Friday, 14 June 2013

Hawkesbury River floods

The Hawkesbury River has a long history of floods and when Governor Phillip and his party explored the district shortly after arrival, debri was noted in the tree branches. In 1799 the river rose over 15m followed by three huge floods recorded including 1806. 1809, 1817 and 1819 saw a number of floods with heights reaching 14m and widespread damage in the Hawkesbury. 

Inhabitants had a period of calm with no major floods for over thirty years. Then successive floods in June 1864 caused major problems in the Hawkesbury, when the river rose and peaked at 14.64m. Buildings were seriously damaged, several were completely destroyed. Over 1000 people were made destitute with many families having no homes to go to. The agricultural district suffered heavy losses. Stacks of hay and corn were carried away, also pigs, cattle and horses.   

But the biggest was yet to come. On 17 June 1867 it began to rain.  The rain continued and became heavier and strong winds blew. By 20 June 1867, the whole district was covered with water, as far as the eye could see.  Within a few days the levels were almost to the height of the 1864 flood and rising quickly. All the available boats were answering the distress calls of inhabitants, so additional boats were sent from Sydney on a special train, arriving at Windsor. By 22 June the water was rising at the rate of seven inches per hour eventually reaching a massive 19.26m

Source: Illustrated Sydney News 16 July 1867, p. 8. 

Amazingly there was only one report of fatalities as a result of this flood. members of the Eather family drowned at Cornwallis. Two wives and their ten children were drowned, the two husbands and one boy were saved. Not all of the bodies were immediately recovered, but those that were, are located in the Windsor Catholic Cemetery. The body of a child was found several months later, at Freemans Reach, and another inquest was held. 

When waters receded, the destruction along the Hawkesbury were revealed and heavy losses were recorded. The floods covered a large part of NSW including Goulburn and the Hunter district, however the Hawkesbury was the worst hit. 

Although there have been numerous floods since European settlement, there has been nothing like the 1867 disastrous flood. It was almost 100 years later when floodwaters rose to 15.1m mark. A relatively short time later, in 1964 another flood occurred, the river rising 14.51m. 

Source: Windsor floods, date unknown.
Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum

For more information about Hawkesbury floods, check historic newspaper accounts on Trove and also Disastrous decade : flood and fire in Windsor 1864-1874 by Michelle Nichols (Berowra Heights, N.S.W. : Deerubbin Press, 2001)


  1. Thanks for the info Michelle. Many of my Hawkesbury rels, notable Robert Hobbs suffered through the many floods and was on and off stores quite a bit. You wonder of the resilience of your ancestors, though I suppose they just had to accept it and keep going if they wanted to eat - no free handouts there really.
    I found this that may be of interest showing the severity of the floods:
    1824 Jul 24
    Pitt Town. Memorial (Fiche 3092; 4/1837B No.461 p.753)
    Year Height (m) Height Feet & ins.
    1799 March 15.25m 50'
    1800 March 12.20m 40'
    1806 March 14.64m 48'
    1806 August 14.33m 47'
    1806 October 9.15m 30'
    1809 May 14.64m 48'
    1809 August 14.49m 47'6"


  2. Thanks for the comments Robbie. I think our Hawkesbury relatives were made of hardy stuff.

  3. I'm at least glad that floods in Hawkesbury are far and in between these days - you can't expect any less from mad weather in Australia hey? But I have learnt that you should never say never. It's just a plain jinx.

  4. I am one of many decendents of the Eather/McMahon families and have loved researching our family history in the Hawkesbury. This flood was such a tragedy for our family. Thanks so much for sharing

  5. I found that there was another big flood in 1898 which you don't seem to mention. In this flood the river rose about 10 metres. Huge quantities of pumpkins and melons were washed away before being harvested and floated down the river. I found this on Trove:

  6. I recently was given a copy of 2 pages of a letter (not the complete letter) held at PRONI in Belfast in a collection called the Moore Collection and written by an unknown felon transported to Australia (?). I was able to identify it as written by Tristram Moore my 5 x gt grandfather transported from County Derry in Ireland as a rebel Irish comvict on Atlas 2 in 1802 and who was an apothecary at Sydney Hospital. In the letter he states he was the only Apothecary at the hospital. The letter could be dated as he referred to food shortages in the Colony due to a flood when he had been here upward of 4 years - so 1806. I only found the March 1806 flood but have now come across this which indicates there were 3 floods in 1806. So his letter back to family in Ireland could have been written between March and November 1806 which is interesting in the context of a land document with his name on it in 1806-7. The details of the food shortage and cost of items are interesting. He never returned to Ireland. 

  7. Very nice your blog and article. I like this blog thank for sharing.