WA History

The Floods of 1862

The summer months are gone, but as yet we have not had rain. People are now anxiously looking for showers to restore the face of nature.

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 7 May 1862; Page 2; Champion Bay

By the end of May 1862, the barometer fell, and so did the rain. A month later, relief that the dry spell had broken gave way to concern. In the week preceding 20 June, thunder and lightning raged, and the rain fell heavily. It continued throughout the start of July. For three weeks, there was “an almost incessant fall of rain.” When it finally started to ease, newspapers first reported on the flooding in Perth.

The late heavy rains and long continued prevalence of northerly winds, have together caused the water in the estuary and river to rise to a height sufficient to create a considerable flooding of the low lands upon both banks of the Swan…

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (Perth, WA : 1848 – 1864); 4 July 1862; Page 2; General Intelligence

All the low-lying land in Perth was flooded. For days, The Causeway was underwater with nothing visible but the centre portion of the planking. The newly constructed road at the foot of Mt Eliza was thought to have been built high enough, but it, too, was flooded. Riverside gardens were submerged. Important plants and seeds planted at the base of the Government House gardens were lost. No one could see the jetty; the water level was so high that it covered it and passengers from the Lady Stirling disembarked at the Pier Hotel.

Flooding in Perth (near The Causeway) in 1862. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (6923B/41).

The mail was delayed and news of how country districts fared was scarce. Vague reports indicated that several bridges were swept away or damaged. The costs were rising, and though the floods had not yet subsided, reporters estimated that the figure to repair the destroyed roads and bridges could be between £15,000 to £20,000.

The flood with which we have been visited within the last few days is, we believe, unprecedented in the history of the Colony.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (Perth, WA : 1848 – 1864); 11 July 1862; Page 2; The Independent Journal. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

On 11 July 1862, The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News gave an account of the floods and the damage toll. They stated, “Up to the present time numerous reports of disasters have reached us from all sides.” At York, the water was flowing down the main road and people were travelling by raft. There was four-foot of water in the engine rooms of both Parkers’ and Meares’ Mills. Fourteen houses were swept away and numerous farm buildings were “either partially or totally destroyed, or under water…

Northam and Newcastle (Toodyay) suffered extensive damage. The force of the Avon River swept away the recently completed bridges in both places. Other reports of damage at Northam included: Wilding’s hotel was partially underwater, Mr Chidlow’s old home and mill went down the river, Mr Ainsworth’s new house was partially destroyed, and Mr Cooke’s mill was flooded. Seven houses were destroyed. One man was assumed to have lost his life. He was seen struggling in the river, calling for help. Sadly, no one could offer assistance.

In the Southern Districts, the Canning and Harvey bridges were damaged. Many buildings at Bunbury were flooded, and for six miles on the way to town, there was “nothing but a sheet of water.” At the Vasse, there was significant flooding, and many people moved to Bunbury for their safety. The mail carrier for the districts was determined to deliver the mail to Perth. He nearly drowned, but finally arrived at 5:30 pm on 10 July after swimming across the Serpentine, Murray, and Harvey Rivers. He reported that the bags were underwater for four hours.

George Clifton’s Rainfall Register

George Clifton kept a rainfall register at Fremantle, and it gives us a good indication of what they experienced. From 1 June until 9 July, nearly 16 inches of rain had fallen, 14 of which during a space of three weeks. The colony was not in a good place financially and the reporter noted that “All this calamity comes upon the colony at a time when it is but ill able to cope with it.” They also acknowledged the private cost; lives lost, families houseless, property lost, crops destroyed, and land damaged.

It would be several days before peoples’ stories and what they experienced came to light. Once the mail finally arrived, letters from those living in the country districts were printed in the Perth newspapers.

At the Irwin River, a writer stated, “I have been almost a prisoner for the last three weeks; such a spell of rain does not seem to be within the remembrance of any of the Irwinites.” A letter from Bunbury said something similar, “Never since we have been in the colony has there been such devastation caused by the floods.” And at Champion Bay, “We have had more rain here this year than we have ever had before – twenty-five days in June and every day in July up to date (July 10).

The letters also provided tales of survival and tragedy. A correspondent from Northam stated that as the water rose on Mr Chidlow’s flat, he and his family decided to cross the river in a boat at 12 am. Water surrounded Mr Wilding’s house, and Mrs Wilding, who was an invalid, was moved from room to room and then to the hayloft to escape the flood. Many families took shelter in the Northam Church.

The York correspondent opened their letter with the words, “It would be tiresome as it is painful to relate in detail, the vast amount of destruction caused by the terrible floods…” Houses, property, and entire fields were swept away. Cattle and horses were stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out. The old courthouse and police stables were demolished. Small cottages built close to the river were washed away, with their occupants escaping at midnight.

After the rain, the Greenough Flats resembled a vast lake. The water level was as high as the top fence rail, and two men lost their lives when they attempted to cross the river in a bark trough. All the rivers were high and the roads impassable. The mines at Northampton were flooded, and one man suffered terrible injuries when he fell down a mine shaft. For three weeks they had no deliveries of stores and the people were close to starving. A copy of a diary at the mines described immense damage to houses, huts, the police barracks, stables, and the chapel. Writing on 27 June, they recorded the following with respect to the storm: “Worse and worse – fifteen days and night’s rain without scarcely any intermission […] the whole heavens one dense cloud and the rain striking everything with the force of a sledge hammer.

We have but little to add to the account we gave in our last issue of the ravages caused by the flood which the colony has suffered from during the past fortnight, and from which it is now apparent no part of the occupied districts has escaped.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (Perth, WA : 1848 – 1864); 18 July 1862; Page 2; The Independent Journal.

The flood of 1862 was thought to be three feet higher than a flood that occurred in 1830. The height the water reached and the length of time it lasted (fourteen days) was unprecedented. By mid-August, the water had subsided, and communication with country areas was restored. Despite earlier terrible predictions, the damage to property was not as bad as expected. Sadly, five people lost their lives: Lieutenant Oliver at Perth when he attempted to cross The Causeway, shepherd James Roberts at York, an unknown man at Toodyay, and the two men at Greenough, Henry Young and Henry Lunderdale.

As time passed, repairs were made to roads and bridges, and people carried on. In Greenough, the floods were not as destructive as expected and actually improved some of the fields. By October, the weather there was delightful, and there was “every prospect of a good harvest.” For others, it would take time to overcome the difficulties, the experience leaving a lasting impression upon them. Decades later, as people aged, they were asked by reporters to share their memories of the past. In amongst their own stories and those of their friends and family, many often recounted the “great flood year” of 1862.



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