Great Flood of 1867 still unsurpassed but not unrepeatable

Historian John Miller at the Doctor's House in Thompson Square. In the 1867 flood, a man stepped off the upper balcony of the house into a boat.
Historian John Miller at the Doctor's House in Thompson Square. In the 1867 flood, a man stepped off the upper balcony of the house into a boat.

This month it’s 150 years since the Hawkesbury’s biggest flood which claimed 20 lives and had such a catastrophic effect on our district it’s still remembered and referenced. 

The flood waters which reached almost 20m at Windsor drowned 12 members of the Eather family: two women and 10 of their children.

Raging waters struck the families’ farmhouses at Cornwallis on June 21. Those lost were sisters-in-law Catharine and Emma Eather, all of Catharine’s children: Catharine, Charles, Clara, Mary Ann and William, and five of Emma’s six children: Emma, James, Elizabeth, Angelina and Annie.

Only the women’s husbands — brothers Thomas and William Eather — and one of Thomas’ children, Charles Frederick, aged 16, survived.

An inquest was held at the Commercial Hotel in Windsor on June 26. William Eather was recorded as saying he last saw his family alive on June 21 on the roof of his brother George’s house. 

“I was with them; we were about 200 yards from my brother Thomas’s; I was taking my eldest boy into my arms, when I was washed away by the waves; I saw a tree close by me after I came to the surface, I managed to make for it. I heard the screams of my wife and children but could not see them; I fastened myself to the tree, and in a short time was rescued by a boat.”

Only six bodies were recovered at first. Several days later, the body of James Eather was found and an inquest into his death was held on June 29. Two months later the body of eight-year-old Elizabeth was found on a sandbank near Freemans Reach about a mile from where the tragedy took place. All deaths were recorded as accidental drowning.

The recovered bodies were buried in Windsor Catholic Cemetery. The only headstone is that of Catherine Eather and her five children, erected by her father, Michael McMahon. Four bodies were never found. 

The flood was the region’s largest on record, rising 63ft from contemporary records. It created an inland sea up to 30 kilometres across, from Pitt Town to Kurrajong and Riverstone to the Blue Mountains. Windsor, Richmond and Pitt Town became small islands.

Besides the Eathers, the waters also claimed another eight lives.

It began to rain on Monday, June 17, with heavy rain starting the next day and continuing through the week. The river broke its banks on Thursday, covering most of the Hawkesbury lowlands with water.

By Friday, June 21, extra boats were sent by train from Sydney. The Macquarie Towns, picked as they were on high ground, became islands filled with people who had been evacuated, many of whom had lost everything. In Windsor they were housed in various public buildings including the School of Arts and some of the churches.

Trains couldn’t get through and the telegraph stopped working. Windsor became totally isolated. 

It peaked on June 23.

Rescue boats collected people who had taken refuge on their roofs or even in trees. One of the largest mass rescues occurred at McGraths Hill where about 80 people of all ages had taken refuge in an old building.

Thirty of them were taken on the first rescue boat with the rest climbing onto other boats later. It was reported the last person was saved only minutes before waters covered the entire building.

Boats continued working after dark, sometimes at great risk to the crews. Stranded people could only signal craft by firing guns or waving lit torches. Farm animals drowned in large numbers and many buildings, including people’s homes, were swept away. Reports also told of large numbers of people, sometimes scantily dressed, wandering cold and hungry.

By June 24 the water level had decreased by 3.5 metres and fell steadily after that. Hundreds of families were left homeless and debris and dead animals clogged streets and littered open country.

In the aftermath a committee was formed to help the hundreds of destitute residents and to distribute  assistance from the Government. The Benevolent Society helped the Hawkesbury Flood Relief Committee. It was reported: “The loss is incalculable. The people are beggared ... Hundreds of men, women and children are houseless, homeless and hungry.” A public appeal was set up and thousands of pounds raised.

There are still Eathers in the district, including female descendants of different names. The Gazette spoke to brothers Robert (Lower Portland) and Garry Eather (Bligh Park) who are descendants of a different Eather brother to those in the Great Flood. The Gazette was also told of a female direct descendant of Charles, the only Eather child who survived, who lives at South Windsor but was not able to contact her.

More recently, Hawkesbury historian John Miller said the 1961 flood might have reached similar proportions but Warragamba Dam was only completed the year before and soaked up some of the deluge. He said it was only a matter of time before such a flood happened again and must be planned for.

Councillor Nathan Zamprogno said on June 7 that Warragamba Dam was currently 94 per cent full and so would not perform any mitigating function if the same amount of rain fell now.

- Thanks to Hawkesbury Library for extra information