Daily Archives: December 30, 2008

The Yarra in flood August 1842


View from Dalvey Street Heidelberg showing Yarra in flood

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen the Yarra in flood.   As a child, we lived in a house on top of the hill overlooking Warringal Park in Heidelberg.  Justice John Walpole Willis- the first resident Supreme Court judge-  would have walked around our very site because that is where he lived (and hence my first spark of interest in him).  We could always see when the Yarra flooded from our front garden, as you can see from the photo above, taken probably in the late 60s-early 70s.   I can remember the school buses having to slosh through the floodwaters to get to my now-demolished school, Banyule High School.

The Yarra has always been a focal point for the village of Melbourne.  It was the availability of fresh water above “the falls” at the bottom of William Street that determined the location of the settlement.  It’s been a major transport route to Port Phillip Bay; it’s been an industrial sewer; it’s still used recreationally (although I wouldn’t swim in it), and it’s now the site for the casino, exhibition centre, restaurants etc.

Until it was so heavily dammed and flood mitigation works completed, the Yarra used to flood quite regularly.   Although the worst flood was in 1891, the last great flood was in 1934. My father, who lived in Hawthorn, recalls the houses beside the river being flooded up to their roofline, and seeing the four legs of a dead horse being bashed by the floodwaters against the top of  the Wallan Road bridge which only just escaped inundation.

The first recorded flood of the Yarra River was in 1839, but Judge Willis would have also seen the flood in August 1842.  Here’s what the Port Phillip Herald of 2 August 1842 had to say:

During last week, owing to the very heavy rains of Monday and Tuesday, the Yarra has risen to a height altogether unknown to the oldest resident, and overflowed its banks, inundated the wharf, and substituted one sheet of water on the other side of the river for the green grassy fields, which [indistinct] that locality have hitherto opened up to view and even the new road from the Beach to the bridge, which, it was supposed, from its elevation, to be free from inundation, was flooded in many places.

Mind you, “the oldest resident” would only have been in Port Phillip for seven years anyway, so this is no great claim.  In an interesting twist on public memory, the Port Phillip Herald of 6th September 1842 reported that the aborigines of the town designated this particular flood as only a ‘picaninny’ with worse to come, and indicated that a flood about twenty years ago had flooded the area occupied by the Market Square.  The elevated, but flooded road was being built by the labour of unemployed workers as part of the limited public works program.

On Sunday crowds of the inhabitants were to be seen promenading on the new wharf looking with intense interest to the breakwater overflowing in rushing torrents, in humble imitation of the falls of Niagara.

Very humble imitation , I’d say.  The “falls” were not particularly high-  more a ridge that separated the fresh water from the salt.   The governor, George Gipps, even harked back to his engineering background in the military by drawing up plans to build a larger breakwater across the falls.  But Niagara?  “Tell ’em they’re dreamin'” (Source: The Castle)

The damage to the brickmakers has been very great, all of them having been compelled to seek other habitations at a moment’s notice, their houses being now flooded three feet deep.

The brickfields were on the south side of the Yarra.  The location was derided by the more respectable inhabitants of Port Phillip as being the source of vice and degradation.  You sometimes see “the brickfields” given as the address for people facing the Police or Supreme court.

All the beautiful gardens on the banks, including Messrs. Orr, Curr, Welsh, the Hon Mr Murray, and Major St John &c &c are also completely under water, as well as those at Heidelberg.  Captain Cole’s wharf, which has been raised several feet by the earth cut out from the dock, presents the extraordinary appearance of a “dissolute island”, being completely surrounded with water.

The floodwaters at Heidelberg meant that Judge Willis could not make it into town from Heidelberg to attend court.  And somehow, I don’t think I’ll ever see the Yarra in flood again.


It would seem that the Aborigines were right when they predicted even higher flooding.  The Port Phillip Herald of October 28 1842 reports:

The prediction of the blacks that the flood of August was but a picanniny one compared with that yet to come, by which the water would reach the custom house was nearly realized, the water reaching within a few feet of that building, and we hear that it rose to the amazing height of fifty feet at Heidelberg.

‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield


1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”