembers sitting on a table, eating bread and golden syrup, and looking out at floodwaters spreading across the valley between her house and the railway line.  My grandparents lived in a wooden Queenslander, low at the front, high at the back, on a ridge in Taringa.  Mum was born in 1926, so this memory must come from 1931, when she was 5.  That valley – the large block of land bordered by Burns Rd and Moggill Rd – is now densely packed with units.

Queen St Brisbane flood 1893

Queen St, Brisbane, January 1893

Floods are not new in Brisbane.  Discussion of natural disasters in Australia tends to swing between two extremes.  On the one hand, there is a lot of Dorothea Mackellar-influenced rhetoric, about the droughts and flooding rains of this sunburnt country.  This may be linked to some twaddle about national character, pioneering spirit, stoicism, yada yada yada, and associated blah.

On the other hand, there’s also a point of view that these natural disasters – bushfires in Victoria and Canberra, the recent Queensland floods, whatever – are exceptional, a consequence of environmental catastrophe and climate change.  Both perspectives come with too much baggage, too many hidden agendas.  It’s time for historians to join the debate.

We know quite a lot about floods in the Brisbane River, even if our written sources only go back so far.

On 17 May 1770, as Cook sailed the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia, naming Cape Moreton along the way, Joseph Banks noted in his diary that the sea was a ‘dirty clay colour, appearing much as if charged with freshes’.  Banks guessed that there must be a large river mouth nearby.  The colour of the water suggests the river was running strongly, perhaps in flood.  This would fit in with current theories that 1770 was a La Nina year in Australia.  Both Cook and Banks wrote glowing accounts of the verdant land they saw, whereas when Governor Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in 1788, 18 years later, they found a much drier and more difficult land, typical of an El Nino pattern.

In late 1823, the NSW Government Surveyor, John Oxley, explored the river (which he named after the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane) as far upstream as Goodna, and the following year the first European settlement was established, first on Moreton Bay at Redcliffe, then upstream in what is now Brisbane’s Central Business District, in 1825.

When Europeans first arrived, the river was a slow moving, shallow, meandering river, with wide mangrove banks. The first post-colonial flood occurred in 1841.  Some people think this was as high as later, more famous floods, but the river has changed so much since then that comparison with later floods is impossible.

In the 1850s, the river bar was less than 2 metres at low tide, and needed dredging if ocean going ships were to enter the river.  In 1866, the first major reshaping of the river took place when a 5m. deep channel was dredged across the river mouth, the Francis Channel.  This allowed deep keeled sailing ships to come upstream as far as Petrie Bight.  Further channelling took place during the late 19th century, and in 1896, they used gelignite to blast a 6 m. channel near Lytton.

As the river was pummelled into shape, the current became faster, and the river more turbid.  Early visitors, including Oxley, describe the river as transparent, with the sand and shale bottom clearly visible; by the end of the 19th century, it was fast moving and opaque, full of silt from grazing, logging, and degraded riverbanks.

There have been many floods since European settlement began in 1824 – in 1869, 1890, 1893, 1931, 1974, 2011 – and there will be more.

The 1974 flood was caused by Cyclone Wanda, which crossed the coast on 24 January, and became a heavy rain depression.  Brisbane had 317 mm. of rain on 26 January, the wettest day since 1887.  Off the coast, the low pressure system caused a storm surge and unnaturally high tides.

There was no cyclone in 2011.  The pattern of the recent flood seems close to that of the floods of 1893, when three floods occurred – on 5, 12, and 19 February.  The 1893 flood, like our recent one, began with a cloudburst in the catchment area behind Brisbane, in this case the Conondale Ranges.  36 inches (900mm.) of rain fell in 24 hours, and led to flash flooding.  Henry Somerset of Caboonbah described it:

‘…I heard a roaring sound, and looking west towards Mt. Beppo … I heard a louder noise quite different, so looking eastward I saw a WALL OF WATER fully fifty feet high coming round the bend.  Astonished, I watched it pass the gum tree, and saw it submerge (i.e. exceed) the 1890 flood mark knob, and, while observing the tree, I felt the verandah floor lifting me, as the wall of water struck the cliff nearly two hundred yards away; the doors and windows rattled, the house shook as by an earthquake…. ‘

Shades of Grantham.

Somerset was concerned enough to send his servant to Esk with a telegram for the postmaster general in Brisbane: ‘Please warn inhabitants Brisbane, Goodna, Ipswich, Lowood, other centres, of tremendous flood, 1890 level already exceeded several feet.  Stanley River only, Brisbane to follow.’  Nobody did a thing, except to paste the telegram to a blackboard outside the GPO.  That was about it for flood warnings in 1893.


Peter Davie, Errol Stock, Darryl Low Choy (eds.), The Brisbane River: A Source-Book for the Future (1990)

J. G. Steele, The Brisbane River (1976)

5 responses to “Floods and memory

  1. magic stuff! Is this what history is for? So has there ever been a rain-depression-caused flood and a cyclone-caused flood in the same year since whites arrived?

    • Thanks Sally. I’m not sure, but I fear we may be about to find out! In 1893 there were 3 floods in just over a fortnight in Brisbane, but they really didn’t have enough technology to identify cyclones before they hit.

  2. Pingback: One Year On | Historians are Past Caring

  3. When I wrote a blog post about flooding in southern Queensland last year I included a link to a page on the Bureau of Meteorology website about the history of flooding in the Brisbane and Ipswich areas.

    Tim Sherratt has produced an interesting graph of the number of times the word “flood” has been mentioned in the historic digitised newspapers of Australia. Click on they year that you are interested in on the graph and on the right a list of hyperlinks to the newspaper articles mentioning the word “flood” will be produced.

    Our family is from Victoria but for a few months we lived in Gladstone during the 1960s. Our family photo album has pictures of floods in Brisbane – presumably while we were driving to Gladstone. Yes, floods are a disruptive part of life for many people in Australia.

    • Thanks for the link, Yvonne. The BOM site is wonderful – and I keep finding new things on it. And it makes sense, too, that Intelligent weather forecasters are interested in the historic record, as well as collecting whatever indigenous knowledge they can find. I’m always happy to see good communications between sciencists and historians – we can offer each other a lot.

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