IT started high in the sky, somewhere near Indonesia. A huge mass of warm, moist air drifted south towards Australia. Somewhere about Queensland it met an obstacle: another mass of moist air from the Pacific. As the two masses collided, the warmer one was pushed high into the atmosphere where it cooled. The water vapour it was carrying condensed and formed into liquid droplets.
Down on the ground in NSW, people looked for umbrellas as the rain began to fall. They didn’t have to look far: rain had been falling steadily, on and off, for five months or so and it probably looked like more of the same. But this was different. It was February 1955, and a combination of factors was working to create one of the greatest natural disasters in the recorded history of Australia.
Rain dropped in thundering sheets
The volume of water that tumbled from the sky was unbelievable: it dropped in thundering sheets across river catchments that were accustomed to carrying far more modest quantities. The ground, already saturated from months of “ordinary” rain (actually the Hunter Valley had during those months received 150 per cent of its normal rainfall), shed these torrents without delay into every gully, creek and river.
Dumped in countless millions of litres over the Great Dividing Range, the water spilled east into the coastal valleys and west onto the inland plains. Across NSW, from Warren to Cassilis, from Nevertire to Dunedoo, in the catchments of the Macquarie, the Bogan, the Namoi, the Castlereagh, the Gwydir and the Hunter rivers, every stream competed in a muddy race to send its excess to the distant sea.
Somebody watching from the sky might have seen, if their eyes could have penetrated the pouring rain and the columns of cloud that reached up to 12km into the atmosphere, that the rivers could never carry so much water. They would have known that thousands of people, calmly going about their business in cities, towns and villages across the State, were in for the shock of their lives.
A year’s rain in six days
At Cassilis nearly a year’s worth of rain – 460mm – fell in six days. In the Liverpool Ranges 432mm fell. At Muswellbrook, on the Hunter River, 277mm fell and near Sandy Hollow the Goulburn River catchment got an unaccustomed 282mm. At their peak the floodwaters covered nearly 60,000 square miles – about 16 per cent of NSW – that’s as big as two Tasmanias, or the entire surface of England and Wales.
Considering the scale of the disaster it’s surprising there was so little warning. It’s only necessary to read the newspapers of the time to see the extent to which the Hunter Region and the wider State authorities were taken by surprise. Even The Newcastle Morning Herald, the recognised voice of the region with eyes and ears in all the Hunter towns, spent most of the week before the flood bemoaning the effect of the heavy rain on the Newcastle Show, which was just about to open to some of its poorest crowds to that point. The headline “Show Opening Ruined by Rain” topped the news on Thursday, February 24, with “Heavy Rain in Hunter” rating a poor second, though the smaller story reported that valley streams were rising, with power interruptions, delayed ship loading and cancelled TAA flights into Williamtown.
Maitland’s Town Clerk Mr S.J. Dunkley, also the secretary of the Hunter Valley radio flood warning committee, told the newspaper that “some of the water would reach Maitland tomorrow, causing a heavy rise in the river.” He warned people in lower-lying areas to “take necessary precautions”. But on Wednesday farmers and others consulted by The Herald in the upper reaches of the valley reported no great concern. The rain was heavy and the streams were up, but most important crossings remained passable. If the rain eased, they said, the situation should stabilize.
“Crisis hour early tomorrow . . .”
Perhaps they were chiefly focused on what was falling from the sky directly over their own heads. What they couldn’t see was the huge amount of water pouring into distant catchments and beginning to thunder towards them. The fact is, the “ruined show” headline was already redundant when it hit the streets on Thursday. And as the day progressed it became clearer that the Upper Hunter, at least, was getting a thorough drenching from suddenly raging torrents, fed by amazing volumes of rain on sodden catchments far away. And having filled the distant catchments to more than overflowing, the rain clouds swept east and poured their contents on the towns and countryside where the floods would soon arrive.
The Maitland Mercury was close to the mark with its Thursday headline: “Disastrous flood menaces valley. Crisis hour early tomorrow.” Those were the Mercury’s last words for some days. The floods stopped the paper publishing again until March 6.
As Thursday progressed, reports of widespread flooding in the Upper Hunter and in Western NSW began pouring into the Sydney headquarters of the Police Rescue Intelligence Centre. All over the Hunter region the story was the same. Wollombi Brook, the Paterson and the Williams rivers were all suddenly bursting their banks. Even in areas close to Newcastle – like West Wallsend and Raymond Terrace – roads were cut, rail services disrupted and low-lying areas flooded out.
In the Upper Hunter, Scone, Aberdeen, Muswellbrook and Denman were all quickly inundated, with farmers reporting major stock losses. Most of Denman went under water. Munmurra Creek rose 13m and flooded Cassilis for the first time in 60 years.
At Muswellbrook all seemed well at 8am but in just a few hours the Hunter River rose more than 3m. Muscle Creek burst its banks in a rush and bisected the town. Stream met stream and soon there was nothing but water as far as the eye could see. The flood peaked at 10.25pm at a record height of 12m. Witnesses described South Muswellbrook as a huge lake. The new Bell St bridge, built for heavy traffic, was washed away. Hundreds of homes and families were evacuated. One Muswellbrook farmer told how “a wall of water” formed by the meeting of the flooded Hunter and Pages Rivers carried off practically all his cattle.
At Scone water entered the shopping centre and flooded 50 houses between 1am and 4am. Locals declared it the worst flood in memory.
Flood claimed its first lives
Around 10am on Thursday, the flood claimed its first Hunter lives. A 45-year-old dairyhand Fred Tulip, his wife and child were drowned when a bridge collapsed beneath their utility truck at Parsons Creek, about 15 miles from Singleton.
At Togar, about 8km south of Scone, the floodwaters washed out a railway culvert and laid a dangerous trap for the Glen Innes Mail. The train had already been delayed by a landslide at Wingen and crawled through miles of water-covered land. It crossed a series of culverts at greatly reduced speed and nearly got across the Togar crossing when the water-damaged structure gave way. The engine, tender and first carriage plunged into the swollen stream. The steam locomotive landed on its side, sending up a plume of steam and showering the fireman with white-hot coals. Passengers fought their way out of the windows of the partly submerged carriage.
In Sydney, the police intelligence centre’s chief, Supt J.D. McAuley – on the receiving end of ever-more alarming reports – launched the imaginatively named “Operation Flood” and called in help from the Army, Navy and Air Force. Chances are, even at that stage, nobody fully appreciated the magnitude of what was about to happen.
To begin with, five amphibious army DUKWs (popularly known as “ducks”) were sent to the Hunter. The men who operated them were destined to perform some amazing work, to figure in some appalling tragedies and to discover some serious shortcomings in the capabilities of their vehicles.
Marooned on rooftops
Newcastle Sun photographer Ron Morrison was sent on Thursday to cover the floods at Muswellbrook and to get pictures of the crashed train. Thinking he was on a “routine assignment” he travelled in one of two army DUKWs from Newcastle through Maitland and Singleton in the morning, seeing nothing more to concern him than “a foot or two in Singleton’s main street”. In Muswellbrook, however, people were marooned on rooftops in parts of the town that had never known a flood. One DUKW went to Denman and Morrison’s stayed in Muswellbrook where the photographer had to put aside his camera and get involved in rescue work, shifting people from flooded homes to safe billets at Chauvel army camp. The DUKW crew was helped by volunteers driving huge Euclid trucks from the Muswellbrook open-cut mine.
Morrison got a few hours sleep before joining the rescue effort again on Friday morning. He described Singleton – seen from the Muswellbrook side of the river – as “a picture of desolation and misery”. “The town was completely flooded, and people clung to housetops and waved from all directions in an attempt to attract our attention,” he wrote. But the current was too strong for the DUKWs to cross the river and the people of Singleton spent another night without outside help. Six people spent three days and nights stranded in the middle of Dunolly Bridge. About 400 people took refuge in the Singleton convent. Branxton too was hard hit, with about 100 people evacuated when Anvil Creek burst its banks and flooded the town.
On Saturday Morrison’s DUKW made another attempt to reach Singleton and this time it succeeded. But with so many people calling for help it was all the duck crew could do to take people from roof-tops and put them on higher ones a short distance away. As for photographs, Morrison’s big press camera didn’t like moisture and played up. Luckily he had his wife’s little 35mm folding camera in his pocket – he had grabbed it as an afterthought on his way to the job – and it was pictures from that camera that made front page of his paper when he finally got back to Newcastle late on Sunday.
Some idea of the problems in the Singleton area was also gained by photographer Cec Lynch, who worked for the popular pictorial magazine PIX. Lynch was sent from his base in Sydney to cover what he believed were routine floods in the Hunter Valley. In a vivid account he wrote for his magazine, Lynch wrote that he arrived in Maitland at 4pm on Thursday, February 24 to find nothing more serious than “18 inches of water in a street outside the town, but everyone seemed certain it wouldn’t develop seriously”. As night fell on Thursday, Lynch and some other newsmen boarded an army DUKW that had been ordered to Singleton, where things were serious.
As the afternoon progressed, Singleton citizens were evacuated to the town’s highest point – the railway station. By 4.30pm water was a metre deep in George St. Singleton police station was surrounded by 2m-deep water and the officers were stranded. In the DUKW with Cec Lynch, on their way to help out at Singleton, were some water police and an army signaller. The DUKW was carrying two small, flat-bottomed boats with outboard motors. Clearly expecting to take some interesting pictures of waterlogged Singleton folk stepping aboard the rescuing DUKWs, Lynch was totally unprepared for what happened next.
About three miles out of Singleton, the DUKW found the water suddenly too fast to make headway. Not particularly fazed, the group launched their little boats. Some water police and reporters boarded the first boat while Lynch, two police and the army signaller went in the second. The plan was still to make for Singleton, but in Lynch’s words: “The next few minutes were chaotic. Suddenly, boiling floodwaters surrounded us, the leading boat appeared to lose its way in the darkness despite its spotlights and we were tossed about in muddy water churning as high as rough surf.” “In a few seconds we had lost the other boat and were fighting for our lives.”
Army amphibians stranded
Lynch and his companions gave up trying to get to Singleton that night. They turned with the current and were hurtled for a time by the buffeting flood until they were washed into slightly calmer water where they found themselves pinned with a broken rudder against a wooden fence. They repaired the rudder then pulled away from the fence at full throttle but about half a mile from Whittingham station they broke another rudder pin and hit a palm tree. After another hasty repair the boat and crew spent an anxious night tied up at the inundated station, unable to make radio contact with their former travelling companions. Of two DUKWs sent that afternoon to Singleton, one was caught on a fence at Dunolly Bridge and the other couldn’t beat the current at Whittingham.
People in Singleton spent a terrifying isolated night. By 11pm about 200 refugees were crammed on the railway station platform which soon became a narrow concrete island between two raging muddy streams. The street lights sputtered and sporadically faded, finally quitting altogether about midnight, leaving the frightened people in the dark, listening to the unnerving roar of the floodwaters. People constantly tested the depth, trying to gauge whether the water was still rising. Just a little more and they’d all be washed away. Finally a railway porter was brave enough to declare that the water seemed to have peaked. Fortunately he was correct.
Out in the roaring blackness for some hours those on the platform could hear people in threatened houses screaming in vain for help. Well before dawn the screaming stopped, but luckily first light revealed they had not been washed away: they had climbed onto rooftops where they now huddled together glumly in the teeming rain. Next day a police officer took charge of the refugees at the station, whose numbers were said to have swelled to 1100. He reportedly arranged to have them fed with meat from two bullocks that floated down the flooded river.
Friday’s edition of The Newcastle Morning Herald relegated the woes of the waterlogged Newcastle Show to the inside pages. The front page headline read: “Nearly all Singleton Under Water. Three people drown. Maitland warned.” Maitland was warned all right, but it took a while for the message to sink in for many people. A Sun-Herald reporter in Maitland on Thursday, wrote of “an air almost of complacence”. “The general attitude seemed to be: ‘This won’t hurt us too much if it is no worse than the 1949 flood or even the 1950 one’.”
Wall of water heading for Maitland
The city’s 75-year-old Mayor, Ald Alexander McDonald, issued a statement saying that everything depended on the levee banks. “If they hold the city will be completely safe,” he said. “If not the whole central area of Maitland and a large section of the residential area of East Maitland will be inundated. Our people are waiting grimly to meet whatever tonight brings. The position of the farming community on low areas from Singleton to Raymond Terrace is and will be desperate and losses will be immense.”
Hundreds of RAAF and Army personnel moved into the town with trucks full of emergency gear. The Newcastle industries had been sending employees who lived in Maitland home during Thursday to prepare for the worst, but most were content to merely shift a few big-ticket items – refrigerators and radiograms mostly – and wait to see what would happen. One family, the first of many, had chosen to be evacuated to the Greta migrant resettlement camp where authorities had made preparations to receive up to 2000 people, if necessary.
The Sun-Herald reporter walked up High St, where “shops showed their wares in gay neon-lit brilliance”. In Dilley’s barbershop staff put their equipment on boxes, confident that was all they needed to do to avoid serious damage. When the rain eased a little, “strollers made their way to the city’s Belmore Bridge to watch the river”. Late in the days there was some water lying across part of High St and down at the Town Hall two beds were carried into the council chambers for the Mayor and Town Clerk as the citizens of the town of 23,000 went through their familiar flood routine.
It was the worrying telephone calls from Singleton, just 56 kilometres upstream, that tipped the scales. With the river at 10pm Thursday reaching 14m at Singleton and already more than 10m at Maitland’s Belmore bridge, everybody living in the lower-lying areas was urged to evacuate.
Early optimism among Maitland residents was being abandoned. The streets of Maitland were “thronged”, reported The Herald, “by people, some of whom carried portable wirelesses to keep in touch with the latest news broadcasts, while a continuous stream of lorries moved through the streets laden with furniture.”
At 3.20am on Friday morning the word came through that water was starting to overflow the levees at Bolwarra and along Oakhampton Rd. At 4am the city authorities conceded that the levees would soon be overwhelmed. By 5.30am floodwater was lapping over Cummins (Comerfords) dam at Oakhampton and it seemed apparent that this dam would soon fail, releasing a vast torrent of fast-flowing water. As the banks began to overflow in Sempill St, High St, Hunter St and Horseshoe Bend the Mayor urged the complete evacuation of the area of Mt Pleasant St to South Maitland and from Horseshoe Bend to East Maitland.
“The highest flood in history . . .”
“Information has been received that the highest flood in history is now occurring at Hinton and Phoenix Park and danger is increasing right down the river. Water is in the main street of Branxton and people are leaving their homes which are flooded,” the Mayor warned in a grim radio broadcast.
A group of about 20 RAAF personnel worked flat out from 2.30am filling and stacking sandbags in an attempt to protect 200m behind the shops that lined the river. No sooner had they finished their job at 6.30am than their metre-high wall of bags collapsed, spilling water into the city. The water first topped its banks behind the Paragon Café, but soon it was flowing freely over an 8km front. By 8.30 residents of Lorn were warned to evacuate to Bolwarra. The Belmore bridge was closed, with 50cm of water already washing over the decking.
At 10am the Mayor broadcast the warning that more heavy rain was falling in the Upper Hunter. An hour later he warned that “a wall of water” was hurtling down the river between Scone and Muswellbrook and he sent an urgent call for help to surf clubs or anybody else with a boat who could come to help at Maitland.
By noon water was pouring down High St and in parts the water in the street was already nearly 2m deep. Transport in the city was nearly impossible. The Mayor’s midday broadcast was desperate: “Hundreds of people are at present not accounted for and it is known that fatalities have already occurred.”
Despite the repeated and increasingly dire warnings, many people in lower-lying areas refused to leave their properties. Many, having lived through many previous floods, could not conceive of the possibility of the disaster that was to come. They rolled up their rugs and carpets (deliberately left unfixed at the edges) and piled their furniture on makeshift shelves at what they considered to be save heights around the walls of their homes. Many men sent their womenfolk and children to higher ground but stayed behind, never imagining they might soon be in real physical danger. In just a few hours, instead of being evacuated, they had to be rescued.
Ironically, Maitland’s system of levee banks was later blamed for making the situation worse, by increasing the flood height and the velocity of the water. That meant that, when the breaks came, the hurtling water was more dangerous than it would otherwise have been.
As predicted, the first really major levee failure was Cummins dam at Oakhampton at about noon. People who were in Mount Pleasant St at the time say they heard two or three “explosions” and to this day some remain convinced that authorities deliberately blew a hole in the levee in a bid to channel the threatening water away from the more populous Lorn side. This has always been strenuously denied.
When the wall of Cummins dam gave way a tremendous head of water tore along Oakhampton Road, sweeping away all before it. Houses were ripped from their foundations and smashed against the Long Bridge that joined Telarah and the hospital to the rest of the town. The waters surged past the damaged bridge, destroying a rail embankment and signal box on the Great Northern Line, west of the railway station. Intending rail passengers who inquired about tickets to Sydney were told as late as 11am that a train would leave at 11.50am. By that time the rails were under a metre of water. Another serious levee breach at Ekerts Lane, on the left bank of the river near Walka waterworks caused terrific damage to Bolwarra flats.
Earlier in the day people from low-lying areas had been evacuated in large numbers to the courthouse and police station. In the courthouse on Friday morning sick and elderly people lay on stretchers in corners because access to the hospital had been cut off. Exhausted refugees sprawled asleep all over the floor. Babies in prams occupied another corner and wet clothes were draped over the witness box. But after midday when the river burst its banks and the water began to surge past those buildings, RAAF trucks were urgently called to shift the civilians to safer ground at the Girls High School in Church St. Too late for nearly 100 emergency and services personnel, however, who were trapped when the force of the water became too great for the trucks, one of which was washed over. Sgt D. Sutherland of Maitland Police said the floodwaters made a terrifying spectacle. “Words cannot describe the way the river came through openings in the bank. I have read about walls of water, but this was the first time that I had experienced anything like it. The experience of seeing houses, trees, cars and trucks picked up and swirled past as though they were toy pieces will never be forgotten,” he said.
As the waters cut through the bank the helpless emergency workers, now marooned, watched nine old people – eight women and a man – climb onto the roof of an old house in the flood’s path. One by one they climbed onto a sturdier adjoining house and, as the last person made the climb, the first house collapsed and was washed away. The stranded emergency workers opened the doors and windows of the police station and courthouse and spent an uncomfortable night shepherding floating pieces of furniture and other careering rubbish through the openings. They had to wait until mid Saturday morning to be rescued by army DUKW. Describing that confused Friday night one reporter wrote: “Screams for help could be heard from all points of the flooded area and torches flashed continuously above the raging waters.”
Houses battered to pieces
Not surprisingly, given the cataclysmic break in the Oakhampton levee, the houses in low-lying Sempill St, Mount Pleasant St and Oakhampton Rd bore the major brunt of the flood’s fury. In this area numerous houses were literally torn from their foundations and swept bodily towards the Long Bridge where they were battered to pieces. Mt Pleasant St, before the flood a delightful avenue lined with Jacaranda trees, was transformed into a muddy disaster area when 21 of its houses were swept away.
A RAAF truck crew had a narrow escape in Sempill St, where they were helping to evacuate people and their belongings. Their truck stalled and, as they tried to push it back, a house was swept from its foundations “rolled down the bank” and knocked the truck over. Nurses on the roof of Maitland Hospital had a grandstand view of this part of the disaster. On Friday they watched as about 20 homes were washed, one by one, into the bridge, a number of them bearing terrified people on their roofs.
A policeman said he saw one house on its way to the bridge with two men on its tiled roof. As the house gathered momentum he heard screams and more people climbed from windows onto the roof. On Friday night two men were seen yelling and waving from the roof of a house. At first light on Saturday, with the water still raging, Merewether surfboat battled to the house. There they found, besides the two men on the roof, another two men, three women and four children.
People on the roof of another Mt Pleasant house were not so lucky. Late on Friday patients in Maitland Hospital peered out their windows through the pouring rain and saw two adults and three children, one in a little red raincoat, standing on a rooftop and shouting vainly for help. None came before nightfall however, and the hospital patients spent the night worrying and wondering. At first light they were at the window again and a loud cheer went around the wards when dawn revealed the family still huddled together in the driving rain.
Several efforts by an army DUKW to reach the house were foiled by the powerful current and at about 4pm the house broke free and began to head downstream towards the Long Bridge where it smashed like a toy, throwing the whole family into the murky water. The onlookers never saw whether anybody survived.
In central Maitland a witness described “water cascading through shops and hotels, belching out of every doorway, Belmore Bridge under water with only its upper girders to indicate its existence”. Back at Dilley’s barbershop the Sun-Herald reporter found a tearful Mrs Dilley begging police and soldiers to drag her husband from their shop where he was fighting a losing battle to protect his stock and furniture. “Police waded across High St and returned with Mr Dilley. His wife flung her arms around him. Such incidents occurred over and over again,” the reporter wrote. In the street, “massive trees and other debris, the carcases of horses, cattle and sheep are borne along the water – a massive whirligig of death.” “Here and there the tops of motor cars can be seen in streets that were considered safe. I look again and the motor cars are now invisible beneath the thick chocolate-coloured water.”
The Jim Lucey collection of flood photographs is held by the University of Newcastle’s cultural collections. The collection can be viewed here.