Tag Archives: Floods

An era of drought

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales (4th ed., 1875), John Dunmore Lang makes a number of notable references to weather patterns in the colony and consequences for the inhabitants.

In discussing exploration in the time of Governor Macquarie, Lang notes that floods on the Hawkesbury River were succeeded ‘in the usual course of the seasons in New South Wales, by a serious drought in the year 1813’ (p. 163). Given that the colony had over 65,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle, and nearly 2,000 horses, it was imperative to find new pastures for them, and this gave an impulse to search for land on the other side of the Blue Mountains.

A quarter of a century later there was a momentous period of drought in the time of Governor Darling. That Governor’s tenure (1825-1831) was marked by ‘four remarkable epochs’: ‘the era of general excitement … the era of general depression … the era of drought … the era of libels’ (p. 196).

In 1825 the Australian Agricultural Company was formed as a joint-stock company under Royal Charter, to cultivate land, to rear sheep, cattle and horses, and to contribute to the improvement of the colony (pp. 196 ff.). It had a capital of a million pounds sterling and was authorised to select and take possession of a million acres free of charge. Around the same time, other men of means in England, with agents in New South Wales, obtained extensive grants of land. The price of livestock had been rising during the time of Governor Brisbane (1821-1825), when landholdings increased and there was a corresponding demand for sheep and cattle. With the advent of the Australian Agricultural Company and the great extension of landholdings at that time the additional demand caused prices to rise rapidly. And then a ‘sheep and cattle mania’ formerly unknown in the colony ‘instantly seized on all ranks and classes of its inhabitants’ (p. 198). Barristers and attorneys, military officers and civilians, clergymen and doctors, merchants, settlers and dealers wanted to buy sheep and cattle at the markets.

The large numbers of sheep and cattle bought in 1826 and 1827 had to be paid for, they and their progeny had to be fed, and in the meantime agriculture contracted through an over-emphasis on livestock and grazing. It was even more disastrous, therefore, when encouraging weather gave way to a drought that lasted for nearly three years, from 1827 to 1829.

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852], pp. 163, 196-210. The literature on Governor Darling includes: ‘Darling, Sir Ralph (1772-1858)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 282-286, and online; Brian H. Fletcher, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1984; Brian Fletcher, ‘Ralph Darling (19 December 1825 – 22 October 1831)’, in David Clune and Ken Turner (ed.), The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010, Annandale NSW, Federation Press, 2009, chap. 7 (pp. 148-166).

The five Macquarie towns

Just before Christmas in the year 1810, Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued an Order in which he noted the ‘frequent Inundations of the Rivers Hawkesbury and Nepean,’ the calamitous effects of these inundations on the crops in that vicinity, and the consequent serious injury to the subsistence of the Colony. To guard against a recurrence of such calamities, he had ‘deemed it expedient … to erect certain Townships on the most contiguous and eligible high Grounds in the several Districts subjected to those Inundations.’

The stated purpose of the townships was to provide accommodation and security to the settlers affected by the floods. Accordingly the townships were organised on a particular basis. Each settler was to be assigned ‘an Allotment of Ground for a Dwelling house, Offices, Garden, Corn-yard, and Stock-yard proportioned to the Extent of the Farm he holds within the influence of the Floods.’ These allotments could not be sold or alienated separate from the farms in connection with which they were allotted; they were always to be considered part of these farms.

The five districts concerned, and the names of the townships to be established, were: Green Hills, Windsor; Richmond Hill, Richmond; Nelson, Pitt Town; Phillip, Wilberforce; and Nepean, Castlereagh.

The local constables were to submit returns listing the settlers whose farms were affected by flood, the number of persons in their families, the size of their farms, and the number of animals in their flocks and herds. These returns, on the relevant form, were to go to the Principal Magistrate, William Cox, and from him to the Governor. The Acting Surveyor was then to mark out allotments.

Following this process, settlers were to erect houses as soon as possible and move in. The houses were to be of brick or weather-board, with brick chimneys and shingled roofs, and were to be no less than nine feet high. Official plans for the houses and offices would be left with the District Constable, and each settler had to build in conformity with these plans.

Christmas Day holiday and services

Just before Christmas in the same year, the Sydney Gazette also carried orders concerning Christmas Day (which fell on a Tuesday). ‘By divine Permission’ the church of St. Phillip, at Sydney, was to be consecrated on that day by the Principal Chaplain, Rev. Samuel Marsden. The Governor announced that he ‘is pleased to dispense with the Labour of all the Prisoners, and other Men working for the Government, on Christmas Day and the Day following.’ They were required to work as usual on other days of the week. Moreover, they were required on Christmas Day to parade at the usual hour and place for Divine Service.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 15/12/1810, p. 1; similarly, ibid., 22/12/1810, p. 1. Cf. ‘The Macquarie Towns’, State Library of NSW website. St. Phillip’s church: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 22/12/1810, pp. 2-3. Christmas Day holiday: ibid., p. 3.

The pursuit of knowledge under difficulties

Mrs. Boatright and her School for Young Ladies at No. 6, Colonnade, Bridge-street, Sydney, had a decidedly notable neighbour at No. 7. George William Evans, bookseller and stationer, was formerly a surveyor in Government employment and an experienced and successful explorer. His expedition in late 1813 was the first fully to cross the Great Dividing Range, after the partial crossing by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth earlier that year.

Born in England in 1780, Evans married in 1798 and emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope. From there he moved to New South Wales in 1802. He worked for a time as an official store-keeper at Parramatta, then in 1803 became acting Surveyor-General and explored the Warragamba River. In 1805 he became a farmer on the Hawkesbury River but suffered in the floods of 1806. In 1809 and following years he was involved in surveying and exploring, with the areas of his responsibilities varying between New South Wales and Tasmania. He surveyed Jervis Bay (1812); explored the Illawarra district in an expedition from Jervis Bay to Appin (1812); surveyed land grants in Van Diemen’s Land (1812); led an expedition across the Great Dividing Range to the Macquarie River on the other side of Bathurst (1813); received as a reward a grant of land near Richmond in Van Diemen’s Land; went to Hobart (1814); returned to Sydney to serve as a guide for an official tour of districts towards Bathurst (1815); explored various areas south of Bathurst (1815); went back to Hobart (1815); returned to Sydney to join John Oxley in exploring the Lachlan River (1817); went back again to Van Diemen’s Land (1817); again returned to Sydney to join Oxley in exploring the Macquarie River (1817-1818); returned to Hobart for land survey work; accompanied an expedition to Macquarie Harbour (1822); resigned (1825) on health grounds, subsequent to controversy over favours dispensed by the former Lieutenant-Governor (William Sorell) and survey officials; received a pension; returned to England; taught art; lost his property in a banking failure (according to the Sydney Morning Herald); obtained a lump sum in lieu of his pension and returned to Sydney (1831); established a business as a bookseller and stationer (1832), first at No. 4 the Colonnade, then No. 7, then in Lower George Street; worked also as drawing master at The King’s School (Parramatta); published a book (A Love Story, by a Bushman) which the Sydney Gazette hailed as apparently ‘the first novel the Australian press has put forth’ (1841); retired from his business as bookseller and stationer (1842); moved to Hobart (1844); and died there in 1852.

This brief survey of events, extending across the first half of the nineteenth century, necessarily gives only the merest outline of a life full of activity and adventure. George William Evans could have been a figure in one of the books he sold to customers, George Craik’s The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties.

His time in Sydney as bookseller and stationer was marred in the end by an accusation of forgery relating to unexplained alterations in a tender document for the supply of stationery to the Government. He was arrested and allowed out on bail, then found not guilty. The case must have taken a toll, he was in his early sixties, and he retired from business soon after and left Sydney, never to return.

The biographical sequence given above is based mainly on details in A.K. Weatherburn, ‘Evans, George William (1780-1852)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 359-360, and online. Cf. A.K. Weatherburn, George William Evans, Explorer, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1966; idem, Australia’s Interior Unveiled: A Biography of George William Evans (1780-1852), Surveyor, Explorer and Artist, Ryde, NSW, A.K. Weatherburn, 1987. No. 4, Colonnade: cf. e.g. Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4/10/1832, p.4. George Street: cf. e.g. Australasian Chronicle 20/2/1841, p. 3. [William Harvey Christie], A Love Story, by a Bushman, 2 vols., Sydney, G.W. Evans (printed by Kemp and Fairfax), 1841. Court case: cf. e.g. Sydney Herald 29/4/1842, p. 3, 18/7/1842, p. 2. Biographical note: Sydney Morning Herald 2/1/1843, p. 2.

Pure luck and pure water

Mr Alex Johnston, senior member of the firm of railway contractors Johnston and Co., was necessarily a man of energy and resourcefulness. In May 1886 the Queanbeyan Age had occasion to report on two unusual incidents in his career, which incidentally throw light on the challenges of travel in New South Wales in the 1880s, progress in railway construction, and the difficulties of an exasperating climate.

The first incident concerned his recent adventures in trying to get from Sydney to Queanbeyan for an urgent meeting which he could hardly afford to miss. He had started off from Redfern in a sleeping car, expecting to be woken to get off at Goulburn, from where he needed to take a different train for the following stage of his journey. Next morning he awoke to find himself out at Bowning, the other side of Yass, some distance from Goulburn. Fortunately an up-train was about to go through, and he was able to signal this down and return to Goulburn. At that point his good fortune continued: a goods train was about to leave for Bungendore, which was on the way to Queanbeyan, carrying materials to be used by his own company in railway construction. From Bungendore the firm’s ballast engine took him to the Molonglo River, six miles from Queanbeyan, and he was able to travel the rest of the distance by buggy and arrive in good time for his meeting.

If that experience was heart-stopping, the other incident was distinctly odd. The countryside around Queanbeyan was extremely parched. The Queanbeyan River was almost dry. The water had ceased to flow and in the vicinity of Queanbeyan the river was a bed of mud and rubbish. People were getting their water from dirty puddles. Mr Johnston came to the rescue in a curious way. The piers of the new railway bridge were hollow, and were found to contain an ‘inexhaustible supply’ of pure water. How this could be, the article does not explain. Presumably excavations had tapped into an underground water-source. If people were willing to use this water, Mr Johnston was willing to instal a temporary pump for their benefit. The newspaper comments: ‘This generous act of Mr. Johnston’s is worthy of public commendation and gratitude.’

The praise for Mr Johnston was no doubt genuine. Two months later we find him being praised very fulsomely, at a farewell party for some of his staff, for his qualities as an employer and for his public-spiritedness.

Another month went by and the newspaper was reporting heavy rains in the area and significant catches of fish in the river. By December of that year the Molonglo River, into which the Queanbeyan River flows, was above the high flood marks. At Queanbeyan a man attempting to cross the flooded river on horse-back was swept away a considerable distance and had to be rescued.

Two incidents: Queanbeyan Age 18/5/1886, p. 2. Farewell party: Queanbeyan Age 29/7/1886, p. 2. Rain and fish: Queanbeyan Age 10/8/1886, p. 2;  2/9/1886, p. 2. Horse and rider: Queanbeyan Age 9/12/1886, p. 2.

The Molonglo River flows into the Murrumbidgee River on the western edge of Canberra.

Flooding in the Riverina

The tendency to flooding on the plains of the Riverina was well known when the railway line was put through from Sydney to Albury in the nineteenth century.

The first section of public railway line laid in Australia was opened in Sydney on 26 September 1855. Twenty-five years later, after a number of stops and starts, the Great Southern Railway line was completed to the border with Victoria.

The line was opened to North Wagga in September 1878, and then to South Wagga in September 1879 after a bridge was built over the Murrumbidgee River, first a temporary timber and then an iron bridge. The bridge over the river needed to be long to span possible flood waters.

Flooding also had to be taken into account in constructing the line from South Wagga to Albury. The plains, being very level, are prone to flooding. Viaducts with flood openings were built to carry the line in a number of places. The largest viaduct was across Billabong Creek at Culcairn. Both have featured in news of recent floods in the area.

A great deal of timber was needed for the various works associated with the railway, including viaducts, stations and buildings.

The completed line was opened in Albury on 3 February 1881. The Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes, and other members of Parliament left Sydney at 10.00 pm the evening before on a Ministerial train and arrived in Albury at noon. There was also an official party that came by train from Melbourne, under the leadership of the Victorian Premier, the Honourable Graham Berry.