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Damming the ‘Flood Evil’ on the Brisbane River
To cite this article: Margaret Cook (2016) Damming the ‘Flood Evil’ on the Brisbane River, History
Australia, 13:4, 540-556
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Damming the ‘Flood Evil’on the Brisbane River
University of Queensland, Australia
When early in 1893 two severe floods devastated Brisbane,
Australia, its citizens demanded flood prevention. This article
explores the responses to these floods as engineers sought meas-
ures to control the river with technology. I argue that local factors
of drought, economics and politics delayed a decision for 40
years. It was not until the 1930s Depression, when the State
sought unemployment relief projects and the expanding urban
settlement demanded water supply that the benefits finally out-
weighed the cost of dam construction. In 1935 the government
finally sanctioned building Somerset Dam, the first Australian dam
to combine water supply and flood mitigation.
This article has been peer reviewed.
Floods; mitigation; Brisbane
From Caboonbah, his home near the headwaters of the Stanley River, the grazier Henry
Plantagenet Somerset sent a telegraph to the post office in Brisbane on 3 February
1893: ‘Prepare at once for flood. River within 1 ft of highest flood mark known, and still
Before the end of the month, Brisbane had been inundated by two of the larg-
est recorded floods in the city’s history (8.35 and 8.09 m, respectively) causing severe
damage and 35 deaths.
No other Australian colonial capital had ever experienced any-
thing like it. Floods have been a common enough feature of life in Brisbane, with major
events in 1841, 1844, 1890, 1898, 1974 and 2011. But, the multiple floods in 1893 have
remained a benchmark in flood mitigation policy in Queensland ever since. The deci-
sions to build training walls, and dredge, truncate and ultimately dam the river to miti-
gate flooding, first mooted in 1893 and reassessed and implemented over the following
40 years, permanently altered the Brisbane River and have shaped Queensland’s atti-
tudes and policies towards flood mitigation to the present day.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1893 disaster, the public demanded the
Queensland colonial government prevent further floods which were perceived as an
‘evil’, calamitous ‘catastrophe’.
It was widely believed at this time that engineering
CONTACT Margaret Cook email@example.com
Brisbane Courier (BC), 3 February 1893, 5.
Brisbane River Flood Hydrology Models, Main Report (Brisbane: Seqwater, 2013), 36.
BC, 15 February 1893, 4; 28 February 1893, 6; 3 April 1893, 7; 10 April 1893, 6.
ß2016 Australian Historical Association
HISTORY AUSTRALIA, 2016
VOL. 13, NO. 4, 540–556
could harness nature, control the river and ensure environmental security.
mitigation strategies suggested after the 1893 Brisbane floods reflected this attitude as
administrators drew on technology in an effort to control the river, rather than seek-
ing to regulate human interaction with the floodplain. The historical geographer
Joseph Powell maintains that the strategy of mitigating floods by taming the river
with engineering works was upheld by bureaucrats in Queensland as late as the deci-
sion in the 1970s to build Wivenhoe Dam.
I argue in this article, however, that
Brisbane’s flood mitigation policy was more complex than a simple reliance on tech-
nology to control the river and an actuarial assessment of construction costs and
A number of local factors delayed construction of mitigation schemes for deca-
des, namely economic considerations, urban settlement, the climatic cycle of drought
and flood, and colonial/state versus local politics and priorities. After the 1893 floods,
Treasury faced problems such as an economic depression and a banking crisis that
seemed far more pressing than devising measures to mitigate future flooding. In
Brisbane, moreover, drought was a more frequent and lengthy visitor than flood, and
providing the city with a reliable water supply was considered more vital than flood
mitigation. As the city experienced a long, dry spell between 1899 and 1927, floods
diminished in the public memory, replaced by concern about inadequate water supply
and local administrative incompetency. The 1928 floods, however, saw dam discussion
back in vogue and when measures to deal with flood mitigation could be considered
in conjunction with water supply storage, dams won greater popular and political
support. But, not until the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s did dam build-
ing have the added attraction of creating employment. Somerset Dam, a dual water
supply and flood mitigation scheme on the Stanley River, would provide environmen-
tal security against drought and flood, protect Brisbane’s expanding metropolis and
provide much-needed unemployment relief. After four decades of consultation, the
Brisbane River was dammed on the Stanley River, just upstream from the junction
with the Brisbane River, with construction commencing in 1935.
This article focuses on the 1893 floods and the policy response as revealed through
four major flood mitigation reports undertaken by prominent engineers: John Baillie
Henderson (1896), John Pennycuick (1899), Alan Gordon Gutteridge (1928) and
members of the Special Committee of the Bureau of Industry (1934).
built on the work of its predecessors and shows growing hydrological and engineering
knowledge as each recommended increasingly bold flood mitigation strategies.
Newspaper reports and government documents disclose governmental and public atti-
tudes towards flood mitigation and the environment, and demonstrate how econom-
ics, drought and state and local politics delayed the implementation of report
Mark Everard, The Hydro-Politics of Dams (London: Zed Books, 2013), 155; Emily O’Gorman, Flood Country: An
Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing, 2012), 125.
Joseph Powell, Plains of Promise, Rivers of Destiny: Water Management and the Development of Queensland
1824–1990 (Brisbane: Boolarong, 1991), 294.
Gilbert Fowler White, ‘Human Adjustment to Floods’(PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 1942), 4.
John Baillie Henderson, ‘Floods in Brisbane River, and Schemes for Abatement of their Disastrous Effects’, June 1896,
Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol. 4 (1897); John Pennycuick, Report on Scheme for the Abatement of Floods in
the Brisbane River (1899); Gordon Gutteridge, ‘Commission of Enquiry: Brisbane Water Supply Report’,Queensland
Votes and Proceedings, vol. 4 (1928); The Bureau of Industry, Report on Recommendations. By the Special Committee
appointed to investigate and report upon Brisbane Water Supply and Flood Prevention (David Whyte: Government
Printer, Brisbane, 1934).
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 541
recommendations. Each report considered flood mitigation strategies to alter and
shape the Brisbane River such as dredging, cutting, widening and damming, all of
which were accepted engineering solutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries to control or harness nature. To this extent, the story in Brisbane is part of
a transnational hydrological history. I argue, however, that an analysis of Brisbane
flooding reveals a unique local variation to internationally accepted flood mitigation
strategies –climate. In Brisbane the sub-tropical cycle of drought and floods, com-
bined with a justified fear of water shortages, exercised a powerful influence over the
decision to build an Australian technological ‘first’–a dual-purpose flood mitigation
and water supply dam. This study of a single urban centre suggests the overwhelming
significance of local factors in shaping the process by which policies were developed
and implemented to grapple with the problem of flooding.
A river capital
Brisbane is a port city, built on the lower reaches of the meandering Brisbane River
in south-east Queensland, Australia (Figure 1). The Brisbane River is 309 km long,
its source near Mount Stanley and its mouth at Moreton Bay, and it flows through
a number of small townships before reaching the major metropolitan areas of
Ipswich and Brisbane. Brisbane has a sub-tropical climate in a dry continent, with
an average annual rainfall of 942 mm in its catchment of 13,560 km
is significantly influenced by the El Ni~
no-Southern Oscillation, which is associated
with long periods of dry weather bringing droughts (up to a decade long) and
intense rainfall during the La Ni~
na phase. Typically, major floods occur in summer
when cyclones or large tropical depressions bring heavy rain over the upper catch-
ment of the Brisbane River and its tributaries (primarily the Bremer and Stanley
Rivers and Lockyer Creek). In most cases, two days after the headwaters are in
flood, Brisbane is inundated.
Aborigines from the Yugarabul language group knew of the cycle of drought and
flooding in the Brisbane River or ‘mairwar’and accepted it as part of the life cycle.
In 1890 the Upper Brisbane River Cooyar people told the legend of the flood on
Magenjie or Big River.
Although shared with settlers such as the McConnel family
of Cressbrook in 1842, the newcomers gave this Aboriginal knowledge little credence.
Augustus Charles Gregory, surveyor-general in 1893, dismissed Indigenous under-
standings of these matters as the unreliable ‘indistinct aboriginal traditions of a
Many early European visitors, including the botanist Joseph Banks on board
the Endeavour (1770) and later explorers inland such as John Oxley and Alan
Cunningham (1824), had recorded evidence of floods. But this did not deter the
British from setting up a penal colony right on the river, providing a port, water
Errol Stock, ‘The Physical Environment of the Brisbane River: An Overview’in The Brisbane River: A Source Book for
the Future, ed. Peter Davie, Errol Stock and Darryl Low Choy (Brisbane: The Australian Littoral Society, 1990), 3.
Helen Gregory, Brisbane River Story: Meanders through Time (Brisbane: Australian Marine Conservation Society, 1996),
A. Meston, The Queenslander, 29 March 1890, 600; BC, 21 March 1890, 6.
C. Coxen, ‘Notes on Floods in the Brisbane River’. Read before the Royal Society of Queensland, 21 August, (1893).
Brisbane City Council Archives, BAC File 1577; A.C. Gregory, ‘The Brisbane River Floods of 1893’,Proceedings of
Queensland Branch of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol VIII (1892–93), 34.
542 M. COOK
supply, energy, effluent disposal and effectively, a jail wall.
As the Brisbane Courier
remarked in 1893, the convict settlement had been located with ‘sublime disregard of
fluvial footprints’, creating a permanent environmental risk.
With free settlement
after 1842, riverside land provided wharf and industrial sites and nearby low-lying,
cheap residential land for the working classes. Successive colonial governments subdi-
vided and sold river bank reaches, all inevitably subject to flooding.
The first major flood recorded by Europeans occurred in 1841, with heights at the
Post Office gauge reaching 8.43 m. A flood of 7.03 m occurred in 1844 and another
reached 5.33 m in 1890.
But by the 1890s, 1844 was a ‘generation ago’, prompting
Figure 1. Map of Brisbane River Catchment showing rivers, Somerset Dam, Wivenhoe Dam,
Fernvale, Ipswich, Brisbane and Crohamhurst. Drafted by Nick Cook.
John Steele, The Brisbane River (Adelaide: Rigby, 1976), 13; Gregory, Brisbane River Story, 21.
BC, 2 March 1893, 4.
Brisbane River Flood Hydrology Models, 36.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 543
the Brisbane Courier to declare the 1890 flood ‘unparalleled in the history of the
Citizens mistakenly believed such a catastrophic event would never be
repeated. At worst, popular mythology maintained, another flood would never be
higher. In 1893 local knowledge of the 1890 flood proved a liability because as flood-
waters rose, people and possessions moved to the supposed safety of the 1890 flood
mark, erroneously presuming this was the maximum flood height possible.
With the Indigenous and early European flood knowledge discredited or ignored,
the floodplain was not treated as part of the river system and urban development pro-
ceeded unfettered. Gilbert White, the American geographer, in his pioneering thesis
in 1942, fundamentally altered the understanding of floods by declaring that while
floods were ‘acts of God’,‘flood losses are largely acts of man’.
The current litera-
ture recognises that these supposed ‘natural’flood disasters are actually the result of
human interaction with the environment.
As the Brisbane economist and engineer
Trevor Grigg reiterated in 2010: ‘flood hazard is manmade’, an inevitable consequence
of building on a floodplain.
This dynamic has been identified by the environmental
historian Uwe L€
ubken; that while rivers offer cities opportunities, they also create a
hazard which increases with urbanisation.
Accordingly, the flood risk grew with
Brisbane’s growth. As a member of the United States Geographical Survey informed
Queensland’s Royal Geographical Society in 1900:
There is one prominent fact which must not be overlooked –namely, that rivers of the
character of the Brisbane must be allowed to retain a large territory in their own
possession over or through which to discharge the waters of unusual floods. If man
encroaches on these domains, he must take the consequences, from which no ordinary
exertions can save him.
The 1893 floods had demonstrated the wisdom of this advice just seven years
1893: Not one flood but three
On board the Bunninyong on 2 February 1893, the meteorologist Clement Wragge
reported a terrible hurricane with heavy rain. Meanwhile, at his Crohamhurst home
just under 100 km northwest of Brisbane, another meteorologist Inigo Jones recorded
an Australian record for one day’s rainfall of 907 mm on 3 February.
BC, 12 March 1890, 5.
Queensland Times (QT), 9 February 1893, 6.
White, ‘Human Adjustment’,2.
John Handmer and Stephen Dovers, Handbook of Disaster and Emergency Policies and Institutions (London:
Earthscan, 2007), 11.
Trevor Grigg, Managing Floods and Flood Risk: Lessons Learned and Not Learned –The Brisbane River Experience,
Presentation to Hydrology: Managing Water in Queensland Seminar, Queensland Branch of the Australian Water
Association, Brisbane, 13 April 2011.
ubken, ‘Rivers and Risk in the City: The Urban Floodplain as a Contested Space’in Urban Rivers: Remaking
Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America, ed. St
ephane Castonguay and Matthew Evenden (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), 130.
Letter from J.W. Powell, Director-General, US Geological Survey to J.P. Thomson reproduced in A.C. Gregory,
‘Mitigation of Floods in the Brisbane River’,Queensland Branch Royal Geographical Society, Vol XV (1899–1900), 53.
BC, 3 February 1893, 5; 4 February 1893, 5; ‘Review of the Year’in Pugh’s Almanac, 1894, 75. ‘Crohamhurst rainfall
station (40062) recorded 273.8 mm on 1 February, 509.5 mm on 2 February and 907.0mm on 3 February’, accessed
14 May 2015, http://www.bom.gov.au/.
544 M. COOK
fell in the Stanley River catchment producing a ‘flood of unprecedented height in a
remarkably short space of time’.
Residents in Fernvale ominously reported that ‘the
river is rising fast, and a big flood is anticipated’.
On 3 February a heavy flood was
imminent and as the rain persisted, the Brisbane Courier declaring that a ‘few hours
will bring these waters past our doors’.
In the Upper Brisbane River, water exceeded
1890 flood levels. The raging torrent, full of debris, almost ‘entirely destroyed’farms
in its path, washing away more than 50 houses.
Heroic stories abound. Captain
Vernor, his wife and six children clung to trees for 24 hours after capsizing in the
But, Constable Sangster drowned trying to rescue the Jackson family whose
four children also drowned.
On 3 February the floodwaters reached Ipswich, 40 km from Brisbane, submerging
the Bremer Bridge and a key section of the railway line, isolating north and south
Ipswich, and cutting the telegraph line. Mount Crosby pumping station and the gas-
works were inundated, leaving Ipswich without water or gas.
railway workshops were also submerged and all coal mines, except Swanbank
Colliery, suffered considerable damage, the worst at John Wright’s Tivoli Mine where
seven men were drowned and entombed (including John Wright’s own adult sons
Tom and George), leaving between them 27 fatherless children.
‘twisted into every imaginable position’, some swept away and landing on others.
the waters slowly receded from ‘the most disastrous inundation ever known’, the
Queensland Times ruefully declared ‘a large portion of Ipswich is uninhabitable –aye,
Downstream from Ipswich on 4 February, Brisbane crowds lined the high river
bank to ‘witness the imposing and fearsome sight’of water rushing at eight to 10
miles an hour, ‘carrying with it scores of houses, furniture, and household articles in
The peak flood reached Brisbane the next day, ‘a flood altogether
without parallel since the settlement of the Brisbane District’, declared the Brisbane
The Indooroopilly Bridge could not withstand the force. At 5.45 on the
morning of 5 February, there was a ‘great crash and a roar like thunder, and one of
the 80 foot spans of the bridge canted over downstream and then disappeared under
the seething flood’.
There were fears for the Victoria Bridge which connected North
and South Brisbane; although its girders rose 13 m above the tidal water, ‘[t]he crash
of houses driven against the Victoria Bridge and torn to pieces could be heard above
J.B. Henderson, ‘Annual Report of the Hydraulic Engineer, Appendix 6. Floods, Brisbane and Mary Rivers –Second
Interim Report, 1894’,Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol. 3 (1895), 15.
QT, 2 February 1893, 2.
QT, 16 February 1893, 5; Barrier Miner, 15 February 1893, 4.
Queenslander, 18 February 1893, 323.
QT, 7 February 1893, 3.
Ibid., 4 February 1893, 4; 9 February 1893, 3.
BC, 8 February 1893, 5; QT, 7 February 1893; Magisterial Enquiry into the cause of death of Thomas Wright, George
Wright, Patrick McQuade, John McQuade, Matthew Cuthbertson, Andrew Smart and Charles Walker, Ipswich, 27 May
1893. QSA ID 248808. Number 312.
QT, 7 February, 3; 9 February 1893, 3.
Ibid., 7 February, 6; 9 February 1893, 6.
BC, 6 February 1893, 2; Pugh’s Almanac, 1894, 75.
BC, 6 February 1893, 2.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 545
the roar of the water’.
Still, the bridge held on valiantly but at 4 am on 6 February
the ‘northern end yielded to the immense pressure of the water’and the wrecked por-
tion went down the river.
With the bridge a wreck, South Brisbane was isolated. In
that part of the city, 198 buildings were destroyed and in West End, 30 houses, over
half of the residential stock, were completely washed away.
Across the river in
Brisbane’s central business district about two-thirds of the buildings were submerged,
with waters up 4.9 m deep.
The gunboat Paluma, hulk Mary Evans and steamer SS
Elamang were aground in the Botanic Gardens. As the clean-up continued, a corres-
pondent in the Bremer catchment ominously reported on 9 February ‘there is every
appearance of more rain’.
Indeed, heavy rains on 11 February brought a second
flood to Brisbane the following day, but it was small compared with the first.
Not so the third: yet more heavy rain in the Brisbane River catchment between 16
and 19 February brought yet another flood, the peak arriving at noon on 19 February
and reaching just 0.2 m below the first. While less rain fell, the saturated land and
swollen creeks and rivers could absorb little extra water.
Theophills Pugh, a journal-
ist, noted that the effects were ‘very similar’to the first ‘calamity, only there were no
bridges to carry away, and few houses, those within reach of flood influences having
Many people had not yet returned to their homes or busi-
nesses, which thereby minimised the loss of life and possessions. But in other cases,
weakened buildings succumbed to the third inundation.
Brisbane endured ‘total darkness’for two nights, with neither gas nor electric
Businesses were destroyed, houses devastated and lives lost. The river ignored
class distinction, with newspapers reporting that ‘cottage, bungalow, and mansion’
vanished equally under the floodwaters.
The topography of the river meant houses
were flooded some distance from the river itself, leaving inundated both grand man-
sions on the hills, and the workers dwellings below. At Kangaroo Point comfortable
villas, cottages and foundries were flooded, with landmark elite houses and farms in
Long Pocket reduced to empty sites. In the ‘fashionable suburb’of Toowong, water
inundated Sidney House, the residence of the wealthy merchant, Thomas Finney, and
the flooding reached the upper floor of the architect Richard Gailey’s home.
were all that remained of the fine villas in West End, the ruined properties later being
acquired by the government and converted to Orleigh Park.
Perhaps the only fortu-
nate event occurred on 20 February when the floodwaters conveniently carried away
the stranded ships Paluma and Elamang from the Botanic Gardens. From the head-
waters to Moreton Bay, the swollen Brisbane River caused massive destruction,
Ibid.; Pugh’s Almanac, 1894, 75; BC, 6 February 1893, 2.
BC, 6 February 189, 2, 4.
Queenslander, 25 February 1893, 372; BC, 8 February 1893, 3.
QT, 9 February 1893, 5.
Co-ordinator General’s Department memo, 4 February 1959, Brisbane River Flood Hydrology Models, 36. Brisbane
City Council Archives, BAC 1577.
Pugh’s Almanac, 1894, 76.
Queenslander, 4 March 1893, 421.
Launceston Examiner, 21 February 1893, 6.
Maryborough Chronicle, 10 February 1893, 3.
Telegraph, 7 February 1893, 2.
Ibid., 9 February 1893, 2.
546 M. COOK
leaving the survivors with a determination that flooding on such a scale should never
happen in their city again.
The public demands action
As the flood waters receded, citizens had time to reflect on nature and the manner in
which they occupied the floodplain but instead, they called on the government to pre-
vent future flooding, even while continuing to regard such disasters as ‘acts of God’.
As a Queensland Times correspondent wrote, the rain ‘came pouring down as though
the flood-gates of heaven had opened’.
Others went so far as to suggest that the
floods were divine punishment for withdrawing government funding to churches and
religious education from state schools, calling for a ‘Day of Humiliation’to repent
and appease the Creator.
If not regarded as having been sent by God, the floods
were certainly viewed as an extreme act of nature. Astonished witnesses described the
floodwaters as ‘something to look on with admiration and wonder, as a sample of the
wonderful forces of nature’.
The Brisbane Courier declared the floods ‘fascinated
and inspired the onlooker as do all the mighty outbreaks of nature’s forces’.
Brisbane, at that time, thought of itself as a Christian society. According to the his-
torian Donald Worster, for Christians the world was understood as a place where
humans had authority over all things. Unlike pagan traditions, Christianity denied
non-human entities a soul or spirit. This effectively separated humans from the envir-
onment and offered a ‘mechanistic picture of nature’.
The secular Darwinian belief,
of more recent origin, also conferred human superiority. As the environmental scien-
tist Mark Everard has argued, in the prevailing ‘Victorian paradigm, humanity saw
itself apart from nature’.
‘Civilised man’had to tame the natural world, harness and
control it in the pursuit of progress. In this grand struggle, hydraulic engineers
offered a ‘technocratic model of progress’,whereby engineering solutions would con-
trol the river and ensure environmental security.
Large engineering projects became
symbols of human domination over nature, with dams the largest and most visible
manifestation of this power.
As Michael Cathcart has argued, civil engineering was
seen to bring progress, order and civilisation.
The response to Brisbane’s 1893 floods
faithfully reflects this paradigm. Brisbane, it was believed, could be flood-proofed by
controlling, or at least modifying, nature through technical ingenuity.
In nineteenth-century Queensland, flooding was understood as a ‘problem of water
The solution of major works required a hydraulic engineer, not least to
QT, 7 March 1893, 5.
Telegraph, 22 February 1893, 4; BC, 22 February 1893, 7.
Telegraph, 8 February 1893, 2.
BC, 8 February 1893, 2.
Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 29.
Everard, Hydro-Politics, 155.
Ibid.; O’Gorman, Flood Country, 125.
Everard, Hydro-Politics, 13; David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern
Germany (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2006), 191. O’Gorman, Flood Country, 99; Powell, Plains, 88.
Michael Cathcart, The Water Dreamers: The Remarkable History of Our Dry Continent (Melbourne: Text Publishing,
2009), 177, 199-200.
John Handmer and Stephen Dovers, Handbook of Disaster and Emergency Policies and Institutions, 85; Caroline
Wenger, Karen Hussey and Jamie Pittock, Living with Floods: Key Lessons from Australia and Abroad, (Gold Coast:
National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, 2013), vii.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 547
address the public demand for action. The Queensland government commissioned
John Baillie Henderson, its own hydraulic engineer, to investigate the causes and
extent of the floods, as well as to consider measures ‘that might be taken for control-
ling floods or for mitigating their serious effects’.
Henderson had wide Victorian
and Queensland hydraulic experience and an impressive knowledge of international
water engineering; after 1881 he dominated the development of water policy in
Queensland for well over three decades.
Henderson produced two interim reports and a final report in 1896. These formed
the basis of all further investigations on Brisbane flood mitigation and therefore merit
detailed discussion. He wrote his first interim report, with the loaded title, Floods,
and the Mitigation of their Evil Effects, at a time when economic realities made expen-
sive engineering solutions impossible. Since 1890 the Queensland economy, rather
like that of most other parts of Australia, had been in a downward spiral with grow-
ing unemployment and widespread business failure. The 1890s depression, greatly
exacerbated by the floods, culminated in May 1893 with the closure of eight of
Queensland’s 11 banks. Consequently, Henderson recommended a cheap system of
stream gauges and raising telegraph lines to provide timely flood warnings, as used in
This recommendation recognised that the analysis and construction of any
engineering works would take both many years and considerable funding, and also
reflected Henderson’s personal belief in attaining more hydrological knowledge to
manage water resources effectively.
Henderson’s second interim report concluded
that there were no favourable sites for a dam.
The public wanted ‘authoritative action’, however, and not just a flood-warning
The Chamber of Commerce dismissed raising telegraph lines, erecting flood
gauges and talk of moving residents to higher ground or prohibiting the sale of
flooded land for residential purposes as ‘palliatives’.
G.R. Fife, vice-president of the
Chamber of Commerce, accused the government of ‘criminal neglect through its
indifference’, calling on it to employ a hydraulic engineer of ‘large experience’to
come to Queensland to find flood mitigation solutions.
Perhaps reflecting the
demand for more definitive action, or perhaps the modest improvement in the econ-
omy by 1896, Henderson’s final report Floods in the Brisbane River and Schemes for
Abatement of their Disastrous Effects went further than his earlier recommendations
in now raising engineering strategies as a ‘means to prevent or to mitigate the evil
effects of floods’.
John Baillie Henderson, ‘Floods, Brisbane and Mary Rivers, Annual Report of the Hydraulic Engineers’,Queensland
Parliamentary Papers (1895), 15.
Powell, Plains, 49; Raymond Whitmore, Hydraulic Henderson: Water Resources Pioneer (Brisbane: Engineers Australia,
Henderson, ‘Floods, Brisbane and Mary Rivers’, 15; ‘Floods, and the Mitigation of their evil effects, Annual Report of
the Hydraulic Engineers’,Queensland Parliamentary Papers (1895), 5.
Powell, Plains, 90.
BC, 10 January 1894, 4.
Ibid., 5 February 1895, 3.
Henderson, ‘Floods in the Brisbane River, and Schemes for Abatement of their Disastrous Effects’,Queensland
Parliamentary Papers, (1896), 5.
548 M. COOK
Henderson stressed the devastating nature of the disaster of 1893, estimating that
127,017 acres (51,400 ha) had been submerged and damages of £1 million resulted,
although there were others who considered the damage more like ‘double that
Nonetheless, he shared the community view that in ‘view of the wide-
spread distress and loss consequent on floods’, means ‘to diminish, if not altogether
prevent, their ruinous effects in future’were advisable. Although Henderson consid-
ered these floods ‘without parallel in the history of Queensland’, he knew they could
reoccur ‘at any time’, which made ‘some comprehensive scheme of protection’desir-
Engineering, he now suggested, would provide this protection.
In the nineteenth century, flood protection could be provided by shaping or con-
trolling the river through various engineering means such as canals, dredging, levees,
cuttings and dams. All such strategies were considered in Henderson’s final report.
For instance, he addressed the ‘popular idea’of constructing a canal to divert the
floodwaters to the sea, although only to demonstrate its impracticality. The report
included drawings of two possible canals both requiring extensive excavation, land
reclamation, construction of road and railway bridges, and Henderson estimated that
the canals would cost £9,523,194 or £7,138,000 respectively. This fact alone made
such an expedient, he believed, ‘out of the question’. Similarly, Henderson dismissed
popular suggestions of a canal above Woodford as equally improbable, for it simply
transferred ‘many of the evils’to the country between the D’Aguilar Range and the
sea. Diversion canals would provide minimal mitigation in a limited area and simply
transfer flood waters from one basin to another at a prohibitive cost. Henderson had
‘no hesitation in advising that their further consideration be abandoned’. He also
rejected levee banks as they raised the height of the flood waters and as the river
channel bed increased, so did the embankment height. These were ‘highly dangerous’
as they lulled people ‘into a false sense of security’, were expensive to build and main-
tain, and accordingly were no longer in vogue with engineers.
Henderson maintained his original position on the building of a dam, thinking it
‘extremely doubtful’that a suitable reservoir site could be found but even if it could,
‘enormously massive’works would be needed to store his estimated 978,400 mega-
Based on his knowledge of dams in North America, Britain and France,
Henderson believed size of the required fixed spillway dam (and associated works and
maintenance costs) for water storage would be prohibitively expensive and ‘the idea
ought to be abandoned’. Almost as an afterthought, he suggested that a series of
smaller, cheaper rubble-filled weirs might achieve the desired flood mitigation, but
according to hydrologist Geoffrey Cossins, writing some decades later, this was in
reality a more expensive and less effective solution.
Altering the river, according to Henderson, provided the most cost-effective means
of flood mitigation, and he advanced three possible schemes (A, B and C) for widen-
ing, deepening and regulating the river. Scheme A proposed truncating corners at
Geoffrey Cossins, ‘Early Hydrology of the Brisbane Area’,Engineering Update, Institution of Engineers, Australia,
Queensland Division 5, no. 1 (April 1997): 22.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 549
Gardens Point, Kangaroo Point, Norris Point and Bulimba Point to form a wider
channel from Victoria Point to the sea, at a cost of £2,698,684. This scheme would
reduce flood heights, discharge water rapidly, improve navigation for large commer-
cial vessels and provide acres of valuable reclaimed land to offset the overall cost.
Scheme B adopted the same plan for deepening and widening as Scheme A, but
added a river ‘short cut’through Kangaroo Point and another through New Farm,
reducing the flood level in Brisbane by two feet more than Scheme A. Scheme B was
estimated at £3,374,891. Scheme C proposed building part of Scheme A with the
remainder to be finished at a later stage. This scheme would cost £2,047,360.
Henderson recommended Scheme B.
Realising that these major engineering schemes could take a decade to implement,
Henderson added a single paragraph towards the end of his 13 page report; it pro-
vided the only non-engineering solution to the issue of flood management. He
steps be immediately taken to prevent the erection, on low-lying flooded lands along the
river banks below the city, of buildings of every kind, and also of all other structures
that would retard the flow of flood waters.
This paragraph, however, drew little attention in the ensuing debate about
Henderson’s report, with attention firmly fixed on engineering solutions and their
considered degree of efficacy for flood mitigation. Yet, as the schemes were assessed,
Henderson’s recommendations were left in abeyance, just as he had anticipated when
he wrote in his report that throughout the world, ‘scheme after scheme has been pro-
posed by able engineers for averting the disastrous effects of floods, but often nothing
has been done, and matters remain as before, possibly because of the great cost such
Although the 1893 floods had caused devastation, funding flood mitigation found
little political support. Within one month of the disaster, Sir Samuel Griffith had
resigned as head of the Griffith-McIlwraith government. Yet despite debris still being
strewn over a slowly recovering capital, in the lead-up to the April 1893 election
floods barely rated a mention in the campaign, which was fought on the economy,
imported labour and railways.
Brisbane politicians such as Sir Charles Lilley and
Charles Midson advocated rebuilding the Victoria Bridge, with the latter supporting
flood control, but these policies were dismissed beyond the metropolis in a time of
economic turmoil as fiscally irresponsible and Brisbane-centric.
Maryborough, Gympie, Bundaberg and Ipswich had also suffered flooding and
Brisbane’s floods were a local, not colony-wide, concern. Unsurprisingly, flood mitiga-
tion did not appear on the agenda of the new premier, Sir Thomas McIlwraith.
Yet while flood mitigation could be ignored, port improvements could not. The
economy demanded a navigable river and the portmaster, Captain Almond, and the
assistant engineer and nautical surveyor, E.A. Cullen, were adamant that the Brisbane
Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 7 April 1893, 2.
Darling Downs Gazette, 10 April 1893, 2.
Morning Bulletin, 7 April 1893, 5; QT, 8 April, 5.
550 M. COOK
River needed ‘improvements’to increase the river depth to 20 ft at low water to allow
access for larger tonnage vessels. Their proposed improvements included dredging, a
seven-foot training wall at Hamilton, and widening the river at Gardens, Kangaroo
and Bulimba Points. In their opinion, the greatest flood relief would come from the
removal of obstructive points, and widening, straightening, and deepening the
Subsequently, the treasurer, Robert Philp, instructed New Zealand
civil engineer C. Napier Bell, to review Almond and Cullen’s proposal. Bell supported
dredging and training walls but rejected the cutting of the Kangaroo Point and
Domain bends, being uncertain that this would have a ‘material effect in lowering the
height of high floods’.
After the Chamber of Commerce exerted political pressure,
Philp agreed to fund dredging, Hamilton training walls and truncating the points.
River points were reduced by 55 acres between 1901 and 1941.
But, it was the
potential loss of mercantile income to the southern states that was used to rationalise
these harbour and river improvements. Navigation, not flood mitigation, was the
Calling in the international expert
A 5.02 m flood in January 1898 brought flood mitigation back to the fore, albeit
Prominent citizen and political historian, Charles Bernays, criticised the lack
of response stating ‘absolutely nothing has been done either by the people or the
Government towards preventing a recurrence’other than erecting flood gauges.
Rather than resorting to ‘apathy and short sightedness’, he advocated via the Brisbane
Chamber of Commerce, the government should hire the highest engineering authority
to find a solution.
Following a Chamber of Commerce conference in February 1898
that discussed the ‘best method of minimising the effects of floods in Brisbane and
districts’, it sent a deputation to the premier requesting that the government obtain
the ‘highest expert opinion’on reducing disastrous floods in Brisbane and improving
With limited local expertise beyond J.B. Henderson’s, an overseas expert
had to be found, with the politician Thomas Welsby suggesting that ‘India would be
one of the best places to look’.
Joseph Powell has noted Brisbane’s habitual reliance
on imported expertise from other Australian colonies and overseas, which was then
pitted against local knowledge.
In the late-nineteenth century, Australia looked to
British India for engineering expertise; the continent, according to Powell, was
‘becoming littered’with examples of the influence of Indian water engineering.
Victoria imported Indian hydraulic expertise for Coliban and Geelong in 1871 and
BC, 11 March 1898, 5.
BC, 15 April 1898, 6.
BC, 10 March 1898, 4-5.
John Dobson, Physical/ Engineering Aspects of the Estuary (Brisbane: Davies, 1990), 203.
Brisbane River Flood Hydrology Models, 36.
BC, 10 March 1898, 5.
BC, 15 February 1898, 2.
J.M. Powell, ‘Enterprise and Dependency: Water Management in Australia’in Ecology and Empire: Environmental
History of Settler Societies, ed. Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 105.
Powell, Plains, 60; See also O’Gorman, Floods, 70 and Heather Goodall, ‘Fresh and Salt: Introduction’,Transforming
Cultures eJournal 1, no. 2 (2006): iv.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 551
New South Wales for Maitland in 1877.
Many British-Indian engineers were mili-
tary officers with decades of experience in irrigation, hydrology and large dam con-
struction projects. Like Queensland, India experienced monsoonal river flooding,
making imported Indian expertise relevant. Accordingly, Colonel John Pennycuick’s
credentials fitted the brief admirably: as a former Royal military engineer, and
now a consultant, he had 35 years of dam building and hydrological experience in
The government commissioned Pennycuick to investigate flood mitigation in
Pennycuick presented his report, A Scheme for the Abatement of Floods in the
Brisbane River, to the treasurer in November 1899. He considered Henderson’s work
as the ‘basis of his report’,
as well as various schemes, largely by amateurs, but
none, he felt, deserved ‘serious criticism’. Advancing a series of reservations about the
proposed schemes, he concurred with most of the Henderson’s findings. Pennycuick
dismissed diversion canals as an enormously costly, significant impediment to naviga-
tion and natural water flow in the river. Canals would transfer the problem, relocating
water from one basin to another, and provide little flood mitigation. And, like
Henderson, he rejected levees, but also schemes to widen, deepen and regulate the
flow of the river since widening the river would bring relief at a ‘prohibitory’cost.
Here the importance of economics in weighing up the options for Brisbane is clearly
evident. Pennycuick also considered that walling would provide a remedy ‘worse than
the disease’, but he departed from Henderson in one significant respect: Pennycuick
criticised his rejection of a dam. In doing so, he drew heavily on his knowledge of
Indian rivers and dismissed Henderson’s hydrological data of a maximum discharge
of 978,400 megalitres per day, calculating rather 587,040 megalitres. These revised cal-
culations of the capacity substantially reduced the imperative and cost of a large dam.
Pennycuick declared the Middle Creek site (upstream of Wivenhoe Dam, finally com-
pleted in 1984) as ‘admirable’and ‘singularly favourable for the construction of a dam
of moderate height’. He estimated that the cost of land, engineering supervision and
plant would be £1,300,000.
As Pennycuick submitted his report, drought set in, leav-
ing flood mitigation once again in remission.
Indeed, like floods themselves, the demand for flood mitigation was also episodic.
After floods, the subject gained momentum only to be abandoned in drought. In
1899 the nation-wide Federation Drought commenced and lasted until 1903. As the
Brisbane River stopped flowing in 1902, flood mitigation largely vacated the public
mind and was inevitably relegated in the government’s order of priorities. As White
wrote, the flood hazard ‘waxes and wanes in the public mind in direct relation to the
occurrence of high water’.
Floods are largely invisible except during the event, and
Powell, Plains, 66. Maitland Weekly Mercury, 8 October 1898, 12; Powell, ‘Enterprise’, 105; Whitmore, Hydraulic,8.
Evening News, 28 September 1899, 5.
Pennycuick, Report on Scheme for the Abatement of Floods in the Brisbane River,1.
Geoffrey Cossins, however, has argued that Henderson and Pennycuick both misinterpreted the flood hydrology,
with a resultant a gross over- calculation of the cost of a flood mitigation dam and government rejection of the
scheme. Geoffrey Cossins, Technical Paper No. 2, 23; Geoffrey Cossins, ‘The Overlooked Heritage of Somerset Dam: A
Story of Droughts, Floods, Disagreeable Water and Lost Chances’,inEngineering Heritage Matters ed. Norman
Sheridan, Conference Papers of the Twelfth National Engineering Heritage Conference (Barton: Engineers Australia,
White, ‘Human Adjustment’, 51.
552 M. COOK
can be ignored in favour of more visible needs.
And, with the exception of a small
flood in 1908, Queensland experienced a long dry period until 1927. Water supply
became the political imperative and with floods forgotten, Brisbane blindly continued
development on its floodplain, increasing the potential cost of later damage.
The royal commissioner from Melbourne
At the State level, the Ryan Labour Government (1915–1919) and the Theodore
Labour Government (1919–1925) believed in closer settlement with the provision of
water through dams and irrigation. With the passage of the Irrigation Act, 1922 and
the creation of the Commission of Irrigation, water policy focussed on agriculture.
Brisbane River floods were understood as a local issue for the metropolis itself, a
problem that along with water supply could be addressed by the Metropolitan Water
and Sewerage Board created by the State in 1909. This inept, and possibly corrupt
board, had spent £7 million in 17 years, to little avail, leaving the city without an
adequate potable water supply.
A frustrated government created a royal commission
to investigate. Again it decided to look beyond Queensland for a commissioner,
appointing eminent Melbourne engineer, Alan Gordon Gutteridge in 1927, to investi-
gate the ‘most efficient and economical methods’of providing and conserving
Brisbane’s water supply and flood prevention works.
Here, we can see confirmation
of the 1906 proposal of Henry Plantagenet Somerset to build a combined water sup-
ply and flood mitigation dam. Gutteridge reviewed the reports of Henderson,
Pennycuick, Almond and Cullen, hydrological records from major floods between
1887 and 1927, and called 58 witnesses (among them, engineers, farmers, labourers
and water supply staff). He reconsidered the hydrological information and, with more
sources to draw on from years of recordings, Gutteridge concluded that Henderson’s
data were more reliable than Pennycuick assumed. His report was definitive.
Improvements in the lower Brisbane River (widening, straightening and training)
would reduce the maximum flood heights by about 4 feet (1.2 metres), but would
have no effect in the upper reaches or its tributaries. He supported construction of
both the proposed dams, Pennycuick’s Middle Creek site on the Brisbane River as
well as Henderson’s Little Mount Brisbane location on the Stanley River. If a dam
served the dual purpose of water supply and flood mitigation, the cost analysis further
Finding that ‘no one scheme would permit complete control of all floods’and fully
develop the water source, Gutteridge thought both dams should be constructed, with
the Stanley River dam first. Additional storage would provide water supply and flood
mitigation. Gutteridge warned flood control measures were ‘urgently required’,as
future floods would be more severe and cause ‘inconceivable damage’which he esti-
mated at £15,000,000.
Urbanisation on the floodplain had increased the potential
damage. Archibald Partridge, the commissioner for irrigation in 1928, recognised this
Handmer and Dovers, Handbook of Disaster and Emergency Policies and Institutions, 104.
Cossins, ‘Overlooked Heritage’,51
Gutteridge, ‘Commission of Enquiry: Brisbane Water Supply Report’, 780.
Ibid., 848, 851.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 553
complacency as he believed 30 years without a flood higher than 15 feet (4.5 metres),
had lulled the city into ‘a sense of false security’.
He noted ‘long exemption from
floods has led to the close settlement of many areas which are in danger not only of
submersion but of the effect of strong currents. In many cases the inhabitants are
quite unaware of the possibility of danger’.
Gutteridge seemed to recognise the dan-
ger of his recommendations being overwhelmed by apathy when he declared:
I was consulted on how to protect Brisbane from flood damage. I have shown them how
it can be done, and at what cost. It is for them [the government], and the people whom
they represent, to decide whether the game is worth the candle.
Engineering a solution
The royal commission resulted in the abolition of the Metropolitan Water and
Sewerage Board, with the Brisbane City Council assuming its responsibilities. This
was unusual in the Australian context because of its large geographic boundaries
formed through the amalgamation of 19 smaller councils in 1925. It gave council a
large budget and far-reaching authority to manage Brisbane’s water. Yet, despite this
advantage as well as the findings of the royal commission, inaction followed. In 1930
the council’s chief engineer, W.E. Bush, prepared a report on Water Supply Extensions
and Flood Mitigation. He recommended the construction of a dam as the ‘only rea-
sonable method of controlling floods’.
Another flood in 1931 added weight to the
By 1932 the political and economic environment had significantly altered. The
world-wide Great Depression inflicted acute unemployment on Queensland.
Reminiscent of F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in America, the newly elected
Labor Forgan Smith government championed large public works as an economic
stimulus. A Bureau of Industry established to create projects gave high priority to
construction, electricity, sewerage and water resources.
A dam would reduce
unemployment, finally making the issue a political and economic imperative. Highly
qualified engineers were appointed to a special committee of the Bureau of Industry,
chaired by William (Bill) Nimmo, a civil engineer with experience in Queensland,
New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, who provided both local knowledge and
experience from a range of other water systems and management regimes. Once
again, the works of Henderson, Pennycuick, Gutteridge and others were re-examined.
The resultant Brisbane Water Supply and Flood Prevention report recommended
improvements to the Brisbane River including ‘regularising’the concave bends oppos-
ite Kangaroo Point, Gardens Point and Newstead to remove obstructions, cuts at
Kangaroo Point, New Farm and 17 Mile Rocks, and deepening the Town and South
Brisbane Reaches, which would improve navigation and provide flood mitigation. The
majority report concluded that a Middle Creek dam would give ‘almost complete
A. Partridge, Commissioner for Irrigation, Annual Report, Queensland Parliamentary Papers (1928), 752.
BC, 31 March 1900, 15.
W.E. Bush, Water Supply Extensions and Flood Mitigation (Brisbane: Brisbane City Council, 1930), 14–15, 29.
Powell, Plains, 85; Ross Fitzgerald, A History of Queensland from 1915 to the 1980s (St Lucia: University of
Queensland Press, 1984), 169–170.
554 M. COOK
protection’, but rejected the scheme as too expensive.
A dam should be built at
Little Mount Brisbane, now known as Somerset Dam, the most cost effective option
to ‘prevent all minor floods and reduce others’by removing the ‘top’of the flood.
They estimated that with urban development the equivalent of an 1893 flood would
cause £3,320,000 damage, but a dam would reduce an 1893 flood by seven feet
(2.1 m). The cost could now be justified, not least because advances in dam technol-
ogy between 1920 and 1935 enabled the construction of a large gravity dam, the first
in Australia to combine major flood mitigation and water supply.
Yet, economic and political factors were probably more critical than the techno-
logical; the depressed state of the Queensland economy permeated the decision. A
dam provided ‘maximum employment for Queensland’and the ‘most productive
object’for unemployment relief expenditure, employing at least 1,500 men for four
years and reducing unemployment by about 10 per cent.
The committee only retro-
spectively estimated that Somerset Dam would have prevented £2,350,000 of the dam-
age caused by the 1893 flood. But, with seemingly complete confidence the committee
there can be no doubt that the insurance basis justifies at least the river works and the
cheaper dam. And this scheme would yield a handsome surplus in the avoidance of
damage if it prevented damage in earlier years. In the meantime, and whatever the
floods may be, the sense of security given to the community may be regarded as the
profit on the investment.
While years of investigation and consultation had done their work in providing
momentum for dam-building, it was critical that economics, unemployment relief,
water supply, drought protection and flood mitigation aligned to create the necessary
political will to build Somerset Dam.
The government’s decision to build the dam was the culmination of 40 years of con-
sultation and debate that began as the 1893 flood waters receded. The public
demanded an end to ‘evil’floods and the government looked to engineering technol-
ogy to minimise the risk associated with the development of the floodplain. Somerset
Dam could not prevent floods but it could reduce the impact, providing the Bureau
of Industry’s perceived need for a ‘sense of security’. In keeping with internationally
accepted flood mitigation strategies and the prevailing ideological context, the flood
solution was inevitably structural engineering. However, local economics, politics and
the episodic interest in flood and water supply delayed definitive action for decades.
Only when a dual-purpose water supply and flood mitigation dam also satisfied the
government’s unemployment relief platform could Somerset Dam became a reality.
Completed on the lower Stanley River in 1959 and tested by severe floods in 1955,
1974 and 2011, Somerset Dam environmentally transformed the Brisbane River,
The Bureau of Industry, Report on Recommendations, 20. Leonard Morris’minority report recommended Middle
Cossins, ‘Overlooked Heritage’,55–6.
The Bureau of Industry, Report on Recommendations,6.
HISTORY AUSTRALIA 555
fundamentally altering flooding patterns by removing minor floods and reducing the
height of the flood peak in major events.
Along with Wivenhoe Dam, Somerset
Dam continues to be a major component in Queensland’s water management. In
2011, a 4.46 m flood struck Brisbane, causing death and devastation. Incredulous citi-
zens demanded an inquiry on why the dams had failed to save the city. This response
revealed how cultural values expressed after the 1893 floods still permeated Brisbane’s
understanding of floods and the environment. Risk assessments, politics, economics
and engineering and the cycle of flood and drought continue to shape Queensland’s
water policy in the ongoing battle to control the river.
My thanks to Peter Spearritt, Melissa Harper, Jodi Frawley, Emily O’Gorman, Geoffrey
Cossins, the anonymous reviewers and editors for discussion and comments on earlier drafts
which greatly improved this article.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
About the author
Margaret Cook is a consultant historian and PhD candidate at the University of Queensland
studying the history of floods in the Brisbane River.
Geoffrey Cossins, ‘Flood Mitigation in the Brisbane River’,Proceedings of Symposium January 1974 Flood Moreton
Region (Brisbane: The Institution of Engineers, 1974), 160.
556 M. COOK