Queens Bridge over troubled water

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society

From the very beginning, Melburnians and dock-workers living and working close to the Yarra River have dealt with the constant peril of flood.

This image shows how dangerous the Yarra could be. While catalogued at the Royal Historical Society (RHSV) as from 1912, another publication suggests this is from the floods that swept Melbourne in July 1891. We do know that the presence of the Sandridge Railway Bridge (left), Queen’s Bridge (right), and the Robur Tea Building (between the bridges) date this photograph sometime after 1889. It would have taken a daring photographer to get up so close and personal with the torrential waters, with wharf infrastructure such as cranes buried in its inky depths. At the Southbank end, it appears a boat has capsized and become wedged against Queen’s Bridge. This is likely to be the spoon dredge which was mentioned in Illustrated Australian News (August 1, 1891), as it fell into the Yarra River on the Sunday night of the floods while engaged in removing a coffer dam. All the while, curious Melburnians are watching the carnage with some seen peering over the iron wall of the railway bridge. They didn’t need to worry about any oncoming trains, as the floodwaters had spilled onto the roads and railway line beyond the south bank.

The floods of 1891 were not the first in Melbourne, as colonial records of the river’s flooding went as far back as the 1830s. One of the first major floods after settlement happened in 1839, with the low-lying lands so submerged that a Mr McHaffie (published in The Argus, February 28, 1881) with several other men in a dinghy “crossed the Yarra and rowed over the flat” to the Port Melbourne beach. One of the town’s most infamous floods (and its biggest) was in 1863, which is a story worth its own article, when more than five inches (more than 130mm) of rain turned the city streets and Emerald Hill into an extension of the river. In the 1880s improvements were made to the Yarra through the destruction of the Falls and construction of Coode Canal so it was thought that no one had to suffer the heartbreak of floods again.

However, on Friday night and Saturday morning July 11, 1891, it started to rain with little respite for the next two days. Assisted by a strong south-west gale, a reported 5.3 inches (more than 134mm) of rain fell over Melbourne and its suburbs in a 56-hour period, engorging the river to the point where it burst its banks. By July 13 suburban streets resembled the canals of Venice with the water varying between 1.5m and 4.5m in depth. The two-storey terraces near Dight’s Falls were inundated to the top storey. Flemington Racecourse was converted into a lake over a metre deep. At Punt Rd the water rose up to just two metres under the railway bridge. The Bendigo Advertiser ( July 14, 1891) recounts a group that surveyed the street by boat, reporting how the water had submerged verandahs and that only the roofs could be visible below Kelso St. The street’s lamp posts reportedly resembled “… a lighthouse out there, only there was no light in it.”

Meanwhile, at the west end of Melbourne, the floods were a threat to the construction of the Victoria Dock. Along the mouth of the docks, workers frantically worked throughout Sunday and Monday to plug up a coffer dam (formed by the riverbank) with clay, sandbags and planks, led by Harbour Trust acting engineer A. W. Alexander. While there were leaks that saw nearly a metre of water pool into the dock (and 500 men temporarily out of a job), if it hadn’t been for their hard work and determination, it would’ve been a lot uglier.

During the ordeal, around 3000 people across Prahran, Richmond, Collingwood and surrounding suburbs became homeless, and sheltered at schools, town halls and neighbouring homes. As the flood waters rose rapidly, locals at Richmond’s Wellington St were forced to flee half-naked to dry land in the dark, in gushing rain and cold winds while abandoned dogs barked for salvation that never came. Workplaces became inaccessible or suffered damage to equipment and goods, such as the Gillespie’s Flour Mill in Collingwood when water spilled into its storage chamber (consisting of 2000 bags of flour) and rose to seven bags high. For Richard Gardner, the son of a ferry keeper, his attempts to rescue cattle at Richmond became a fight for survival as the torrent forced him onto a rooftop, where he waited four hours for rescue. However, not everyone was lucky as three souls were lost: a man drowned in a house in South Yarra as he waited for the owners to come back, while another was found drowned at Moonee Creek. A third was a worker for the Harbour Trust, who fell under Prince’s Bridge after his dredge capsized.

In the aftermath, the floods caused more than £200, 000 in damages. In response Melburnians collected everything they could for the victims, with various relief funds exceeding £19, 000 within a month of the floods. In the years afterward, the authorities made sure they would not be blindsided by the hubris of the Coode Canal work. In 1896 the Yarra Improvement Act was passed, allowing work on the Yarra between Punt Rd and Prince’s Bridge. This saw the river straightened and the removal of two billabongs near the Botanical Gardens to improve the flow of the Yarra.

Despite the attempts to tame nature, there is still regular flash flooding that can turn city streets into wild rapids and there was a major flood in 1934. Although anything on the magnitude of 1891 has not been repeated since •

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