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.