Archives: New Farm’s canal, the solution to flooding?

By Gerard Benjamin

On 1 February 1893, a tropical cyclone crossed the Queensland coast near Yeppoon and within days Brisbane felt the effects.

Living on Norris’s Point (now the Powerhouse site) in a high-set home was Harry Wright, a prominent figure in the Brisbane hotel scene. Having experienced flooding three years earlier, Mr Wright moved all of the family furniture, including a piano which had recently arrived from England, three feet higher than the 1890 flood mark. 

With the preparations complete, Mr and Mrs Wright and their children joined friends on the other side of the river to sit out the deluge. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 5 February, the Wrights watched in disbelief as their house was lifted off its stumps and was carried away in the current.

The following day, it was clear New Farm had been seriously affected. The elevation of the almost-complete CSR sugar refinery proved not to be high enough for this sort of flood, and nearby houses were from four to 15 feet in water.

Amidst all of their losses, Mrs Alice Wright especially lamented losing a case containing heirlooms from the day she and Henry married at Wickham Tce in 1877.

There was a brief respite until the following Sunday (11 February) when a second cyclone brought more rain but the flooding was minor in comparison with what Brisbane had seen.

Just as the district set about recovering, the unbelievable happened. Around 17 February, a third cyclone caused inundation which was almost as damaging as the first flood.

Brisbane’s battering was profound. There were around 35 deaths, almost one third of residents were left homeless, and the Victoria Bridge and Indooroopilly railway bridge were washed away — hence the ascription, Black February.

In the aftermath came demands to know how such devastation could be avoided. A report was commissioned from the state’s first hydraulic engineer, John Baillie Henderson. The prevailing assumption was that the river could be tamed and engineering was the key, a misapprehension succinctly encapsulated by the title of Margaret Cook’s superb recent book A River with a City Problem.

Interestingly for New Farm, Henderson’s ‘Scheme B’ proposed a ‘short cut’ in order to drain water quickly from the town centre. His idea was to slice a canal through Kangaroo Point and continue it through New Farm, so as to make outfall in the river towards Newstead.

“The cuts would form two islands with the economic advantages of creating docks and 173 hectares of reclaimed land, a new government asset, which could be used for bulk stores and businesses,” writes the author.

Imagine standing at the end of the truncated Brunswick Street (not far below today’s New Farm Cinemas), as you surveyed the sweep of the canal (perhaps renamed Merthyr Quays) and took in the new (Oxlade?) island.

Needless to say, an international expert demolished Henderson’s solution, then there were years of argument and conjecture until flood worries waned in the face of the Federation drought of 1902-1903.

Two weeks after the first 1893 flood, Mrs Alice Wright had good news. The precious case which held their marriage certificate was found on Bulwer Island near the mouth of the river by a passing schooner.

Meanwhile, as the waters receded, another marriage certificate was signed on Tuesday, 21 February 1893 in East Brisbane. Businessman and New Farm local Tom Welsby welcomed his bride to their new riverfront home Amity, having assured her that the floodwaters stopped just eight inches below the front verandah floorboards.

Following the devastating 1893 floods, a study proposed a canal through New Farm. (Courtesy: Margaret Cook)

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