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Great flood at Ballarat, October 1869

Posted 13/10/2022 in History

On Saturday the 16th of October, over 150 years ago, Ballarat experienced devastating flooding of an unbelievable nature. 

Stores flooded, houses were submerged, planked footpaths were damaged, bridges were carried away, several pianos were quite destroyed, and when the water finally subsided the streets were left inundated with sludge! 

An unexpected rain storm had hit the region, and it wasn't long before all the flat and low-lying areas of Ballarat found themselves completely under water.

"The tradespeople in that great hive of business - Bridge street, saw with dismay the mighty torrent forcing its way through their backdoors, under and over their floors, dealing destruction and ruin in its headlong course. Every cellar was filled in less time, I suppose, than it takes me to chronicle the fact ; and in a very brief space, the whole of the populous street was from two to six feet deep in water. Still onward came the flood, increasing every minute." - The Tarrengower Times and Maldon and Newstead Advertiser, 20th Oct 1869.

The force of the water was so great that the Mount Alexander Mail reported: "a log over 50 feet long and two feet in diameter at the thickest end was brought down the stream on Saturday and lodged broadside on across the doorway of the Eastern market".

The fame of the great flood spread quickly, and spectators came from all over to witness the aftermath - which included a shopping spree over the parade of damaged goods put out on sale!

Bruce, Robert, 1839?-1918, engraver. 
November 8, 1869. Source: SLV.

The above image shows the flood waters swirling down Grenville Street, observed by a great crowd of people who stand huddled together beneath their hats and umbrellas.

"From Grant Street the spectacle was truly appalling. The space between Albert street and Humffray street, or nearly half a mile in width, was under water to a depth varying according to position from one foot to eight. Of some of the houses there was little more than the roofs visible, while others were submerged only a few inches." - The Tarrengower Times and Maldon and Newstead Advertiser, 20th Oct 1869.

The earliest reports were delivered by electric telegraph, giving a brief overview of the disaster.

The Herald, 16th October, 1869. Source: Trove

More detailed reports soon followed in newspapers far and wide!

One descriptive account shared a few days after the flood conveys the absolute misery of the scene on the Saturday night:

"I went down to Bridge street at about 10 p.m, and such a scene of desolation as it appeared I trust I shall never again see. Instead of the usual throng and bustle, instead of the familiar cries of the vendors of the various wares, all was silence and gloom. 

Here and there a faint glimmer of light struggled through an opening in the shutters, and within what a scene was disclosed. 

Men and women with bare arms and feet wading amongst mud, and doing what they could to save from the wreck such property as was not wholly destroyed ; while others were toiling to remove the traces the flood had left behind. 

The night was very cold, and a drizzling rain continued to fall ; the street was ankle deep in mud, and the lowest portion still covered in water, - it was a sight to make angels weep."

- The Tarrengower Times and Maldon and Newstead Advertiser, 20th October 1869. Source: Trove

Bridge Street, Ballarat, 1869. Image source: SLV.

The above image shows a dire scene, where many people stand trapped in the upper levels of Bridge Street's flooded buildings. A few are being taken to safety by boat, with a vast crowd of onlookers standing at the far edge of the water.

Another account describes the severity of the catastrophe, beginning with the bold headline "DISASTROUS FLOODS AND LOSS OF LIFE AND PROPERTY":

"Ballarat East and some of the suburbs of the town were on Saturday visited by the most destructive inundations that have happened since the place has been settled. In years gone by there have been floods that devastated the flats and destroyed life, but no former flood had caused the destruction of so much property as the disaster of Saturday. 

During the Magpie rush, some 13 or 14 years ago, there was a flood that laid the whole line of the Main road under water, swept the valley of the Yarrowee and drowned several persons; but the flood of Saturday in the town destroyed more property, and outside the town the loss of life was greater than during the earlier inundation."

- The Ballarat Star, 18th October 1869. Source: Trove

Floods such as this one created the need to improve the storm water drainage system in Ballarat, and over time the water courses through town were improved, lined with stone, and in some areas covered over to run underground. 

This remarkable underground drainage system is an incredible historical feature of Ballarat! 

It does a fantastic job helping the town cope with large rain events such as the great flood of 1869 - and the great downpour we are seeing right now, at the same time of year over 150 years later!

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